Hansal Mehta’s City Lights depicts light beaming through the corridors of Mumbai in a demographic way. Contrasting much to daylight, these bright and sparky nocturnal lights of Mumbai tell its own story of a family seeking illumination—living in dimness when the entire city is grinning in florescence. The ignition of radiance being the major symbolic contrivance of the movie, Hansal Mehta shows us the cold world of Mumbai in its blurred nakedness prompting viewers an experience into, what many call, the City of Dreams, Sapno ki Seher, Mumbai. As such, City Lights is a movie about people who gaze into the mesmeric lights from their dappled huts of dread and scarcity—asking us, the viewers, a question—are those sources of nightly radiance only narrowed to those few who can?
A remake of the discretely acclaimed British-Filipino movie, Metro Manila (2013), written and directed by Sean Ellis, the team of City Lights, acclimatizes the Filipino story to Indian quirks—creating a characterized hybrid drama, with Rajkumar Rao as Deepak Singh heading the journey to the theater of dreams alongside his wife, Raakhi played by the incumbent Patralekha, with a stern, almost contrasting, grace. Deepak, Raakhi, and their daughter Maahi, leave the exoticness of Rajasthan for the crude reality of Mumbai to earn a happy, fulfilling life.
Once they arrive to the city, shown cold, calculating, and detached by the makers, things don’t gel for the family at the beginning. They are tricked into losing all their money by some sharks and are relegated to the streets of this heartless city. When circumstances start maneuvering in their favor, the spark runs out and the lights pervading the city turn into an endless nocturnal dump crushing the inner flame of hope, optimism, and vivacity by the pragmatic realities of paucity, starvation, and the sheer will to survive. City Lights follows the romantic voyage of Deepak and Raakhi, from their parish in Rajasthan to the dead coasts of Mumbai—a test of time and patience for both, a reality check, and a plunge into the heartless depths of the mechanical city in search for something to live by, cling on, hope for…
Coming from a director with the pedigree of Hansal Mehta, City Lights has a throng of positive facets working in its favor. The story, by Sean Ellis, is a daunting reflection of the reality not only in Manila or Mumbai, but also in most areas of the underdeveloped communities in the world. At its heart, City Lights is a story of a man’s quest to respect, prosperity. It follows the basic principles of the right to life, dignity, and the pursuit of happiness. With such a rudimentary concept, the story is extraordinary, and the way it unfolds coaxing Deepak or Raakhi into their exclusive nests is a representative of solicitous storytelling by Hansal Mehta. This Indian version of Metro Manila vindicates the decision to remake a movie that might be an echo of the predicament of various people, with dreams of flying high in those skyscrapers, but in reality, being emblazoned, crumpled by the taciturnity of those very towers.
Touching, distinct, City Lights, as a movie dethrones the glamorous side of films, revelling in the hardcore—a custom in which reality overtakes the tinges of allure; the performers helming credible performances and dashing the screen with a painful charm. Perhaps the penultimate prize the movie could boast of, the genuineness, the realness of the performances, the mannerisms, the dilemma, their quandary, and the way they jostle into and out of the situation; the domain and the destiny of people in that world is real, unpretentious—second only to reality. Without any hint of surprise, the performances reflect the phenomenal veracity of the story.
Rajkumar Rao as Deepak convinces the viewer of the quandary from which he needs to get out to salvage his wife’s dignity and his daughter’s future. After Shahid and now City Lights, Bollywood has a powerful actor in Rajkumar Rao. His wife, the beautiful Raakhi played by Patralekha, conveys her misgivings through those sensitive expressions—telling everything, even her silence echoing back, whilst convincing viewers of her faithfulness and her purity amidst the impure world of Mumbai. Another strong performance comes from Manav Kaul, as Deepak’s supervisor and friend. Prevailing in his attempt to win over Deepak and setting alight a plan to accomplish their dreams, the actor, Manav Kaul, gives a knock-out blow as the subtle cerebral assassin, and a mere friend of Deepak, in need and perhaps indeed.
City Lights is transfixing, almost contrasting to everything Bollywood stands for. Heavy in dramatic elements, devoid of the cumbersome aspects derailing movies, City Lights is a vivid movie about the basics of life, love, and survival. Presented in a faithful manner, it’s arguably the best movie to come out from Mumbai this year and alongside Queen holds a firm ground as a movie par excellence. Despite being a remake, it avowals an enchanting impression making it a faithful romance of existence and endurance, a movie that engrosses you, engrams your imagination, and creates a world that seems as real as reality, as sincere as the truth.
City Lights is an exceptional drama carrying a rich ambience, whilst using symbols to captivate the viewer and convey a message about a small section of reality that might be the largest section in existence, yet the one least sheltered in truth. Formidable, a comprehensive study of human society and struggles, City Lights serves as an alarming revelation of all the possibilities, and is a movie rich as a story, authentic as an exhibition, and arresting as a retelling of a tale beyond curtains. A must watch, and one of the best from Mumbai this year!