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While watching CityLights, there were moments where I shifted in my seat uncomfortably. It is certain that this film isn't a feel-good fare. In fact, it's a feel-bad film. This doesn't mean it is bad in any way. Quite the opposite. It grabs hold of you and does not let go. CityLights is bravura filmmaking.
After Rajkummar Rao and Hansal Mehta made Shahid, which happened to be my second favorite film of 2013, they deliver another winner. I would personally urge them to continue this feat and deliver some more of this cinematic brilliance. Possibly make it an annual thing. CityLights is based on the Filipino film Metro Manila (2009) and the makers make sure we know it as it flashes at least 4 times in the opening credits. Quite a rarity from the Bhatt banner.
Deepak Singh played by Rajkummar, leaves his village in Rajasthan and moves to Mumbai. The rest of the film is how him and his small family deal with the big city life. Mumbai has been captured like never before. It is not glorified as a city of dreams nor is it looked down upon as a slum nest. Usually, filmmakers emphasize the character of the city or use it as a backdrop. Hansal Mehta decides to lay emphasis on the human characters trying to become a part of the city. Mumbai is not brought to the forefront, it just exists.
The aptly named Rajkummar is now the crown prince of contemporary Indian cinema. His performance in Shahid floored me. I think I shouldn't have gotten up from the floor, because he does it yet again. His performace is like a blade that pierces through the screen and hits you. Few actors are born naturals like he is. There are only two actors from the current crop who I yearn to watch on screen. Ranbir Kapoor and Rajkummar Rao. If ever you wonder where acting in Hindi cinema is headed, take a look at these wunderkinds and stop wondering.
There are two more performers who turn out to be revelations. Patralekha shines in her debut performance. There is a scene where she is auditioning for a job at a dance bar and what happens after it, absolutely stunned me. I'm glad there was no close-up of her face and we only saw it from a distance. If ever anyone asks her if she can act, she could simply show that particular scene and walk away in slow motion. There is a supporting actor called Manav Kaul. He was previously seen in Kai Po Che (2013). Here he shouldn't just be seen but demands to be noticed. If not for Rajkummar and Patralekha, I would have said he steals the show from them. (Which he arguably does)
When you call your film Citylights, the responsibility to make a good film grows tenfold owing to the Charlie Chaplin masterpiece of the same name. City Lights (1931) was about a simple thing: love is blind. This Citylights is about the flipside of that same notion. How much it can blind you to do things you don't want to. All in the name of love. I still do wish the title of the film was different and there wasn't a weird title song to go with it but that's a minor nitpick.
Yes, the film is bleak and may even depress you. It is a powerful story, which is designed to move you. There is a lot of mumbling chatter around realistic cinema. Masala entertainers shy away from it completely while others look at it straight in the eye. Hansal Mehta does not stoop so low. He is aware of the reality but he tells stories about characters we want to root for. They may not be heroes beating up the villain and taking away the bride but they are heroic in everything they do. I love watching characters like Shahid and Deepak on screen. Fact or fiction, reality or fantasy is irrelevant. They are relentless in their pursuit. It isn't even about the pursuit as much as it is about the intention. Their intention of doing what they do remains untarnished by the outside world. Rarely do we see filmmakers showing us characters who aren't stereotypically courageous. Their courage lies not so much in what they do but why they do it.
CityLights is virtuoso filmmaking from start to finish. It is gripping, unsettling and not an easy film to watch but it is definitely one of the best films of 2014.