In a scene in Hansal Mehta’s CityLights, Manav Kaul’s Vishnu and Rajkummar Rao’s Deepak Singh are standing in Vishnu’s balcony which is directly opposite a flyover. Vishnu tells Deepak that he lives right at the centre of Mumbai, yet his house is only a “Kooda ghar” surrounded by tall, fancy buildings. Each flat in the surrounding buildings symbolizes a dream fulfilled, he says, “Yeh ghar nahi hain chote chote sapne hai jo poore ho gaye hain.” What he also means is that his own dream has remained unfulfilled. Despite living right at the centre of Mumbai, he is not of the city.
Mehta is interested in these aspirations, and the cruelty of the city which does not embrace the outsider. “Tere shehar ka kaam hai chalna yunhi bematlab,” the film tells us, confronting the narrative we have always celebrated about the city — that it is always on the move. It is this narrative which attracted Deepak to the city when his debt-ridden life in a village In Rajasthan became too difficult to handle. While trying to convince his wife Rakhi (Patralekha Paul) about his plan to move to Mumbai, he says, “Mumbai main koi bhookha nahi sota,” (No one sleeps on an empty stomach in Mumbai.) For Deepak then, Mumbai is hope. It is hope enough and his life back home bad enough for him to make the long and uncertain journey to Mumbai — on foot, bus and then train — with his wife and daughter accompanying him.
Based on Seah Ellis’ 2013 film Metro Manila, CityLights (adapted by Ritesh Shah) is a stark look at class and the migrant experience in big cities like Mumbai. Rajkummar Rao and Patralekha Paul are a husband-and-wife couple who migrate to Mumbai. Desperate with their life back home, they end up in Mumbai without knowing a soul, except a vague name and address of someone they know from their village.
Though the writing is understated, the background music is sometimes overstated and many of the songs too don’t fit in. Despite this, the desperation and helplessness of the couple in Mumbai gets conveyed well. This is because of the acting, and the quiet manner in which the scenes play out. Rajkummar Rao does not strike a single false note, right from his Rajasthani accent to his body language. There are some actors whose craft you want to analyze, but with Rajkummar, commenting on individual scenes will disturb the seamlessness with which he inhabits the film’s world. Debutant Patralekha Paul too is understated and effortless.
The most interesting character in the film is Manav Kaul’s Vishnu, the man who gives Deepak a job, and friendship in the city. Despite the hardship he has seen till then, being new to the city, Deepak is still somewhat naïve and hopeful. Vishnu, on the other hand, has years of experience of the harsh, status quoist city. Perhaps he is what Deepak could become if he were to stay in the city for long.
In fact the city has made Vishnu something of a mad man though he hides it well behind his jovial, well-adjusted personality. He resents the fact that he earns a mere 15,000 while guarding 15 crores. He sees that the city depends on people like him, but doesn’t give them enough. Their job at a security company — guarding the private boxes of the city’s rich even if it costs them their lives — is a metaphor for this and Vishnu sees through it. It is a knowledge which makes him restless with where he is.
In the most interesting scene between the two, Deepak is angry at Vishnu because of what Vishnu reveals to him. We could have seen Vishnu as manipulative and villain-esque, but it is his reaction to this accusation which is telling. “This is for us,” he tells him. “Yeh sab chor hai. Chor se kya chori,” he tells the angry Deepak, revealing that he understands the way the city functions where hard work and merit don’t mean anything, only privilege and connections do. Manav Kaul ensures that this aspect of Vishnu is not misunderstood, though in the film’s narrative Deepak perhaps doesn’t understand this yet. While Vishnu’s belief in law-abidingness helping him get by is low, Deepak just wants to live a decent life, even if it means barely earning enough to feed his kid. Yet this is a life which no one lets him lead. Between being Vishnu and Deepak, the choices that the city throws up are limited. Despite its somewhat hopeful end, CityLights is one of the bleakest statements on the city we have seen in the Hindi cinema of recent times.