Deepak Singh, the character Rajkummar Rao plays in Hansal Mehta’s Citylights is one you recognize immediately. The small-town poverty-stricken Indian, desperate to make a better life for his family. The hopeful migrant who shows up in the big city, determined to change his fate. It’s a narrative only too familiar, and yet Mehta infuses genuine feeling into this shopworn premise.

 

It’s hard not to be overcome with empathy as Deepak and his wife Rakhi (newcomer Patralekha) spend their first night in Mumbai crouched by a dumpster, duped out of their only savings. Hope dies quickly for the young couple, who discovers it’s going to be a struggle to put a roof over their little daughter’s head, and food on the table. Subsequently Rakhi takes a job as a bar dancer at a shady establishment, and Deepak flits between odd jobs until he’s hired as a guard at a security firm.

Deepak and Rakhi are a portrait of quiet desperation in a film that is anything but quiet. Every poignant moment is emphasized by a manipulative background score, and songs that insist on ‘telling’ you how you should feel. It’s a shame because the story itself is inherently moving, and the actors’ committed performances touch all the right chords.

Rao, who recently won the National Award for his work in Mehta’s excellent film Shahid, is a chameleon who doesn’t just “play” characters, he “becomes” them. Patralekha shows promise too. But if neither actor commands the screen, it’s because of the limited scope of the story, and the fact that there’s little room to eschew the scenery. Manav Kaul fares better as Deepak’s supervisor Vishnu, whose generosity towards the new hire hides a selfish plan.

The film chugs along slowly to reveal its thriller leanings, but by then, the relentlessly grating music and the absence of an urgent dramatic conflict have worn you out. There are also unforgivable lapses of logic that are startling. Who’d have thought you could walk in for a job interview at a company plying armored vehicles carrying safe deposit boxes and be hired without so much as a thorough background check? Or that bullets fly freely on the streets in Mumbai, with never a cop in sight, or even after?

Citylights, an official remake of the British-Filipino hit Metro Manila, isn’t a bad film by any measure, but it does feel repetitive and long, even at a running time of less than two hours. Technically too, the film offers no surprises. In the original film, because the protagonist was a fish out of water, the audience discovered the city of Manila and its seedy side along with him and through his eyes. But Mehta shoots Mumbai through the same jaundiced lens as dozens of films in the past.

Where Citylights succeeds is in telling the story of ordinary people living below the poverty line… people we seldom cast a second glance at… people who sometimes have to resort to desperate measures just so they can keep their children alive. It’s a good film, but not without its flaws. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.

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