Revisiting 'Citylights' as it turns 9

'Citylights' is a 2014 Hindi-language film Hansal Mehta, starring Rajkummar Rao and Patralekha

A still from 'Citylights' (photo courtesy IMDb)
A still from 'Citylights' (photo courtesy IMDb)

Subhash K Jha

Citylights is Hansal Mehta's ode to the invisible people—the ones populating the pavements we often see from our moving cars. Mehta zooms in on the life of one such family. He sucks us into their lives with such intensity and passion that we can't seem to pull ourselves out even when their lives become unbearably hurtful.

As Deepak Singh (Rajkummar Rao, that 'non-actor' par excellence), his wife Rakhi (Patralekha) and little daughter relocate from their little universe in Rajasthan to Mumbai, we witness their initiation into the world of disillusionment and heartbreak.

As the happy little family's world comes apart at the seams, Hansal Mehta's camera captures them in unadorned stark colours. Citylights shoots its saga of the brutal cruelty of the concrete jungle with a candour that leaves us flummoxed and frozen. The plot, as it thickens in the second half, doesn't allow for distractions. The protagonist's journey into the heart of darkness is immediate, and irreversible. What Hansal Mehta does is to show us the fatality and finality of lives thrust into the bowels of the city.

Not that Mumbai is shown to be entirely lacking in kindness and compassion. Deepak and his wife encounter good people too. It's not the people—it's the daily grind that makes them self-centred and uncaring.

Hansal Mehta's ode to the remorseless city is suffused in a lived-in pain. Only an artiste who has suffered the first-hand humiliation of rejection and compromise could translate it on to screen thus — for instance, the sequence where Rakhi auditions for a bar girl's job is exceptionally raw and comes across as 'real'. Mehta furbishes such stark moments with an astute and rigorous honesty.

In that scene, Pratilekha strips herself of dignity. She's a revelation. But then, so is the actor (Vinod Rawat) who plays the bar owner. If she epitomises the exploitative underbelly of the city, he too is a victim of a system that thrives on exploitation. Moving completely away from the original material (Sean Ellis' Metro Manila), Hansal Mehta constructed a vertiginous spiral of desolation and dejection. It is not easy to watch destiny destroy an innocent family's simple will to survive.

And yet, there are also bursts of empathy from the most unexpected places. The arrival of the character played by the very accomplished actor Manav Kaul signals the 'thriller' movement of the plot. Miraculously, Mehta never loses grip of the film's emotional quotient. He charts the migrant family's craggy path to doom and destruction with a fatal inevitability. The film uses natural sounds and incidental images from everyday life to imbue a visceral vividness and vitality to everyday experiences.

Take a sequence like the one where, at the outset, Deepak and his wife are duped by fake house brokers. Here, as in other sections of the narrative, the victim and the perpetrator of deceit are both shown without prejudice. A remarkable equilibrium runs through the moral fibre of the film. Ritesh Shah's sensitive script doesn't look for villains to make his protagonists look sympathetic.

Mehta could have avoided the wall-to-wall songs in the background. Though the music is evocative, it tends to overplay its welcome.

This is a film that needn't depend on adornments for effect, and the most unadorned being the actors. Rajkummar Rao's stark performance is no performance at all. To call what he does a 'performance' is an insult to what he does to his character. Just like the city that swallows the impoverished migrant, Rajkummar Rao disappears into his character — much like Balraj Sahni in Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zameen, the classic tale of the homeless migrant, to which Hansal Mehta's haunting saga of the indignity of poverty owes emotional allegiance. Patralekha, with her haunted eyes and evocative, pain-lashed voice is the find of the year.

The epic tale of the 'invisible' family's struggle to survive in the city gets its power and strength from the seamless merger of body and soul that editor Apurva Asrani and sound designer Mandar Kulkarni achieve in the physical and emotional structure of the plot.

The city sucks — and it sucks in the uninitiated, swallows up the innocent wholesale, and diminishes the individual's ego. Citylights would remain with me for a long time, glorious and unforgettable, it is a shattering life-changing experience.

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