An intense human drama delivered in the form of a riveting thriller, CityLights deals with the oft-repeated theme of rural migration.
Director Hansal Mehta imparts both weight and style to the film. He does so with impressive precision and lightness of touch.
CityLights is the story of a couple whose rustic innocence is suffocated by the soul-crushing challenges of living and surviving in a big city.
CityLights may not be exceptionally unusual in terms of its storyline, but Mehta?s modulated, deeply felt treatment of the grim narrative material informs the film with a sense of urgency and unfailing relevance.
He gives us characters that are tangible and believable. In articulating the aspirations and disappointments of the two protagonists, Mehta does not resort to gratuitous melodrama.
CityLights is an official Hindi remake of the BAFTA-nominated British-Filipino crime drama Metro Manila, a fact that is acknowledged upfront.
But Mehta makes the film his very own by converting the basic plot details into a deftly indigenized story of an ex-Army driver (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife (Patralekhaa), who are sucked into a morally dodgy world that they can barely understand, let alone tame.
The couple migrates with their little daughter from a village in Rajasthan to the metropolitan sprawl of Mumbai in search of what they hope will be a better life.
The hapless man ? he answers to the name of Deepak ? is fleeing a debt trap and a small business venture gone kaput.
All that Deepak manages to achieve is swap a life of privation and uncertainty in the rural boondocks for a surefire recipe for disaster for himself and his young spouse, Rakhi.
Hope dies quickly in the city as the harsh daily grind to make ends meet hits the young family hard, compelling the couple to resort to desperate measures.
The wife ends up in a dance bar; the husband joins a security agency whose line of work is life-threatening. Their lot only worsens with every move that they make.
CityLights is a disturbingly dark and melancholic film. However, its strong humanist core makes it an incisive chronicle of our beleaguered times in just the profoundly moving way that Mehta?s previous film, the resolutely pugnacious Shahid, was.
The director extracts sustained emotional traction from the small scenes of strife that erupt between and around the couple as the shadows of emotional distress quickly creep in upon them and threaten to push them over the precipice.
But, like the teeming millions who fight a daily battle to keep their heads above the water in countless Indian cities big and small, Deepak and his wife dig deep into themselves in search of the courage and inspiration that can keep them going against the inimical forces that surround them.
There is an occasional flash of light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, in the unequal universe that Mehta creates with an understanding of and empathy for the plight of the dispossessed, the rainbow is a distant chimera for the likes of Deepak and Rakhi.
CityLights is made all the more effective by the quality of the lead performances.
The always unassuming Rajkummar Rao, fresh from his well deserved National Award triumph, is as unblemished and understated here as he has ever been before.
He is ably supported by debutante Patralekhaa, who does not allow her lack of experience in this league to get in the way at any point.
Steady, affecting and heart-wrenching, hers is a performance that merits unstinted applause.
Among the supporting actors, Manav Kaul stands tall as the male protagonist?s wily and smooth-talking supervisor at the murky security agency.
If all the praise conveys the impression that CityLights is a flawless piece of cinema, every bit of the commendation is intended. Yet, some riders are necessary.
In a film of such relentless intensity, the songs (although they aren?t of the lip-synched variety) and the background score seem a tad excessive, if not entirely out of place.
But CityLights is a Vishesh Films production, and hence the soundscape is anything but run of the mill. Jeet Ganguli?s musical score is first-rate, but the lilt and the lyricism of the numbers appear to somewhat soften the blow that the film seeks to deliver.
In the end, what lends CityLights the power to offset its rare weaker moments is its unwavering commitment to a realistic mode of storytelling.
CityLights has its heart in the right place, and it is a heart that is backed by a ticking mind that is able to grasp the subtler shades of human behaviour without tripping on over-sentimentalism.
CityLights isn?t a feel-good entertainer. It is a film that shocks, provokes and seeks to prick our collective complacency and apathy. That obviously adds up to infinitely more value than the price of a multiplex ticket.