Something about metros makes filmmakers reach for metaphors about birds. Most recently we had Nadaan parindey, the song in Rockstar that had the protagonist calling out to pigeons that were displaced when a jungle made way for a city. It’s the other way around in Hansal Mehta’s CityLights. (About that title, apart from a man’s decision to make things better for a loved one, there’s no connection to the Chaplin classic.) Here, the birds fly into the city – they’re the hungry migrants who flock to urban jungles. A security guard named Vishnu (Manav Kaul) points to birds in flight and tells his colleague Deepak (Rajkummar Rao) that the creatures come from afar and stay close because of fear, and they’ll die if left alone. He could be talking about those migrants. Deepak is one of them. He left a debt-ridden existence in a small town in Rajasthan and moved to Mumbai with his wife Rakhee (Patralekha) and young daughter, and his flight is detailed in a song that goes Ek chiraiya ghonsle ko chhod ud ud jaaye. A bird has left its nest. There are quite a few shots of birds in large numbers taking flight and coming to roost. And by the film’s end, Deepak himself becomes something of a bird – we see him climbing higher and higher, far above onlookers who are specks on the ground.
What do you do when you have a lofty metaphor and little to pin it on? That’s the problem Mehta faces in CityLights, which has very little that’s new. When you go to a cop with a complaint, he’s going to be playing a game on his phone instead of listening to you – he is, you know, callous. When you go to a dance bar and ask for a job, the owner is going to ask you to take off your dupatta and stare at the curves that are revealed – he is, you know, seeing you not as a person but an object. All the clichés tumble out of the closet – village good, city bad, village guileless, city deceitful, village helpless, city predatory, and so forth. Watching CityLights unfold, with its banal contrivances and a plot that can be predicted the minute Deepak lands his job, I wondered what might have interested Mehta in this trite material, derived from the British film Metro Manila. Maybe it’s a job for hire. Or maybe a filmmaker cannot always, you know, soar. Still, how can you make something as stunning as Shahid and subsequently find yourself drawn to this, with its second-hand “ironies” about a family paying Rs. 100 per day to live in an under-construction apartment that will eventually sell for Rs. 3 crore? As reality, the fact is horrifying. But its dramatic value, its impact, after Do Bigha Zameen and Paar and so many years of cinema about wide-eyed rustics being devoured by a malevolent metropolis, is next to nothing. CityLights is content to leave us with what we already know, not just from the papers but from the movies. It’s all about the bird’s eye view.
This isn’t to say CityLights is a bad movie. It’s one of those new-generation Hindi films that’s so well staged and performed that there is, every now and then, a bit that sticks to your mind – like the way Rao squats, hunching his shoulders and drawing his body in, like a person in a cold country huddled in front of a campfire, or the way Patralekha, who looks like Divya Dutta’s younger sister, performs in that dance bar. The first time, she moves stiffly, consciously, as the other girls sway and swirl around her. The second time, she moves more easily, though she still doesn’t look at the customers who surround her, waving bundles of cash. I liked the way Rao delivers a smutty joke. Deepak is the least exuberant of men, a loser in every sense, and Rao makes us see how such a man would tell such a joke. And in a superb scene where Deepak goes to Vishnu’s home for a meal, we see how such a man would sing. He doesn’t belt out the number, locking his eyes with his listeners’. He’s the anti-performer. He looks down, as if singing to his plate. Manav Kaul is even better. He makes you wish that he were the protagonist, and as his wife, Sadia Siddique has a spectacular breakdown scene where she makes us realize what it really means to be “racked by sobs.”
But sometimes, we see these good actors thrown at the mercy of terrible scenes. Deepak doesn’t drink, doesn’t look at women that way, and yet, predictably, he finds himself in a dance bar, downing one peg after another. Then, when he gets home drunk, he wakes Rakhee up and asks her to dance for him. This stretch pretty much encapsulates the problem with CityLights. This is melodramatic material, but with this cast and with this director, the attempt is to “class it up,” to put a “realistic” sheen on things, and it doesn’t work because the film, as it goes along, becomes increasingly unrealistic. We have all these great “touches” that are meant to make Deepak and Rakhee “real” people – the fact that they’re god-fearing, the fact that he was in the army – but the film itself isn’t a “real” film. It keeps building towards some sort of manipulative thriller, and thrillers, inherently, are more cinematic than real. All the realism of the earlier scenes begins to look ludicrous in light of the blatant contrivances towards the end, which we would have forgiven (or even demanded) in a film that didn’t pretend, all along, to be a gritty drama.
In another touch, Deepak and Rakhee are shown to have almost similar lives. They get a scene each where they drop off their daughter at school, or with other kids. Both of them find a job through (conveniently) helpful people who are employed in the same line, and they face similar trials at work – Rakhee is asked to shed her upper garment and execute a turn so that her prospective employer can check out her wares, and Deepak is asked to strip and execute a turn in order to prove that he isn’t carrying anything on him. And both of them find themselves fired and having to ask their employers for money they are owed. All this is fine detailing, but it comes at the cost of the thriller elements, which are shoehorned in most hastily. Thrillers require their own kind of detailing, their own kind of buildup. When someone is killed, we need to register this death. We need to see what happened, and how – and if this happens to be a character we’ve grown to care for, we need time to absorb the emotions in the scene. Why skimp on this? As a result, the drama isn’t hard-hitting enough, and the thriller tropes aren’t satisfying enough. More importantly, we don’t buy Deepak doing what he does. We see him being humiliated, but we don’t feel the depths of his desperation, given that he barely seems to register these humiliations. It’s an interesting touch to show Deepak as someone who calmly accepts his lot in life – thrillers are usually based on people who don’t – but the film never manages to tie up his slow-witted and phlegmatic nature with his heated, impulsive actions later on. How is an important question in this kind of film. It’s never convincingly answered.
At least, not with the level of conviction that we found in earlier Bombay films that reached for metaphors about birds, films like Gharonda, whose title referred to the nest the man and the woman sought to build for themselves. Their situation wasn’t as wretched as Deepak’s. They were lower-middle-class. But that’s just hairsplitting in a city where everything’s so expensive, and we understood how the man and woman came together, how they split up, how she agreed to the kind of transaction that’s as alien to her nature as what Deepak does in this film is to his. We felt the desperation in those characters from what we saw and also what we heard, the lyrics that spoke of blind, bottomless nights and winding roads that would never lead to one’s destination in one’s lifetime. These are good lyrics, whose imagery adds to what we see on screen. The lyrics in CityLights are nowhere as evocative, and this wouldn’t be a problem in a tight thriller with a smattering of songs, but the music, here, is such a constant, so in your face, with the same songs played over and over, that it’s impossible not to see that the lyrics are merely telling us about what’s already been shown. When Rakhee tells Deepak she’s found a job and he weeps at what she has to do, we hear Jo mile usme kaat lenge hum – we’ll get by on what we get. Elsewhere, we get Kitne saare chehre hain aur tanha sab ke sab – so many faces and yet everyone’s lonely. We get Parchayeen ke peeche peeche bhaag raha hai man – a line about chasing shadows. This isn’t even sentiment. It’s just schmaltz.
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.