Saturday, May 31, 2014


Urban Malady

That Bhatt brothers bought the rights to Sean Ellis’s Metro Manila and made a film that deviates from the horror/sleaze/crime potboilers their banner had been churning out of late, is a welcome sign.

The belief in good cinema matters, even if the resulting film falls a bit short of expectations.  It is also important to keep stepping out of the Bollywood circuit of fantasy to see how the other half lives; commercial cinema is seldom concerned with unpleasant reality, unless it can convert into box-office revenue.

Hansal Mehta (fresh from his Shahid triumph) adapts the film to an Indian setting, but to those who are aware of the urban-rural divide and conditions of poverty in India would find quite a few discrepancies.

Deepak Singh (Rajkummar Rao), a former army driver, takes a loan to start a sari shop. The business fails, and he has to leave for Mumbai with his wife Rakhi (Patralekha) and daughter. It’s unlikely, though not impossible, for a villager to have no other family. It also seems odd that a man with some education and exposure to life outside the village, would land up in Mumbai without even the address of his contact. He owns a cell phone, wouldn’t he attempt to get at least this information?  Then within a few hours he is gypped of his savings in a blatant con; a man who owned a business doesn’t have the sense to think before he hands over his money?  This makes one feel a slight contempt for the character, instead of empathy.

The rustic innocent in the big, bad city theme could be heart-wrenching if the characters were really in a no-hope situation.   Do Bigha Zameen said it all with the kind of compassion a master like Bimal Roy could evoke.  Years later, the fate of its characters can make you weep. Think Gautam Ghose’s Paar, Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman -- Citylights does not reach those heights. (It’s seems like nit-picking, but the poverty-stricken characters seem to have a large supply of clothes, and the child is amazingly placid.)

With typical city clichés, a stranger comes to their aid. A bar dancer helps them find shelter and also a job for Rakhi in her dance bar. The scene in which Rakhi is checked out by the owner of the bar is truly moving—and the film needed more such powerful moments. Mehta falls back much too often on songs to underline the mood, and the constant noise of the soundtrack never allows for any  peace or introspection.

Deepak finds a job with a security company that transports large sums of money or valuables; Vishnu (Manav Kaul) helps him understand the rules of the high-risk work, and the two forge a bond of trust and friendship. In this part of the film, you see the unseen Mumbai—a shot of a flyover right outside Vishnu’s tiny chawl room gives an indication of the lives of desperation the city forces on the poor; the irony of a man earning 15,000 a month, driving around with a fortune in his armoured vehicle makes Vishnu’s anger and criminal intent almost justifiable.

The film gets into thriller mode, and an unexpected end.  Without giving away details, however, there is the naive assumption that life in an Indian village is still clean and unspoilt, which is simply not true.

Mehta’s actors deliver with honesty and precision—Rajkummar Rao has already proved that he can excel in any role, but Manav Kaul is terrific as the kind yet devious Vishnu.

What Mumbai really needs is a film that celebrates its spirit—the entrepreneurship of the immigrants that transforms lives and spaces. Moaning and griping about city life won’t change reality.


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