A refreshing embrace of reality, with nary an escape

CitylightsHindi (U/A) ¬¬¬¬

Director: Hansal Mehta

Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Patralekha, Manav Kaul

When Charlie Chaplin released a film called City Lights in 1931, he managed, as he had so effortlessly done in several  other films, to inject a degree of satire and pathos in it. 

Eight decades have gone by, but the lure of an urban setting, which many from rural pastures mistake for affluence, or at least a better life, keeps burning up the moths attracted to it. And not often has it been told in as nuanced a way as Hansal Mehta's latest offering, whose name only takes away the little space between the two words in Chaplin's film. 

Rajkummar Rao teams up with the director who fetched him a National Award, and is ably supported by débutante Patralekha and character actor Manav Kaul, besides others, to deliver a film that does not pretend. It even begins by squarely acknowledging its roots: director Sean Ellis' British-Filipino offering Metro Manila.

The story of former Army driver Deepak coming to the city with his wife and little girl in search of a better life, having been dispossessed of his cloth shop in his hometown due to rising debt, rings true for a growing number of people. As does his realisation that everything, including common sense, comes at a price. 

Then, just as things seem to ease up for the trio, in jumps intrigue, lure and a host of other emotions that take a further, irreversible toll on the family, despite a little respite and redemption. 

There are scenes that make you squirm with discomfort, but the inconvenient truth is not force-fed. Instead, Citylights manages to deliver scenes that seem natural enough to have been lifted straight out of lower-middle-class Indian households — a rarity that comes as a breath of fresh air. 

Equally refreshing is the use of music and sounds. There are no item songs, thankfully. Instead, a singular refrain acts as a sort of leitmotif for our protagonists' lives. 

The film takes time to build the characters, and the actors make the most of this by displaying talent that a lot of their peers should learn from. And that's why the slow pace of the film never manages to bog the audience down.

Mehta should take credit for several other aspects of the film, having served up a dish that is a marked departure from the “masala” fare running at most multiplexes now. See this film to embrace reality, not to escape it. 

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