Metro Manila is a neat little drama-thriller that brings a quietly artistic taste of poverty, sacrifice and desperation to a sub-genre that is disinterested in pandering to movie clichés. Hansal Mehta, the director of the terrific and understated Shahid and his star Rajkumar Rao were the perfect choices to remake Metro Manila. Oh boy, what a disappointment.
Metro Manila vaulted between sensitivity, action, pacing, character development and social commentary, and thanks to solid direction it all just clicked perfectly. In CityLights all of those elements are placed haphazardly, and the film becomes a mediocre afternoon soap. This time the Bhatts bought the rights to the movie instead of shamelessly lifting it - the original film and its director are credited no less than six times. The story remains the same - after losing his job in his village, the destitute Rajasthani Deepak (Rao) moves with his family to Mumbai to look for work. Mumbai isn’t very kind to him, and after a string of setbacks he has a chance encounter with a man (Kaul) who helps him land a job as a guard in an armored truck company. Deepak soon realizes that his chance encounter may be more than meets the eye.
Before I tell you anything else about the movie, I need to tell you about Rajkummar Rao. He latches on to his character like a goblin shark. Like he always does, he gives it his one hundred percent in CityLights, and is still absolutely effortless. Even when he’s facing the talented Manav Kaul, he holds his ground with a ton of confidence. If you want to watch a really good actor at his best in a pedestrian film, you should watch CityLights at the earliest.
Now in the original director Sean Ellis reduced the dramatic quotient to a minimum. It had subtle electronic music and minimalist photography. The film also showcased a side of the world we aren’t very familiar with. In City Lights we’re offered images of Mumbai we’ve seen a billion times before. And in CityLights the music by Jeet Ganguly and Raju Singh reaches 1000 decibels of awfulness. You get helpful musical cues to guide you through the emotions. This is a sad scene, here’s some blaring sad music so you know what to feel. This is a happy scene, here is some generic happy music and let me punch you in the face while I’m at it. At times it’s not just dreadful but painful. A somber scene is suddenly followed by a chase scene with City Lights Yo Yo playing in the backdrop. Every time Rao does some acting magic, the horrendous music keeps undoing all his goodwill and dragging the movie to the gutter. It’s a very Bhatt film that way, and it’s unfortunate that Mehta chose to make a Bhatt product instead of his film. For a film called CityLights, the film is quite ugly to look at.
There’s not a single memorable set piece, the camerawork is deathly dull, and the film made me feel as if it didn’t spend enough time in postproduction. Worse, there’s some unintentional hilarity as well, especially in a ridiculously overstretched scene where Deepak and his wife sit on either side of the frame and bawl endlessly. That scene doesn’t make any narrative sense either – it’s one of the many times where you spot the story’s flaws because the filmmaking isn’t very good. In the original Ellis had managed to hide those flaws due to his effort on craft. Patralekha does show some promise, but she never even once comes across as a small town girl thanks to her ham fisted faux-poor makeup. When there are so many factors going against a movie, you expect the story to compensate things. Sadly it’s paper thin, and crumbles under the weight of the film’s mediocrity. You might argue that it’s unfair to compare CityLights to Metro Manila, and that this film was made only for those who aren’t familiar with the original film, but those people do deserve better, more polished material.
(First published in Firstpost)