CityLights (2014)


In his reworking of Sean Ellis’s award winning social drama Metro Manila, Hansal Mehta moves the story from the slum areas of Manila to the seedy streets of Mumbai. It’s a tale of grinding, remorseless poverty and the desperation such hardship brings, but there are some lighter moments too and the film morphs into a crime drama about half way through. City Lights is perhaps not quite as effective as the original in telling the story of a young naïve family and their move from the country to the city in search of a better life, but what the story has lost in adaptation is more than made up by the strong performances from the lead actors Rajkummar Rao, Patralekha and Manav Kaul.

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The story opens in Rajasthan where Deepak Singh (Rajkummar Rao) has a clothing shop in a small town that he is forced to close when he cannot afford to pay off his debts.  Since there appears to be no hope for any work in his village, he sets off for Mumbai with his wife Rakhi (Patralekha) and small daughter Mahi. Rakhi is reluctant to move, once in the city she seems less naïve than Deepak so perhaps she is well aware of the difficulties of trying to live in Mumbai, but ultimately she has no say in the decision. These first few scenes are full of light and laughter, and in just a few brief moments Hansal Mehta paints a picture of a happy family where there is a lot of love and hope that better days will come.

Deepak plans to meet a friend from his army days in Mumbai, but when Omkar fails to turn up at the railway station the family has to find their way in the big city alone. After being swindled out of what meagre funds they have, a chance meeting with a bar dancer leads them to a temporary refuge in a half constructed building.  While Deepak spends his days trying to find any kind of a job anywhere, Rakhi manages to get employment as a dancer in a bar. However this is not work she finds easy to reconcile with her conscience and she continually struggles with the leers of the men and their attempts to get more from her than she is willing to give. Deepak too is not happy about his wife’s job either, but the family is in such desperate straits that he has no other option but to let Rakhi work. Both actors do a fantastic job here of getting the depth of their emotions across using facial expressions with excellent body language and minimal dialogue.

Although their situation seems unlikely to improve, the couple never give up hope, even if it’s a very compliant and resigned kind of hope. There are no impassioned speeches or battles against authority here, but rather calm acceptance of their place in society and the belief if they just keep trying then eventually God will provide a solution for them. It’s frustrating viewing at times when Deepak is unable to push himself forward when looking for work and Rakhi cannot put aside her inhibitions to make more money when she is dancing, but they are simple everyday people and Hansal Mehta portrays them just the way they are. No more, and no less.

Their blind faith appears to work and things start to look up when Deepak gets a job as the driver for a security firm. The money seems good, and Deepak’s new partner Vishnu (Manav Kaul) even offers the family a place to stay. However Deepak comes to realise that his new partner had an ulterior motive for recommending him, and it is Deepak’s innocence and naiveté that got him the job rather than his previous army experience. Vishnu has a plan which needs the co-operation of his partner, and he’s been waiting for an innocent like Deepak to manipulate into following his commands. Deepak is reluctant, but when Rakhi loses her job in the bar it seems as if he has no other option but to go ahead with Vishnu’s plan if he wants to make sure his family survives.

Rajkummar Rao and Patralekha both suit the role of poor immigrants to the city. They both look skinny and malnourished with beaten down postures and downcast eyes, and both achieve that calm acceptance that extreme poverty seems to bring. It’s only with each other that they seem able to look straight ahead and even then Rakhi rarely looks her husband in the eyes. Both exude innocence effortlessly, even in the rather ham-handed treatment of their love scenes, and Rajkummar Rao in particular never puts a foot wrong. Manav Kaul is also excellent in a role that gives him plenty of opportunity to develop his character. He’s the man who knows the ways of the city, and is patently more sophisticated and knowledgeable than his partner from the country. He has a wife and a mistress, but despite his city veneer he also deeply resents the people whose money he delivers every day and despises his own circumstances. In his way, Vishnu is just as desperate and defined by his poverty, even if it’s not as extreme as that experienced by Deepak and Rakhi, and Manav Kaul does an excellent job with the characterisation.

The film does have a couple of songs which are either used over montages of the couple’s life in the city, or to highlight certain moments in their lives. The problem is that the music and lyrics are overly dramatic, particularly in scenes where the actors have already displayed plenty of genuine emotion and the music ends up detracting from rather than enhancing their performances.  The track below which plays over Rakhi’s dancing and Deepak’s drinking in a bar does work better, but most of the other songs are too loud and intrusive to suit the action. The film is also very dark at times; to the point where it is difficult to see what is happening let alone the actors expressions, while the final climax seems rushed and too contrived compared to the rest of the story.

These small issues aside, the film is an insightful look at the dark side of Mumbai and the realities of living in unrelenting poverty as Hansal Mehta successfully translates Sean Ellis’s story from the Philippines to Indian soil. Rajkummar Rao is definitely the standout as he once again completely immerses himself in his character and delivers an amazingly realistic and believable performance as he did in Shahid. Manav Kaul and newcomer Patralekha are also impressive in a film that raises questions about morality, ethics and poverty even if it does turn a tad Bollywood at the end. 3½ stars.




I didn’t know much about human rights lawyer Shahid Azmi before watching Hansal Mehta’s film, and I’m not entirely sure that I know a lot more about the real man even after watching.  There is a disclaimer at the start, which flashes past very quickly but suggests that the film is a dramatised version of events in the life of the murdered lawyer rather than a strict doco-style exposé.  But whatever the true story, the film is a fascinating look at a man who refused to back down and spent most of his career standing up for people who would otherwise never have had a voice.  Shahid may be a romanticised and somewhat sanitised account, but it still delivers its message and brings the Indian judicial system squarely into the limelight.

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The film starts with the end of Shahid Azmi’s life, at the moment when he is shot by persons unknown in his office.  It then moves immediately back several years to the early 90’s when a young Shahid is caught up in the violence of an attack on his community in Mumbai.  As a result Shahid ends up in a terrorist training camp, although the why and how he got there is never shown and the whole episode is quickly glossed over during the credit sequence.  However Shahid’s revulsion at the violence of the camp is clearly shown although his escape from the over-zealous terrorists is only briefly mentioned.  On his return to his family, Shahid is arrested and eventually tricked into signing a confession which results in time spent in jail.  Interestingly Kay Kay Menon plays one of his mentors in the jail, which seemed odd since I’m more used to seeing him play a more negative role.  However, he’s very effective in the role of War saab who persuades Shahid to make the most of his time in jail and get an education.

Shahid Shahid

This he does, finally becoming a lawyer and taking on cases for clients like his younger self – people with no money who have been imprisoned on terrorist charges without any real evidence.  It’s compelling viewing, mainly due to an excellent performance by Raj Kumar Yadav who is charismatic and very believable as the passionate young lawyer.  He starts off small and works for a criminal lawyer Maqbool Menon (Tigmanshu Dhulia) which is where he meets Mariam (Prabhleen Sandhu), a client who needs help with a property case.  In the process of fighting her case, Shahid falls in love and this is the only part of the film that feels in any way filmi, as the two walk along the beach and share some classic Bollywood romantic moments together.

Prabhleen Sandhu starts off well, but after her marriage I expected her to show more frustration with Shahid’s absorption with his career but instead she is very passive.  Mariam also doesn’t show much fear or apprehension about the death threats made to her husband, and the couple’s final showdown feels contrived compared to the rest of the film.  This could just be down to the writers, but her performance was stilted in parts, particularly in comparison to the other actors.


Mariam is divorced with a young son and Shahid is reluctant to tell his more traditionally minded mother about his marriage.  Baljinder Kaur is perfectly cast here as Shahid’s mother and I loved how she managed to keep her family under control, even when they were all grown up.  Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub is also excellent in the role of Shahid’s brother Arif, and his frustration at always being the one left to look after everyone else is eloquently portrayed. Ayyub is another great actor who seems to have appeared in a number of good roles this past year and has the knack of making even a small role memorable.


Although Hansal Mehta makes us sympathise with Shahid by showing his early struggles and his family life, the director doesn’t shy away from portraying his weaknesses.  Shahid’s reluctance to tell his family about his new wife is shown as a flaw and he also has a general tendency to ignore problems by burying his head in the sand and hoping they will just go away.  These failings do make him a more human and vulnerable character and contrast well with his more decisive and determined attitude when in court. Raj Kumar Yadav gets under the skin of a crusading human rights activist in the second half of the film and his passionate arguments are stirring and though-provoking.

It’s another plus for the film that the court scenes appear realistic, set in dingy surroundings with harried looking judges. A case with a suspected terrorist shows the accused under guard in a metal cage,and only the various legal representatives allowed in the room which I can imagine is exactly how these trials are actually conducted. The verbal battles between Shahid and the various prosecutors, including his old employer Menon are also excellent and keep up the momentum of the film without getting bogged down in Shahid’s oft-repeated mantra “justice delayed is justice denied”.


This is a well-made film with sensible and mature treatment of its subject matter.  There are a few stumbles with Shahid’s early life and perhaps a little too much time spent on his developing romance, but on the whole this is a fascinating glimpse into the life of a man who took on the Indian legal system on its own terms and won. I do think it would have benefited from a more documentary style approach and additional information on Shahid Azmi’s cases would have made it seem less of an idealised account.  However it’s still a worthwhile attempt at a serious biopic, and with excellent performances, realistic situations and an intelligent script it’s definitely one I recommend watching.