So, Citylights is based on Sean Ellis’ acclaimed Metro Manila, but it also unlocks the doors to other movies in your mind. This is both a strength and drawback for this remarkable film. Deepak Singh (Rao) loses his village shop to debt and migrates to Mumbai with wife Rakhi (Patraleka) and child Mahi for a new start, ostensibly provided by friend Omkar. But reaching Mumbai, the family never finds Omkar. Instead, Deepak and Rakhi find tricksters, bar-girls, criminals, armoured guards – and a devious plot. Can this little family survive the big city?
Citylights’ performances glow. Rao is actually breath-taking in the quietest way, playing a man so simple, you feel his innocence. Far from dramatic fireworks, there are little touches – Deepak’s nod when his daughter kisses him, an unsaid, adoring sigh – that cover this character with soulful sheen and maddening naivete. Patraleka’s Rakhi is an excellent counterbalance. There are scenes – sad, unspeaking eyes over a sequined saree – where Patraleka astonishes. Alongside, Deepak’s new-found mentor, ‘Vishnu sir’ (Kaul), supervisor at a security firm, crackles like a live-wire in a dark night, exuding city-slicker smarts, coiled tension and sudden warmth.
Alongside, the cinematography is wonderful. Shots of the family sleeping against a rubbish pile, a ‘3BHK’ in a construction site, Deepak staring at an ocean of pure despair, a fallen cycle in a courtyard, stand out. The family’s migration stays with you as a vivid new experience – but its city sojourn occasionally reminds you of familiar moments. An interview scene recalls Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi while Citylights seems to acknowledge other masterful takes, from Dibakar Banerjee to Madhur Bhandarkar, on life in India’s toughest town.
The second half thus gently meanders, shots becoming slightly repetitive and slow, making you agree when Vishnu tells Deepak in exasperated humour, “Aap itni dheemi gati ke film hain!” But the end gathers itself, providing a twist that both dazzles and covers darkness.
Impoverished Deepak takes his wife and child to Mumbai to survive – but is the family lost in big, bad city lights?
The Times of India