Thursday, June 05, 2014

City Lights (2014)

In a way, the film City Lights is all about what not to do: fine performances, especially from the lead actor Rajkummar Rao, beautiful music, and a story made for a gritty thriller all fail to uplift the film to being a classic, which the film could easily have been with a bit more reflection, bit more getting lost in the world of no-hopefuls. And yet, the film remains a beautiful etching on the Indian cinematic canvas, and the effort to make it an honest one: most importantly, the film rises above being a crime drama and becomes a beautiful film about marriage and love, a typical story from the heart of India. For in India, we have arranged marriages and we are fiercely loving, loyal and understanding of our other half: self-sacrifices are commonplace and more often than not, love reigns supreme. It is something foreign to the "my liberty"-searching Western mind-set (and newer generations of Indians), but Rao and Patralekha (playing his wife) remind one of what a typical Indian couple are: their love, their fleeting joys and omnipresent lurking dangers, their struggles for a better material life, their ability to sacrifice everything for their love, their honour, their children.

Where the film does suffer is a lack of coherent vision about what the film wants to be. Manav Kaul, playing Rao's mentor and colleague Vishnu, is given too much screen time: unfortunately, the film is not about crime and gangs, nor about how to carry out a heist. The film is about a little family of three, and Kaul's unneeded, constant presence in the film eats into the soul of the film. In fact, to put it bluntly, the film could have been twenty minutes shorter, and with a differently shot climax. Bad editing is a feature of the film elsewhere: there was no need of some of the characters; the background music is unable to be weaved in with the story by the director though the music is wonderful; small things like unnecessary references, both visually and aurally, to lights of a city could have been avoided (especially when abruptly introduced like at the intermission if you watch this one in an Indian theatre); and the grand finale could have been more high-octane, much more thrilling. Right now, there's nothing grand about it. The film is essentially a love story, a story of survival: not just a crime drama. The film fails to realize this; however, the one place where some thrills were badly needed is where the film fails to provide them.

However, for someone who's not lived in a materially poor society, the film may certainly be a gem to watch. The performances are marvellous, complete with Rajasthani accents. The film is also well shot, and some of the meandering shots are brilliant: I particularly remember one of the shots at the beginning of the film of dim, yellow light reflecting on the steel utensils typical to any Indian home. I think I will remember that shot for a long time into my life: in that shot is hidden the song "Muskuraane ke vajah tum ho" ("You are the reason for smiling"). If only the filmmaker could have drawn out that connection!

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