Shahid announced Mehta as a filmmaker who has certainly evolved quite dramatically over the years. His early career as a director is best forgotten, producing some unforgettable run of the mill films. Perhaps it was the incendiary subject matter of Shahid that pushed Mehta further than ever before. City Lights, his follow up to Shahid, is a remake of Metro Manila, which is a relatively recent film that garnered critical acclaim. I haven’t seen Metro Manila so can’t really comment on the remake angle. However, and thankfully, City Lights is an official remake of Metro Manila, with the producers having paid for the rights. The plot of City Lights, a struggling family from Rajasthan migrate temporarily to Mumbai so they can prosper, is cliché ridden as they come and makes the producers appear frightfully short-sighted in their desire to imitate a narrative trajectory that is overly formulaic. Whereas in Shahid the directorial style favours a more static, character centred approach that refuses to sentimentalise the human drama, City Lights sees Mehta tip back into a familiar over stylised aesthetic that relies on the most basic contrivances of melodrama. I would preferred to have seen the narrative especially in the city unfold through a female perspective but Mehta fails to capitalise on many narrative situations which could have potentially offered a far greater ideological dialogue on the relationship between migrant workers and the city of Mumbai. What we are left with is a return to the village, reiterating the reactionary politics of 1940s and 1950s like Do Bigha Zamin that warn against the dehumanising nature of the urbanisation. Unfortunately, City Lights becomes just another tale about the city without saying anything particularly insightful about the urban experience. I wanted the pain and distress suffered by the family of three to have been visualised and relayed with so much more force and conviction. Instead, displacement, unemployment and poverty is masked by the visual gloss of the eye catching and at times distracting cinematography. Had Mehta utilised a more neo realist approach then I could have seen City Lights succeeding more often than it does. Perhaps the saving grace are the terrific performances especially Rajkummar Rao and the scene stealing and underused Manav Kaul.
Prior to the first of many 1970s collaborations with under stated comic actor Amol Palekar, Basu Chatterjee’s directorial debut in 1969 Sara Akash was positioned along side Bhuvan Shome (Mrinal Sen) and Uski Roti (Mani Kaul) as part of the New Indian Cinema movement. However, the unexpected commercial success of Chatterjee’s 1974 female melodrama Rajanigandha helped to open up a new space which would subsequently be referred to as middle cinema. It is significant that Willemen and Rajadhyaksha label it distinctly as a low budget art house film yet the presence of Amol Palekar and Basu Chatterjee both attract a contradictory categorisation. Similarly like Ankur, released a year before in 1973 and also made on a low budget, continues to be argued over in terms of its status – is it an art film or an example of middle cinema? Born in Rajasthan, Basu Chatterjee like Shyam Benegal and many other film makers of his generation came to film making through the non educational route. Chatterjee’s early career was as a cartoonist for a tabloid newspaper but like his contemporaries he was a reverent cine-phile, helping to establish the Film Forum Society in 1959. Prior to his directorial debut, Chatterjee assisted Basu Bhattacharya on the box office failure that was Teesri Kasam (1966). Directors Chatterjee, Bhattacharya and Mukherjee in the 1970s would come to be regarded as a potent triptych, defining the identity of the Indian middle class. Admittedly, the only reason mainstream Hindi cinema, namely the Bombay film industry, was attracted to the triptych lay in the profit motive of low budget films at the box office.
Based on a short story Yahi Sach Hai by Indian writer Manu Bhandari, the title of the film Rajanigandha takes its name from the tuberose flower/plant used in perfumes. The love triangle is one of the most common narrative situations featured in Hindi melodramas and whilst it is difficult to label Rajanigandha as strictly melodrama the emphasis on feminine anxieties is concretely dealt with in the figure of the ideologically conflicted Deepa Kapoor (Vidya Sinha) torn between her affections for the two men in her life. Whilst Palekar’s sympathetic and laid back Sanjay offers security and a sense of compassion, Deepa’s former lover Navin (Dinesh Thakur) whom she spurned for political reasons resurfaces, reigniting a longing which she thought she had long overcome. It is hard to imagine that so many romantic Hindi films still use this formulaic narrative set up but of course the disparity in terms of formalism between the triptych of middle cinema and the many contemporary imitators is vast. The complexity of emotional states Deepa passes through gets to the heart of an important ideological truth – the politics of dissent are easy to ignore when dealing with the politics of love. The two seem to be incompatible in contemporary melodramas yet it is their co existence in Rajanigandha is what gives Deepa’s struggle to decide whom she loves the most an altogether more truthful periphery.