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.
Mumbai is one of the great cities of the world, drawing in film makers so they can use the dense urban landscape as a canvas on to which they can endlessly inscribe dreams, nightmares and anxieties. A microcosm of cosmopolitan and secularist narratives, Mumbai is continually re-presented in the fantasies of Hindi cinema as the gateway to contemporary success or failure. Like New York, the Mumbai milieu was made for cinematic reinterpretation and performance – the geography of the city continues to be contested in the imagery of the media and whilst the urban slum has become a popular frame of reference, it celebrates a metropolis like pluralism that is dignified. Opening with an interior shot of a nondescript taxi making its way curiously through the rain swept streets of Mumbai; Kiran Rao’s directorial debut Dhobi Ghat immediately takes up the first person perspective of the first of four characters, this one is making a home video using a camcorder. As the taxi moves past the overcast Marine drive with the sea gazing back at us in the distance, the vehicle stops and for a brief moment the camera films the excited actions of a group of Mumbai street kids who begin performing for the car as though they were in an Indian film. It is a snapshot of urban reality and repeats a restless rhythm familiar to us, an elliptical momentum that just like the city of Mumbai fragments the new and entombs the old – but this snapshot is just one of many micro stories glimpsed in the episodic art film structure adopted by the film maker.
A sincere art house film Dhobi Ghat is typical of Aamir Khan as a producer – uncompromising in its aesthetic agenda, distinctively marketed, economically budgeted, sincerely directed and confidently performed. Inter relating the lives of four characters which deliberately represent the spectrum of contemporary Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat is a discourse on the city and its inhabitants. Played by Aamir Khan, Arun is a reclusive painter who grudgingly appears at the exhibitions of his own work. Somewhat of a womaniser, Arun guards his loneliness as it is the one thing that allows him to be creative. He transforms his pain and the pain of those around him into his work, deconstructing the private video tapes of an unhappy married woman leads Arun to shift from one place to another. A symbol of anonymity, Arun’s identity is in transit, nomadically connected to his refusal to become emotionally involved with anyone who attempts to reach out. Shai (the beautiful Monica Dogra), an investment banker from America who is visiting Mumbai as part of a sabbatical, is also suffering from a similar psychosis of rupture but unlike Arun who is a member of the city, Shai’s outsider status makes her a jaded symbol of the Indian Diaspora. She too is searching for a space from which she can create but her elitist trappings opens a level of discontinuity that prevents her from bridging an all too familiar class divide. A symbol of the authentic Mumbai urban slum, Munna (Prateik Babbar) works as a dhobi washing laundry for the middle class whilst pursuing an outlandish cinematic dream of becoming an actor. Unlike Arun who is an emerging painter and Shai a budding photographer, Munna’s gaze is altogether fixed in a stark reality from which he cannot escape – ideologically both Arun and Shai’s perceptions of reality are filtered through a shared visual gaze that is privileged.
The final character, Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), a newly married Muslim woman, is part of the past, present and future whilst her gaze is hauntingly ubiquitous. Yasmin’s story is conveyed through a series of intimate video diaries that Arun discovers in his apartment – the videos detail Mumbai as a place in which the pain and suffering of women like Yasmin are simply rendered invisible. In many ways, this is a film about conflicting gazes; privileged and unprivileged gazes determined by the economics of the urban city.