Move aside. There is no room for artifice in Mahesh Manjrekar’s latest work. A raw, guttural, gritty, intense, edgy, mordant and finally devastating look at the world of the damaged and the ravaged, City Of Gold is as powerful in portraying a bereft working class as Molly Maguires was about Irish mine-workers. Except for the fact that there is no room for pretty visuals in City Of Gold.
Manjrekar portrays the opposite of the beau monde. That murky end of the spectrum where the shenanigans of the IPL brigade seem as distant as the promise of that pot of Gold at the end of the rainbow.
Manjrekar’s chawl-life, captured on camera with merciless frankness by Ajit Reddy, is a bleak world of dreamers and losers who are often the one and the same. His heroes (if we may call the young characters that) are offered no hope of solace or redemption. This is the side of the slum that Danny Boyle missed when he made that clever adrenaline rush of splendid squalor in Slumdog Millionaire.
City Of Gold is neither stylish nor swanky enough to attract elitist readings of poverty. Fiercely radical in thought and intensely socialistic in execution, the film plunges beneath the poverty line to emerge with characters whose despair is not an act for the camera. The sweat and grime, the corruption and crime are characters of their own in Manjrekar’s teeming, jostling and chaotic world of abysmal nullity.
Mumbai never looked murkier and less inviting.
Taking a panoramic look at the lives of thousands of mill-workers in Mumbai, who went on an indefinite strike in 1982, is like trying to hold the ocean in a teacup. Manjrekar in what could easily be rated as his finest most cogent work to date, does just that. He holds a universe in the eye of the camera. It’s world of the doomed and damned, no frills attached.
His return to fine form and the enrapturing energy level that sweeps across a multitude of lives without trivializing or sidelining any of the characters, who come into camera range, are reasons enough to celebrate the joys of neo-realistic cinema. This is cinema in all its grime and glory.
But wait wait…City Of Gold not only marks the return of a storyteller who tells it like it is, without the comfort of shortcuts and shallow shindigs, it’s also a macroscopic look at people who populate the fringes. Their silent screams of protest are seldom heard in cinema without their sounds being converted into some kind of vicarious relief and comfort for the audience.
Not for a second do we feel any comforting distance from the misery of Manjrekar’s characters. The smells of scant cooking in the kitchen and the soundless noise of hearts and ribs breaking at given intervals swamp our senses, creating an overpowering and riveting world of inequality and resentment.
Manjrekar shoots his characters’ emotions in tight comprehensive close-ups but wastes no time shedding excessive tears over their lives. The editor (Sarvesh Parab) cuts the raw material with ruthless economy, leaving no room for humbug and certainly no space for commercial embellishments.
So the question, what happened to those thousands of mill workers who were overnight rendered bankrupt after the mills closed down? You will find some uncomfortable answers in City Of Gold. But most of the time you will be faced with questions about the quality of life we choose to hand over to those who are economically and emotionally weak.
Welcome back, Mr Manjrekar.
Would this film have worked without the actors who don’t look like they are facing a camera? The whole batallion of characters flicker to life as though they were a part of an extended family shot by hidden cameras for a reality show to be aired at ‘grime’ time. Television actor Karan Patel as the youngest scion of Manjrekar’s troubled family is a revelation. He portrays pain, hurt, humiliation, angst, compromise and anger with complete authority.
A scar is born.