Mumbai, 1982. The famous mill workers' strike is at its peak as the mill owners try to surreptiously close down the mills and build the commercially more viable malls and high rises in their place. The film looks at the tumult in the industrial belt of Mumbai through the gritty and gruelling experiences of the Dhuri family that is essentially a microcosm of the entire chawl where life is a daily struggle against hunger and poverty, yet hope -- and family ties -- never perish.
For all those who thought Vaastav was Mahesh Manjrekar's signature film, it's time for some revisions. The film-maker completely reinvents himself with City of Gold: a hard-hitting, intense, unapologetic, yet heart-warming documentation of what the changing skyline of Mumbai has actually entailed. How did the metropolis actually grow into Maximum City, a desi New York with its glitzy skyscrapers and its psychedelic opulence? Do the neon lights hide dark secrets beneath their shadows? Is there a rotting graveyard of dead dreams and dying souls that subsists below the superficial gloss of India's bustling financial capital?
There is. A whole generation of mill workers is still fighting a losing 28-year-old battle against their employers who arbitrarily closed down the mills without bothering about compensation and other legalities. And there is a whole generation of their offspring who drifted into crime and created Mumbai's infamous underbelly: the underworld of organised crime. Manjrekar's expansive canvas dares to capture this entire socio-economic battle that scarred the soul of the city in the 1980s. And it does it with a deftness and an intensity that completely rattles you. Watching the City of Gold is like re-reading The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's classic that documented the travails of the Joad family as it grappled with the Great Depression in America's tumultuous years. And like Steinbeck, Manjrekar too never gives up on life, love, humanity and hope despite digging through dirt, desperation and human bestiality too.... Watch the hungry, hopeless chawl kids frolic with violence in near-orgiastic glee and you'll get the goosebumps like never before!
Manjrekar sets his story in a small tenement inhabited by the Dhuri family, headed by the laid-back Anna (Shashank Shende) and the firebrand Aai (Seema Biswas). The couple battles with its empty food cans, digs into its last savings, yet keeps the family together, even as the sons and daughters try to do their bit to stand up to the hard times. While the elder two sons prefer to escape the gruelling hardships as far as they can, it's essentially left to the spunky daughter (Veena Jamkar) and the youngest son, Naru (Karan Patel) to bail the family out, time and again, even if it means pulling the trigger or slipping into morally ambiguous areas.
The high point of the film is its ensemble cast that may boast of no stars. But Manjrekar evokes some of the finest performances in recent times from his actors. Seema Biswas is absolutely unforgettable as the doughty, never-say-die matriarch of the family who holds the family together even when there's nothing to keep them together. But its Naru and his group of urchins who walk away with all your applause as they create one of the most scary pictures of what hunger and hopelessness can do a generation of young people.
We've heard a lot about the euphemistic 'spirit of Mumbai'. Now, go and watch it come alive before your eyes in mesmeric form. Kudos to Manjrekar for creating a post-modern Deewar.