Director: Nagesh Kukunoor
Cast: Atul Kulkarni, Priya Bapat, Siddharth Chandekar, Sachin Pilgaonkar, Eijaz Khan
Available On: Hotstar
After Mirzapur’s fetishization of hinterland dynasty politics, City of Dreams trains its lens on the epicentre of Maharashtrian dynasty politics. However, the more we see of Mumbai on the small screen lately, the older and more dated the metropolis seems to look. Director Nagesh Kukunoor uses what I call a “television filter” to dramatize the timeworn story of a wounded gamcha-wearing tiger and his two warring cubs. It becomes clear in the first fifteen minutes of City of Dreams – the sprawling ten-episode dramatization of Bollywood’s favourite grey motif – that this show, much like Hotstar’s Criminal Justice, has a bit of a ‘90s problem.
Two masked goons on a bike pump slow-motion bullets into the back of a prominent party leader (Atul Kulkarni, as Ameya Rao Gaekwad) on Marine Drive. The unhinged coke-snorting son (Siddharth Chandekar, as Ashish) threatens the doctor with filmy consequences if he doesn’t revive the comatose father. He arrogantly blows smoke in the face of the patriarch’s loyal secretary. The sanskaari daughter (Priya Bapat, as Poornima) weeps at her old man’s hospital bed. A disgraced cop named “Encounter Wasim” (Eijaz Khan) gets interested in the case. A middle-class accountant (an impressive Sandip Kulkarni, as Purshyotam) watches as tonnes of cash are counted in a shady godown. The title track has a woman sultrily crooning “Mayanagri” over images of an (almost) all-Maharashtrian cast against the backdrop of chess pieces, horse races, joker cards, local trains and gold coins.
The narrative language is so obviously archaic that the writers try to camouflage the issue by being self-referential. For instance, when informed about the assassination attempt, the Chief Minister (Sachin Pilgaonkar) instinctively responds: “Like a 90s-style underworld shooting?”. Furthermore, the accountant works at a ‘Star Fisheries,’ a news anchor ends serious segments with “Anything can happen in Mumbai,” Delhi is simply referred to as ‘High Command’ and the daughter’s best friend is a soap-opera actress who is always in garish goddess/bahu getups on set when she answers phone calls. This wink-wink treatment might have worked if Kukunoor didn’t keep lapsing into symptoms of the exploitative male gaze: A feminist speech about how daughters are denied agency for having a vagina between their legs is immediately followed by a lesbian lovemaking sequence to drive home the concept of liberation. One of a sex worker’s clients insists on slapping her till she bleeds to maintain his erection.
Smoking, in particular, is used as a misguided symbol of female power. We see Poornima sneaking a few puffs when she becomes slightly confident about inheriting her father’s legacy. Ashish, often clad in silk robes, snorts powder from various parts of the female anatomy. The accountant’s track, in particular, is loaded with needlessly titillating undertones. He begins to have a torrid affair with a sensual sari-clad lady, whose only USP is the way the camera fixates on her ruby-red lips as they exhale curls of cigarette smoke while she strips down to her lacy (red) essentials. She is essentially a riff on a porn-obsessed Indian man’s “bhabhi” fantasy. One even starts to wonder if she is real or just a figment of the shackled everyman’s imagination.
On a broader – screenplay, as opposed to scene-making – level, the writing of the series is clean. When you blow up a theme into 450 minutes of world and character building, you are effectively juggling five separate feature-length films by intercutting between them. Each of them can languidly explore any direction they please, as long as they converge in the final few episodes. As previously demonstrated with the bleak Lakshmi (2014), Kukunoor evokes a sense of empathy while handling the arc of the young sex worker. Her unlikely love story acts as a breather from the show’s predictable political whataboutery. But there is a fundamental lack of detailing – or “production value,” in entertainment parlance – that robs the show of these glimmers of personality. The election rallies contain not more than 15 extras at any point of time, in stark contrast to the Thackeray-style aura that the Gaekwads are supposed to exude. Take also, for instance, the rookie sound design: Even in large outdoor rallies, the meagre chants of ‘Saheb Zindabad’ seem to have been recorded in a tiny room full of enthused shouters. Cigarettes can be heard being leisurely sucked on over the noise of ceiling fans and general ambience.
For a show that hinges on kinetic energy, the action is not very cleverly choreographed either. On more than one instance, we see Wasim Khan shooting people in the most conspicuous of rooms and bylanes before simply waltzing into the next scene as if there were no corpses to clean up or gunshots to muffle. He shadows enemies in an old-school way: by hiding behind parking-lot pillars and chatting up naive bouncers. He accesses the most high-profile targets with the nonchalance of a man walking into an elevator and introducing himself (which he actually does). Ironically, or maybe not for a show about a right-wing dynasty, the spatial dynamics of its only Muslim character is awkwardly designed.
Yet City of Dreams is, despite its several flaws, not unwatchable. By the end, I was vaguely invested in the sibling rivalry and some of the sensationalist payoffs. I was on a first-name basis with most of them: Wasim, Ashu, Poornima, Saheb, Katrina, Gautam, Shanta, Raja. But then again, I’d imagine it’s hard not to feel this way after spending ten 45-minute episodes in any world. Even the protagonist of Criminal Justice began to warm up to his dysfunctional cellmates after spending 18 months in prison. That doesn’t mean they were fine people. Would he have gone to jail if he didn’t have to? Would I have “binged” on the Gaekwad multiverse if it wasn’t my job to? Some questions are not destined to have answers.