Crime and politics make for striking bedfellows. So much so, that it is difficult, nay, impossible to imagine one without the other. The coming together of the twain also makes for compelling cinematic material. City of Dreams, the latest release by Hotstar under its marquee asset, Hotstar Specials, exploits the potential of this explosive combination to the hilt, resulting in a fast-paced, gripping drama that is as spellbinding to contemplate as it is riveting to watch.
City of Dreams is also Applause Entertainment’s second outing in the digital arena after Criminal Justice. With the indisputable success of Criminal Justice, the Sameer Nair-helmed, Aditya Birla production house showed that it meant business. With the terrific City of Dreams, Applause has upped the ante for digital entertainment in India and stayed true to its proclaimed proposition to yank the digital realmout of the ennui it has settled into.With this release, it has made everyone– audiences, critics and competitors alike– sit up and take notice.
That City of Dreams refers to Maximum City is anyone’s guess. For outsiders, Mumbai is like the mythical El Dorado whose streets are paved with gold and where even the most far-fetched dreams can come true. But for the characters that populate City of Dreams, Mumbai is blood, guts and gore, the judicious use of which will ensure that the sun never sets on their political ‘Raj’. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Created and directed by the astute Nagesh Kukunoor, City of Dreams is the story of Ameya Rao Gaikwad (Atul Kulkarni), aka Saheb, the patriarch of the GaikwadSamrajya, who has risen from being a measly dock-worker to becoming the most powerful political entity in state politics. Within the first five minutes of the show, three bullets are pumped into Saheb by two bike-borne supari-killers, in a scene straight out of the Mumbai of the nineties, when bikes were de rigueur as the vehicle of choice for supari-killers. The timing of the shooting coincides with a vital political rally that is to take place later in the week.
Saheb goes into an indefinite coma and the stage is set for an absorbing power tussle between his off-spring – crown prince designate, Ashish Rao Gaikwad (Siddharth Chandekar), and his elder sister, Poornima Rao Gaikwad (Priya Bapat), the unexpected challenger to Saheb’s throne.
The two siblings are as different as night from day. Ashish is hot-headed, trigger-happy and slightly unhinged. Drunk on power and high on cocaine, he lets his gun do the talking more often than not. He’s woefully inept to lead even a band of goons, let alone a thriving political empire. Poornima, on the other hand, is calm, composed and shrewd. She’s well-read, knows the Art of War by Sun Tzu like the back of her hand and is more than perfect to take over the mantle from her Baba.
A not-so-subtle power play is at work here. AmeyaRao, misogynist that he is, has always favoured and groomed his son to be the successor to his political empire. Poornima knows she is better qualified to be his successor, but ruthlessly crushes her political ambitions at her father’s behest, to settle into a life of anonymous domestic bliss. But latent embers stay alive within her, which are now stoked to rekindling by Saheb’sfriend and comrade, Jiten Kaka (Uday Tikekar). The prodigal daughter rises and all hell breaks loose.
That Saheb had his sights set on Delhi adds an element of intrigue to the proceedings, with several references to the all-powerful High Command.
The release of this series coincides with the unforeseen entry of the real-life prodigal daughter, Priyanka Gandhi, into the political arena, giving City of Dreams a hue that is exhilarating and electrifying. Truth, often times, mirrors fiction, and not the other way round.
An exciting element of suspense hovers in the background, as one ponders over the identity of the mastermind behind the shooting. Ashish, Poornima, Chief Minister JagdishGurav (Sachin Pilgaonkar), Jiten Kaka, it could be any one of them. The needle of suspicion hovers over a multitude of characters, and it’s an intriguing chase spanning cities that ultimately unveils the brain behind the plot to murder Saheb.
Other than the main protagonists, the ten-part series is populated by a host of remarkable characters. No character is untainted and each has skeletons to hide. There’s the hard-nosed, macho cop, Wasim Khan (Eijaz Khan), who’s looking for a last shot at redeeming himself of an unspecified ignominy. Better known as Encounter Wasim because of his earlier exploits of ridding Mumbai of the underworld, he’s been out in the wilderness for close to two decades, after being side-lined in the force by the powers that be. The narrative hints at communal forces being the reason for his side-lining, but refrains from delving deeper into the issue.
In AmeyaRao’s shooting, Wasim smells a chance to get back into the thick of things and goes after the actual brain behind the shooting with single-minded doggedness. Eijaz Khan, the quintessential lover boy on TV, is a revelation as Wasim. He oozes raw masculinity and power, his confident swagger adding to his aura of invincibility. His turn as a tough cop with a heart of gold is persuasive and forceful.
Sachin Pilgaonkar as CM Gurav, whom the Gaikwad siblings fondly address as Gurav Kaka, is another unfathomable character. What hides behind that baby-faced façade is a mystery not quite unravelled. Sachin is in fine form, rendering the part to perfection.
Sandeep Kulkarni plays Purshottam Bhai, in yet another brilliant turn as the common man in an uncommon situation. Honestly, Kulkarni’s mastered the art of effortless and exceptional portrayal of such characters.PurshottamBhaiis the fulcrum of Star Fisheries, a bogus front for the many criminal enterprises of the Gaikwads. Loyal and dependable, he is the kingpin on which the entire operations rest. Despite this and despite managing vast sums of money on a daily basis, he is unable to drum up the nerve to ask for a raise to his meagre 26 K salary.
The narrative goes off at a tangent with the entry of a sensuous mystery woman in PurshottamBhai’s life. Played by Flora Saini, the woman seduces Purshottam into several sexual escapades in cramped, dingy rooms. She remains an enigma to him as well as to the viewers. The purpose of her being is unclear. Is she is a ruse to honey trap Purshottam into disclosing secrets of the Gaikwad crime syndicate to inflict financial damage on Saheb in addition to the physical attempton his life? Or is she a living metaphor of the repressed sexuality of the Indian man? It is an unfathomable though fascinating interlude.
Lastly, there’s Gautam (Vishwas Kini), a frustrated call centre employee who peddles loans for a living. A misplaced call to Katrina, a prostitute or ‘dhandewali’, as she calls herself, leads to a telephonic love affair between the two, which is doomed from the very beginning. The poignant, unlikely love story teeters between hope and despair. Its presence in the narrative is an aberration that is quite unnecessary and nothing but a tool to explore the infinite facets to this city of dreams called Mumbai, through the lens of depravity and squalor. That notwithstanding, we are drawn to this quaint relationship between the child-woman sex worker, who retains a certain joie de vivre despite the cheerlessness of her life, and the naïve though optimistic Gautam, who envisions a happy life for them beyond the viciousness of the city.
Builder, RamnikBhai (Shishir Sharma, superb as always), Poornima’s best friend, Lipakshi (PavleenGujral), frank and fearless journalist, Shireen (GeetikaTyagi) are the other stand-out performances that make the series an infinitely absorbing watch.
Priya Bapat is outstanding as Poornima. Her serene beatific smile lights up her eyes, her face, and the screen, in that order. Hers is the most fascinating character arc, that imparts enthralling twists and turns to the narrative. It is a crisp, bracing performance, deftly delivered. SiddharthChandekar is also superb as the coke-snorting Ashish. Despite being an essentially and deeply flawed character, he has softer sides to his personality – he is trusting, too trusting for his own good, and genuinely loves his father and sister. He’s the little lost boy who’s caught in a vortex of events that are way out of his depth. Your heart goes out to him and you feel sorry for him towards the end.
It being the digital realm, the marauding men with their meddling ways (read: censors) are kept at bay by the very essence of the medium. City of Dreams is therefore a veritable free for all in taking liberties. Violence is at its peak. Blood flows freely, as bodies pile up. Cuss words fly thick and fast, with every character, man or woman, throwing the choicest and crassest Hindi cuss words into the heady mix. A few cuss words even fall from the mouth of babes (Wasim’s daughter, Fatima). It is something we disliked and roundly criticize; it was just not needed and could have definitely been avoided. We can only hope that it leaves no lasting influence on the impressionable little one.
The series also features sex and semi-nudity in copious amounts, semi being the key word here – all the copulating couples do so while still in their underthings. Despite the lack of censorship, it takes guts to go the whole hog. In fact, even the sex part is pretty pedestrian and quite awkwardly shown, if we may. A few sweat-drenched heaves and hauls, and the deed’s done. There’s also a lesbian relationship thrown in for good measure.
Depicting the most basic instinct of mankind in a natural and aesthetic manner is something our content creators are still not comfortable with. There, we’ve said it. And may we add that the making out scenes were a distraction in the narrative at best, taking away from it rather than adding any value to it. We simply forwarded the umpteen scenes, using the ten second forward feature in the Hotstar app. Thank God for technology!
Nevertheless, City of Dreams is a tightly scripted, fast-paced show, with the diverse plots coming together superbly at the end of the ten episodes. The narrative is peppered with startling twists and turns that keep us engaged and hankering for more. Writers NageshKukunoor and RohitBanawalikar have written a meticulously-detailed opus that helps each member of the terrific ensemble soar. The strength of the show is the superbly etched out characters. They are fleshed out so well, that one understands, swiftly and effortlessly, where each one comes from. The ensemble, comprising some of the finest actors from the world of Marathi theatre, television and films, lends teeth to the spellbinding story.NageshKukunoor’s direction is sharp and on-point.
The series ends on a fascinating cliffhanger, with the potential of a new twist and lynch pin in the works. Skeletons have a way of tumbling out of closets, and City of Dreams has more than its share of those. Season 2 promises a full disclosure and a mesmeric taking forward of the story.
Despite being almost 50 minutes long, each episode just flies by, and you find yourself reaching for the button to click ‘Next’. That in itself is a measure of a story’s watchability. And City of Dreams is eminently watchable, binge-watch-worthy material. You can take our word for it.
4/5 is our rating for City of Dreams.