Mumbai's King (Mumbai Cha Raja): Abu Dhabi Review

Mumbai's King Mumbai Cha Raja Film Still - H 2012

Mumbai's King Mumbai Cha Raja Film Still - H 2012

Vibrant performances amid well-chosen real-life locations counterbalance plotting deficiencies in this likeable Indian indie.

Indian writer-director Manjeet Singh's debut follows the hardscrabble life in India's biggest, wealthiest, dirtiest metropolis.

Slumdog Millionaire meets Mean Streets in Mumbai's King (Mumbai Cha Raja), newcomer Manjeet Singh's vibrantly engaging tale of hardscrabble life in India's biggest, wealthiest, dirtiest metropolis. Buoyed by two marvelous lead performances by non-pro youngsters, it makes up in atmosphere and detail what it lacks in plot. On this evidence, Singh's talents as a director currently outweigh his skills as a scribe, though he shows plenty of promise on both fronts and also serves as his own producer and production-designer.

Having world-premiered at Toronto, this low-budget indie production will have no problem securing further festival berths and looks particularly suitable for events and sidebars dedicated to teenage viewers. Emphasizing its status as a "local" response to Danny Boyle's feelgood Oscar-winner from 2008 would be a promotionally savvy move: though born in Gujarat, Singh was educated in Mumbai before a stint at Bridgeport U in Connecticut, and his picture exudes the spicy tang of authenticity and verisimilitude.

The city previously known as Bombay, home of India's legendary film-industry, is shown as a rain-drenched, garbage-strewn city of considerable squalor, incessant activity and cohesive community spirit, its 20 million population encompassing some of the booming country's richest  and poorest inhabitants. Teenager Rahul (Rahul Bairagi) and his 12-year-old pal Arbaaz (Arbaaz Khan) are most definitely from the latter end of the financial spectrum, Arbaaz having sold balloons to passing schoolkids since the age of nine. This quasi-fraternal duo spend most of their time out on streets filled with people, dogs and roosters, the precocious Rahul understandably taking every opportunity to escape the confines of his cramped family apartment and the clutches of his physically abusive father (Tejas D. Parvatkar.)

Rahul's stormy relationship with his TV-repairman dad is the chief among several subplots in a picture which doesn't really have a main 'plot' at all, rather a series of freewheeling episodes set during 'Ganesha Chaturthi' - the festival dedicated to elephant-headed deity Lord Ganesh which culminates with elaborate effigies being carried into the sea. Reminiscent of how Scorsese interwove the Feast of San Gennaro into Mean Streets, this raucous backdrop to the boys' misadventures ensures proceedings are never less than colorfully noisy, Siddhartha Kay's digital cameras grabbing rough-edged, documentary-style images of what are evidently real Mumbai neighborhoods.

Mathias Duplessy's perky score helps maintain an upbeat tone in a picture which doesn't shield us from poverty but also doesn't dwell on its more unsavory aspects - indeed, the most disturbing detail, in the closing minutes, is presented so ambiguously it might well be a dream. But whatever the deficiencies of Singh's screenplay, Mumbai's King is a rock-solid showcase for the charm and non-pro talents of Bairagi and pint-sized scenestealer Khan, the former's gap-toothed good looks and natural charisma just possibly portending a potentially lucrative Bollywood future a few years down the line.

Venue: Abu Dhabi Film Festival (New Horizons)
Production company: Cinemanjeet Creations
Cast: Rahul Bairagi, Arbaaz Khan, Tejas D. Parvatkar, Dhanshree Jain, Salman Khan, Aftab Khan
Director / Screenwriter / Producer / Production designer: Manjeet Singh
Executive producers: Uday Pillai, Lina Dhingra
Director of photography: Siddharth Kay
Music: Mathias Duplessy
Editor: Tinni Mitra
Sales agent: Cinemanjeet, Navi Mumbai, India
No MPAA rating, 78 minutes.