Indian cinema can celebrate a new voice with Manjeet Singh’s debut, “Mumbai’s King.” The story of a young slum-dweller and his friends may sound like just another pic in the “Slumdog Millionaire” mold, yet Singh’s vision is grittier, and refuses to turn deprivation into spectacle. Not that there aren’t moments of delight, and the young stars themselves have charisma galore, but the helmer-scripter is more interested in capturing a world than offering bittersweet uplift. The kind of unpretentious film that gets too easily exiled to fest sidebars, “King” deserves programmers’ attention.
Immediately striking is the connection between Rahul (Rahul Bairaji) and the alleyways, dwellings and open spaces of his environment. Initially seen wandering his corner of Mumbai via a series of long and medium shots, the boy seems to live in the streets rather then a home. In fact, he has a rudimentary roof over his head, but life with his abusive alcoholic father, Pappu (Tejas D. Parvatkar), and his kind yet cowed stepmother (Dhanshree Jain) is less than appealing.
Since he was expelled from school, Rahul has no structure to his life, engaging in minor hijinks to pass the time. He befriends balloon-seller Arbaaz (Arbaaz Khan), a pint-sized charmer with his own mischievous streak, and the two, together with older boy Salman (Salman Khan), scheme to punish Pappu.
Singh overdoes the level of Pappu’s bullying, which doesn’t quite fit with the neorealistic elements of the rest of the pic, though his wife’s helplessness feels just right. Most impressive is the combination of the boys’ vibrant personalities with the milieu itself, within view of Mumbai’s prosperous neighborhoods. Set during a festival to the Hindu god Ganesh, the pic incorporates elements of celebration and penury without milking tear-ducts.
Siddharth Kay’s unshowy handheld lensing is nicely matched with Tinni Mitra’s expert editing, and the choice of natural light foregrounds a sense of realism. Music is often well chosen, but some themes feel overdone.