Atul Kulkarni is the best thing about City of Dreams. Bedbound for almost the entire first season, he haunted it from billboards and loose talk. Now he returns, exquisitely silvered, for another round. The more an Indian actor grows in stature, the more directors tend to hype them up. Nagesh Kukunoor, who has directed everyone from Shreyas Talpade to Akshay Kumar, keeps his restraint with Atul. He uses him sparingly, like a time bomb gradually ticking away.
In truth, some of that bomb had gone off at the end of season 1. Politician Ameya Rao Gaikwad (Atul) had emerged from his slumber to see the world transformed. In the new season, he’s reduced to a cripple, grasping from the dark at a game he once ruled.
His son, Ashish, is dead, and the rest of his party has sided with Poornima (Priya Bapat), Ameya’s daughter. His famous threat to her—“I will kill you!”—reverberates through the series. It’s no more a punchline; this time he may really, seriously mean it.
The show extends many of its sub-threads diligently. Eijaz Khan continues his tumble from loser cop to political hopeful. Sachin Pilgaonkar looks suitably slimy in most scenes—not a herculean task, unless you’ve met the good-natured man in person. Actor Shishir Sharma (best remembered as the man who took the elevator pitch from Abhishek Bachchan in Om Jai Jagadish) resumes his evil corporate sort.
There are also new players. Ankur Rathee hams it up as a smooth, crooked builder. And Sushant Singh’s idea of a southern gangster is to offer milk to his guests.
My favourite character, by some distance, is Purushottam (Sandeep Kulkarni). He’s the accountant forever being seduced by Flora Saini’s cool temptress. What could have ended in a simple honey-trapping scene is extended over two seasons.
It’s at once funny, weird, indulgent, and bizarre. Purushottam is the show’s guilty conscience, and the viewer’s (when he uses the word ‘godown’ in bed, you half-expect an innuendo).
This is a series that treats Maharashtra politics like a cartoon. Salacious state secrets are exchanged in parks and shady bars. There’s violence every now and then — with little consequence. The union government simply doesn’t exist (is this satire?). For all the talk of communalism and caste politics, this isn’t a courageous show. Heck, it can’t even reference Mamta Kulkarni without changing her name to ‘Samta Kulkarni’.
The plot concerns a desperate power grab between Ameya and Poornima. It evokes the crude, crusty world of Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar movies, with an added focus on patriarchy. But the family drama is also hampered by expository flashbacks. Ameya giving a long speech about hating his daughter (“you were born to oppose me”) should have sufficed. Instead, we get reveal after reveal into their relationship, which kills any mystery.
Nagesh’s debut film, Hyderabad Blues, is cited among the best youth films of its time. But that was in 1998 — about a generation he knew too well.
City of Dreams, meanwhile, plays like a bad offshoot of ‘Conversations with Dad’. The way Poornima’s sexuality is handled — for silly plot twists — is particularly disappointing and old-school. Shows like this were supposed to liberate our screens. Why does it resemble a parents’ WhatsApp group?
Director: Nagesh Kukunoor
Cast: Atul Kulkarni, Priya Bapat, Eijaz Khan, Sachin Pilgaonkar, Ankur Rathee, Sushant Singh
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar