June 8, 2012
Abhay Deol, Emraan Hashmi, Pitobash Tripathy, Prosenjit Chatterjee, Kalki Koechlin, Farooque Shaikh, Supriya Pathak Kapur, Tillotama Shome
The best thing about Shanghai is that it’s not trying desperately hard to be ‘edgy’. In recent years, that word has gradually come to signify (for me, at least) pretentious Hindi cinema pretending and/or trying to look…European, North American, South American…anything but Indian! The irony here is that Dibakar Banerjee’s film is based on the novel Z by Greek writer Vassilis Vassilikos which was made into the award-winning film by Costa Gavras. Yet, Shanghai feels completely Indian.
This is a story of the wheels within wheels that pervade the Indian system, where everyone is flawed yet most are not without redeeming qualities either; where the charismatic politician on that hoarding could be the devil incarnate whose leadership skills still cannot be dismissed outright; where the charismatic activist on the street could be a womaniser whose cause and commitment are worth supporting all the same; where the sleazy part-time pornographer could be a bravely loyal fellow who would risk his life for a man he considered his brother; and where the solution may not be perfectly satisfactory, but it still exists and gives you a whisper of hope.
Shanghai is set in an India where the ruling political party in a state has staked everything on an International Business Park and the Shanghai-ification of that state. Into this picture enters academic-and-activist Dr Ahmedi who is fighting for the poor displaced by that ‘development’. When a murder takes place to stem the movement, the authorities are determined to prove that it was an accident, but fail to account for that one honest IAS officer whose fact-finding mission threatens to dig too deep for comfort. The writing by Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar, the casting, the cast, the production design by Vandana Kataria, cinematography by Nikos Andritsakis all conspire to make this a disturbing political thriller where connections and contacts run much further than you could imagine.
Director Dibakar Banerjee’s strength is that he tells it like it is, with no apologies and no frills attached. That’s what he did in his earlier films Khosla ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Love Sex aur Dhoka. That’s what he does here too, even though in Shanghai he moves away from the familiar setting of Delhi to a fictional small town/city. His other strength is the ability to inject humour into the most gruesome situations without being offensive. Shanghai is both funny and frightening. In spite of the unrelentingly grim goings-on, the satirical asides made me laugh intermittently … but with a sense of almost-guilt at my own laughter.
There’s some nice detailing in Shanghai. Like the name card on a table reserved for a government official that misspells his initials; the newly swabbed floor in a government office where, of course, a “slippery floor” warning sign is not mandatory; the brief use of poor English that’s not overdone and shows no condescension towards the speaker (a woman is asked about her connection to “the accidented man”) ... The songs are unmemorable yet somehow fit in with the mood of the film. There is only one truly jarring point in the film when it betrays a determination to be pro-poor/uneducated and anti-rich/educated as far as possible, whatever be the cost: the tone of justification is a bit much when a murderer who happens to be a poor man, seemingly equates his actions with that of an activist who thrashes him for having killed someone.
The pick of the cast here is Emraan Hashmi who has made a career so far out of playing the loveable – often scruffy – romantic scamp and being known as Bollywood’s ‘serial kisser’. Despite the repetitiveness, he’s done a fair job in most of his films, but Shanghai will hopefully be a turning point. His shady cameraman-and-porn-shooter Joginder here is not just his best role so far, it’s also his best performance. To see him sitting on a floor playing out an incriminating audio/video clip to an investigating officer, then turning to that man with eyes beseeching him for affirmation that this evidence is sufficient, is to truly witness desperation. I don’t understand why Banerjee didn’t simply cast a south Indian actor as the south Indian (Tamilian?) official Krishnan, but having chosen that route, he seems to have picked the best man for the job. Abhay Deol is effective as the unsmiling bureaucrat who does the accent with the effort barely showing through and thankfully without turning himself into the typical Bollywood ‘Madrasi’ caricature. Pitobash as the low-life murderer with a heart is an absolute live wire. The rest of the cast too acquit themselves extremely well … Prosenjit Chatterjee (as Dr Ahmedi), Farooque Shaikh (as Krishnan’s boss), Supriya Pathak Kapur (in a small but impactful appearance as the chief minister) and the achingly good Aanat Jouge (that’s how the film’s official website spells Anant Jog’s name) as the driver of the vehicle in the ‘accident’ ... The exception is Kalki Koechlin playing Ahmedi’s student Shalini with an unvarying tone pretty much from start to finish.
With so much to praise, I still can’t say this film has shaken me to the core with the weaving together of its many lovely elements. One big reason is that Shalini – who connects the worlds of Joginder, Krishnan and Ahmedi – remains a distant creature who is hard to relate to, unlike the other characters who are all better written and better acted. There is also the fact that the early part of Shanghai demands some patience … this is not one of those films that sucks you in right from the first scene. It takes its time to draw you in. When it does though, the sadness is inescapable. Really very nice, Mr Banerjee.
Rating (out of five): ***1/2
CBFC Rating: U/A
Photograph courtesy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghai_(2011_film)