Film Review: ‘Shanghai’
Director: Dibakar Banerjee
Cast: Abhay Deol, Emraan Hashmi, Kalki Koechlin, Prosenjit Chatterjee, Farooq Shaikh, Pitobash Tripathy
Shanghai opens with Pitobash Tripathy, playing a pesky miscreant, smearing black paint over a bookseller’s face. The reason for his behaviour is the author in the photograph visible behind the petrified shop owner. The image is that of Bengali matinee idol Prosenjit Chatterjee, who looks out pensively from the cover of a book that calls the downtrodden masses to revolt.
But this is not the pulpy Prosenjit of Badnaam or even the brooding star of films like Dosar. This is Prosenjit in a Dibakar Banerjee film and his performance as Dr. Ahmedi is solid. Dr. Ahmedi is an academic and a protestor who seems canny enough to deal with the ferocious politics of the fictitious town of Bharat Nagar, until he’s killed by a van.
Bharat Nagar is two hours from Delhi and as is obvious from its name, is representative of India at large. Director and co-writer Banerjee’s adaptation of Vasilis Vasilikos’s novel Z is mostly subtle, but there are a few instances where it seems like he had pangs of anxiety about his audience’s perceptiveness. The name Bharat Nagar is one of them. Another is a scene near the end of the film, when Kalki Koechlin’s character suddenly goes ballistic. Moments like these are jarring because for most of its one hour and 55 minutes, Shanghai is as much a gripping whodunit as a social document.
The town of Bharat Nagar is all set to become a Special Economic Zone but there’s a roadblock: Dr. Ahmedi, who is (inevitably) bearded, khadi clad and vociferous about how unfair this plan is for the underprivileged locals who would be forced out of their homes in order to let in the capitalist fat cats. One evening, as he comes out from a venue having delivered one of his fiery speeches, Dr. Ahmedi is run over. His devout student Shalini (Koechlin) is in the crowd that witnesses this. It’s obvious to everyone that the workers of the political parties in the ruling coalition are behind his “accident”, but there’s no proof and the police say Ahmedi was the victim of drunk driving.
One of the few people who does have footage of the accident is Jogi (Emraan Hashmi), a nondescript videographer whose business is mostly shooting amateur porn. Shalini is determined to gather the evidence and expose the people behind her beloved teacher’s murder. A commission, headed by a senior bureaucrat named Krishnan (Abhay Deol), is formed to investigate how a drunk driver made it past the security set up by the police at Ahmedi’s rally. Krishnan realises that the incident is politically motivated and soon he’s trapped between what is expected of him as a servant of the administration and his conscience.
Shanghai is one of the most well-observed stories about contemporary India we’ve seen recently. Not everything adds up—for example, how did Jogi recognise the driver of the van that ran Ahmedi over?—but the film is held together by a superb ensemble cast, sensitive cinematography and tight editing. The only weak link is Koechlin, whose glassy stare and sudden bursts of frenetic, tantrum-y energy make Shalini seem like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Everyone else, from Deol to Farooq Shaikh (who is brilliant as Krishnan’s boss), delivers stellar, understated performances that make Shanghai feel as real as the most grubby, impoverished suburb nearest to you.
Banerjee has made an unrelenting film. It has an item number, a passionate smooch, a song sequence, and specks of humour but the focus is unblinkingly on the frustration and anger in the heart of Bharat Nagar. Information is not power here. Everyone is desperate and ultimately helpless. The streetside thug answers to the police, who answer to the politician, who answers to the chief minister who must answer to the nucleus of power in New Delhi. The bureaucrats are ineffective and restrained by regulations and corruption. The citizens, bloodied and hopeless, are buffeted between these monoliths. Yet, despite all this, Banerjee manages to eke out something close to a happy ending. Shanghai doesn’t suggest that the wretched will inherit the earth but it does offer hope that the system that is constantly manipulated by the greedy can also be worked to the advantage of the honest.
Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma. She is currently the books editor at DNA.Tags: Abhay Deol, Bollywood, Dibakar Banerjee, Emraan Hashmi, Farooq Shaikh, Film, film reviews, Kalki Koechlin, Pitobash Tripathy, Prosenjit Chatterjee, Shanghai