The idea of progress
Much like the evocative and variegated canvas of its opening shot, of a city in heated motion and fumes, Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai sweeps the wide arch of the politico-corporate nexus in India. Banerjee does so while etching remarkably provocative, terrifying details of the powerless and the powerful—and what a clash between the two can mean in modern India. Shanghai is funny, and utterly chilling.
It is his fourth film—the most ambitious in scale and content. Often, it is an insurmountable challenge for directors like Banerjee, who have worked with intimate stories and settings, to take a leap without showing off tricks or gimmicky use of techniques. But his storytelling ability is at its peak here, taut and clever, enhanced by some brilliant cinematography, editing and crackling performances.
Adapted from the novel Z by the Greek author Vassilis Vassilikos, it became an eponymous film by Costa-Gavras in 1969, winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that year, and reportedly running in European theatres for 45 days. Gavras’ film is a gripping political thriller, unequivocal in its sympathy for socialist thought—after all, it was a reaction against an oppressive military regime at a time when communism was a nascent force in Greece, where it is set.
The same story, when set in modern democratic India, acquires its own layers. Who are the powerful and why are the powerless then electing them? Banerjee deals with the inherent irony of a democratically elected political establishment implementing a cosmetic, ruthless idea of progress on millions with subtle humour. Of course, the fact that this overtly reactionary story from the 1960s is relevant in today’s India is a terrifying subtext to the experience of watching Shanghai.
The thriller unfolds when Dr Ahmedi (Prosenjit Chatterjee), a professor and socialist thinker, dies in a hit-and-run incident after he addresses an audience against the opening of a special economic zone called IBP. Besides his strong humanist views, he is humorous, charismatic and a ladies’ man. Shalini Sahay (Kalki Koechlin), a former student who is in love with him, is convinced it is a murder and embarks on an angry search for justice. While on this journey, she encounters Krishnan (Abhay Deol), an IAS officer who the establishment has bogged down; his sycophantic boss Kaul (Farooq Sheikh); Jogi (Emraan Hashmi), a petty pornographer and runaway from Rajasthan who wilfully joins in the search; the wily and embittered Mrs Ahmedi (Tillotama Shome); Bhaggu (Pitobash Tripathy), an idiotic crony of local politicians; and the gold-doused, overweight chief minister (Supriya Pathak), a spine-chilling image of vile political power.
So Banerjee’s contextualization is rich, and as Indians would have it, colourful. Colourful, as opposed to the original, which runs on stark antagonism between the ideas of justice and injustice, the oppressed and the oppressor. Banerjee makes a morality tale an engaging drama by not making it preachily cautionary.
Funny yet perturbing: The film is engaging and not preachily cautionary.
The cast and their performances are winsome. Sheikh, Shome and Tripathy are memorable—a resounding affirmation of the acting talent we have. They are not larger than life, big characters, but each has a complete graph. This is Hashmi’s most endearing and accomplished performance—every detail, from his gait and his local tongue to the stained teeth, is worked out to the tee. His acting career ought to take a new turn after this role. Deol carries off the transition of his character without showing off, and Chatterjee, in the small role that he has, leaves an imprint—a man with an uncompromising agenda, the public intellectual who knows how to get heard.
The only unconvincing, monotone performance is Koechlin’s, also the film’s only shortcoming. The drama pivots around her stubborn crusade, and yet, her only expression of seething anger and grief rests on a set of furrowed eyebrows and blank eyes. Shalini, in interpretation, verges on stereotype.
Banerjee uses silence and sound to powerful effect. There are surprises in the way he uses the background score by Michael McCarthy. Cinematography by Nikos Andritsakis and sharp editing by Namrata Rao wonderfully complement one of the best screenplays (by Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar) to have come alive on screen in recent times; certainly the best of this year.
There are some odd moments in the film, moments that don’t logically connect with what they follow, but tangentially punch a tense moment. A slippery floor outside a dead-beat government office is a comic tool because the two central characters of the previous scene almost slip on it after storming out of an awkward outburst. This is smart writing.
Don’t go expecting a masala thriller or a grand India narrative. Shanghai, a thorough entertainer, is in the hands of one of the most shrewd cinematic minds we have. It is enjoyable as well as perturbing—it does not let you leave the theatre cathartic or brain-dead. What a treat. And don’t miss the words at the end, they speak stingingly of us as a society.
Shanghai released in theatres on Friday.