By Sunaina Kumar
IN THIS SEASON of silliness where the audience is inured to timepass fare (check last week’s Rowdy Rathore which is a huge hit), Dibakar Banerjee is like the truth-telling boy from The Emperor’s New Clothes, who sees through it all and dares to speak up. When all one expects from a movie is for it to go well with dinner at the nearest mall, Banerjee subverts that expectation as a relentless chronicler of anxiety. With Shanghai his unsettling body of work reaches deeper into the fissures of Indian society.
For a movie this ambitious in scope, Shanghai is vigorously edited to a taut one hour and 50 minutes, and feels like a tightly wrapped band, which does not allow the viewer to get comfortable. The opening scene with its riot and chaos is a snapshot of a day in the life of India. A mob led by Pitobash Tripathy (who stands out even in an outstanding ensemble cast) destroys a bookshop and blackens the face of the owner. There is no explanation, all one sees in the background are a stack of books titled Kiski Pragati Kiska Desh with Prosenjit Chatterjee’s face on the cover. In the next few scenes, we realise that the author of the book is Dr Ahmedi, a social activist who has come to rain on the parade of the political-corporate nexus in the fictional town of Bharatnagar where an SEZ will render many displaced. At no point does the director take us by the hand, he subtly flatters our intelligence by expecting us to keep up.
Shanghai’s context is as familiar as today’s headlines. An indictment on corruption and moral ambiguity in contemporary India, the hook comes in the form of an edge-of-the-seat thriller, adapted from the 1966 Greek novel Z by Vassilis Vassilikos. The political assassination of Dr Ahmedi and the cover up that follows treads faithfully on the path of the original source material. Along the way Banerjee fully realises his talent for creating a cast of memorable characters. Chatterjee as the alluring activist with an all too human weakness for wo men, Tillotama Shome as his long-suffering wife who can see through the greatness that surrounds him, Supriya Pathak as the enigmatic Chief Minister Madamji and in a comeback of sorts Farooq Shaikh as the wily senior bureaucrat makes us wish we could see more of him in movies.
Of the two leading men, Emraan Hashmi in a career-redefining role as sleazy photographer Jogi has a headstart over Abhay Deol who essays a strait-laced Tam-Bram IAS officer Krishnan with great restraint, all the more credit to him for that. They represent the two clashing worlds of the film, Deol is the gatekeeper to the corridors of power and Hashmi is the face of the mayhem that unleashes in the name of development. Kalki Koechin seems to have been instructed to stare vacantly at the camera; she does that effectively.
An indictment on corruption and moral ambiguity in contemporary India, the hook comes in the form of an edge-of-theseat thriller
Mastery of form is evident in every little deta – iling of the movie. Cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis differentiates between the palette of the two worlds, the street scenes are a riot of colour, while the world inhabited by Krishnan is in mute tones. The background music by Mikey McCleary is one of the cleverest scores in recent times. The narrative is shorn of high drama, there are scenes that unexpectedly provide comic relief, but the laughter of the audience is always complicit. Shanghai is searing, stark and slick. It is cinema in its highest form. To miss it would be a tragedy.
Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.