Bollywood has always found it tricky when it comes to crafting a film based on political themes, political dramas in the past have been either too preachy or have all the over-the-top ingredients of a commercial potboiler, Prakash Jha’s “Rajneeti” was an example of a director who wanted to make a political thriller but ended up making a movie which was heavily influenced by The Godfather and Mahabharat and ended up being loud and ridiculous. Just when it seemed that one cannot expect a hit-in-the-guts kind of a political thriller in an industry where directors still dish out one mindless crass commercial movie after another, Dibakar Banerjee asks us to hold on to that thought and goes about making a film that is not just sensible and smart, but is also funny in a subtle way. The end result is “Shanghai”.
Adapted from Vassilis Vassilikos’ “Z”, the story is based in a fictitious town named “Bharat Nagar” where the powers that be promise their citizens of making it into a city as developed as Shanghai. But there is a heavy price to pay for progress, as skylines are to be erected only after rendering slum dwellers homeless. Herein comes Dr. Ahemadi, the messiah who ruffles some feathers amongst the powerful ruling party by asking questions and fighting for the rights of the soon to be displaced junta. Deemed as a threat to the monetary progress that the party, IBP, is to make with deals for investment in crores of rupees , Dr. Ahemadi is mowed down in what the police cover up as a case of drunken driving. Pressured by the wife of the activist, a cover-up investigation is launched by the state government headed by the no-nonsense IAS officer T.A Krishnan (Abhay Deol) hoping to silence the ruckus caused by the media. Aided by Shalini (Kalki Koechlin) a student of the activist, and Parmar (Emraan Hashmi) a part time pornographer, Krishnan slowly peels layers of truth to get to the bottom of the mystery, which if revealed would put his life and career in jeopardy.
Yet what makes “Shanghai” click are those casual moments even in tense scenes, like a football making its way into a press conference held in an almost dilapidated school, or accidentally playing a porn clip whilst wanting to show a recorded footage as an evidence to the IAS officer, or the opening scene where a goon innocently yearns to know what they call “mutton” in English from where the scene then steamrolls to a mob wreaking havoc lead by the said goon, as in slow motion the horror unfolds in front of our eyes.
Abhay Deol gives a composed performance of a man who is asked to toe the line drawn by his superiors with rewards of a Stockholm assignment dangled in front of him. Although the forced Tamil or its accent on his Hindi may at times make you cringe, he asserts himself as an actor in a brilliantly filmed scene towards the end where he holds the gonads of his superior and forces to make a deal with him, without sounding intimidating yet with a chilling method to his demands. Kalki Koechlin as the angst-ridden protégé of the activist is pissed-off in almost every scene that she is in, making her seem at times one-dimensional. Yet it is Emraan Hashmi, a man who started his career with a notoriety in serial kissing now puts his mouth to better use in delivering dialogues, in the process stealing the show. As the street smart videographer his is a strongly written character, be it being helpless in seeing his boss killed and dealing with its after effects in fear, or the gullible awkwardness with which he starts a conversation with Shalini and Krishnan, he essays his the role of a small-town bumpkin with much conviction.
The supporting cast is top notch, be it the seasoned Farooque Shaikh as the CM’s top dog, or an unknown actor like Pitobash Tripathy–the firebrand of a goon who sells the idea to run down over someone with the guile of a salesman, or Prosenjit, the articulate activist who raises a storm among the junta, and harbors feelings for his student. Credit goes to Dibakar Banerjee and his co-writer Urmi Juvekar who prevent “Shanghai” from sounding morose and heavy-handed in spite of its serious theme. There are the occasional songs which are cleverly inserted, “Imported Kamariyaa” a formulaic item song, for a brief moment made me ask “Thou too Dibakar?” but as the song played on, and as the scene shifted back and forth it made me realize of Dibakar’s genius.
We complain about our movies being stereotyped and no-brainers that often play to the galleries, we blame our film makers for dumbing down our audience, once in a while it takes someone like a Dibakar Banerjee to challenge the audience to raise its bar. The question is: Will we?