There may be a depressing sense of familiarity that weighs in when watching Shanghai, the excellent new film by Dibakar Banerjee, who has to his credit films like Love Sex Aur Dhoka and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!
For anyone who has witnessed their city turn into an urban sprawl of housing developments and a hub for targeted killings and political grandstanding, the corruption at every level of the state and the smoothness with which criminal activity is carried out, Shanghai will feel all too close to home.
Despite the fact that it manages to pack in all of these issues in an overlapping manner, the film works. The setting: a coalition government in a state run by a chief minister with a grandiose project that’ll work wonders in an election year — an ‘international business park’ — and a population at risk of being forcibly displaced from their homes to pave way for it. Sounds familiar? It gets better.
The characters — a lowbrow videographer who films pornography when he isn’t shooting publicity hungry politicians, a determined young activist and a rising bureaucrat with a shot at a move to Stockholm if he manages to pull off the chief minister’s ‘development’ agenda — find themselves connected in a plot of attempted murder that neither of them can figure out and their naiveté challenged in every possible way.
The three lead characters are played by Emraan Hashmi, Kalki Koechlin and Abhay Deol respectively, and they fit into their roles seamlessly, almost erasing images of Deol’s brilliant vodka-spewing turn in Dev D, the modern retelling of Devdas, or Hashmi’s notoriety as a chauvinistic romance star. Shanghai screenwriter Urmi Juvekar described Hashmi’s appeal perfectly in an interview with livemint.com: “I have always been a fan of Emraan and once the script was done, it was clear that he was the best choice. He has always played characters which have made the middle-class audience uncomfortable. It just had to be him to play that other India which we wish vanishes.”
The man opposing the chief minister’s International Business Park is Dr Ahmedi, played by Prosenjit Chatterjee. He is the archetype activist: savvy, with just a hint of his jaded spirit seeping into his idealism. His wife fails to see the passion in what he’s doing while his protégé, Koechlin, treats him like a deity.
Banerjee twists their lives and turns them into characters in a story that is straight out of a crime reporter’s notebook, set to a thumping soundtrack of political party jingles and replete with government functionaries (Farooque Sheikh’s role is particularly noteworthy) who would rather shelve inconvenient truths away in a dusty file or rip the papers out altogether. The film also boils down to the choices one makes: as a rising bureaucrat, should Deol actually go ahead with conducting an inquiry that implicates those that have helped him make his career or should he close it down and jet off to Stockholm? For Koechlin and Hashmi, these choices are more difficult: they have to pick between pursuing the course of justice at the cost of their lives and turn into investigators while literally dodging political strongmen and bullets.
Banerjee’s characters manage to not be nauseating do-gooders, save for the somewhat saccharine way the film ends. But in all, Shanghai is a gritty, visceral representation of the way our cities and governments function. For anyone interested in how urban development, crime and politics are interlinked in the subcontinent, this film is a must-watch.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 1st, 2012.
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