Between 2006 and 2010, Dibakar Banerjee made three films about Delhi, the city that he left behind in 1997 to move to Mumbai. His new movie is called Shanghai and is set in small-town Maharashtra, but it is also about his adopted home, in the way that movies named after places suggest more than just a geographical indication. Chinatown is shorthand for the corruption that built Los Angeles; Fargo is the staging ground for brutal crime and righteous punishment. Shanghai refers to the Chinese city that some private builders and public officials would like Indian cities like Mumbai to become. Banerjee and his co-writer, Urmi Juvekar, suggest that the Shanghai dream is actually an Indian nightmare. “I made films about Delhi, since that was the world I knew,” he said. “I am now in Mumbai, so I made Shanghai.”
Banerjee’s fourth film asks a question that isn’t heard too often in multiplexes: what price are we paying for progress? In Shanghai, an investigation into the attempted murder of a popular leader who opposed a proposed special economic zone reveals a network of corrupt bosses and their thuggish enforcers. Ahmadi (Prosenjit), a charismatic leader, arrives in Bharat Nagar to persuade locals against selling off their land to the SEZ authority. Ahmadi is knocked down by a truck after a meeting. The incident throws a ring around a disparate set of people. Indian Administrative Services officer Krishnan (Abhay Deol), who is the vice-chairperson of the project, heads an inquiry into whether the doctor was injured by accident or was deliberately targeted. Local activist Shalini (Kalki Koechlin) tries to gather evidence to implicate the good doctor’s enemies. Videographer Jogi (Emraan Hashmi), who was present at the scene of the crime, grapples with his conscience. Should Jogi mind his own business or should he help Shalini? Should Krishnan declare the case closed, as his bosses expect him to, or expose the political outfit that is allied with the ruling party and that may have ordered the hit? This is a thriller with a conscience, so the path the characters choose to take will determine the future of Bharat Nagar, and, by extension,India itself.
Shanghai is loosely based on Vassilis Vassilikos’s 1967 novel Z, which was also the source of Costa-Gavras’s 1969 movie of the same name. The novel was a fictionalised account of the assassination, allegedly by the Greek military, of leftist parliamentarian Gregory Lambrakis. Juvekar drew Banerjee’s attention to the continued relevance of the novel, which explored a phase of Greek history in which the military tried to wipe out “the illnesses of our time – communism and mildew” with drastic measures. They saw a link between a junta-led attack on democratic politics in Greece and the murkiness that surrounds infrastructure projects in India. A politically loaded song in Shanghai satirises the marketing of the nation of “dengue and malaria, jaggery and cowdung” as a land of opportunity. Another track subverts the item song by having a curvy woman dance in front of an “India Banega Pardes” banner. A regional satrap prefaces his conversations with “Jai Pragati”.
“All the changes that have been taking place inIndiain the last 15 years will decide where you will be by 2050,” Banerjee said. The film is about a “land of insularity” that is drowning in “scary smugness”. Since Banerjee lives in an affluent housing complex in central Mumbai, he is, in a sense, trying to wake up his neighbours. “They live in my building, I meet them at the playground, at Diwali parties,” he said. “They are “pro-malls and pro-everything”, he added. “I am losing confidence in my ability to prod anybody or anything. I hope we remain proddable.”
Strident stuff, but the movie is not shrill. Banerjee, teaming up with his regular production team, focuses more on the unpeeling of the onion than on what lies at its core. We have been at the putrid heart ofIndiabefore in countless films, so Banerjee focuses on creating memorable characters that play off each other in an increasingly nasty game. The stakes remain high, but the moves are quiet – perhaps too quiet at times for viewers thirsting for a more dramatic sense of the rot. “The film is about negotiation, about personal choices,” Banerjee explained about the absence of grand gestures and big payoffs. “Nobody is fighting a crusade here. There are no solutions. Is robust development all bad? Is being a traditionalist all bad? The thing lives somewhere in between.”
No character weaves his way in and out of the mess with more dexterity than Abhay Deol’s Krishnan. The presence of loutish lover-boy Emraan Hashmi in Shanghai has emerged as a talking point, but it’s Deol’s prim, risk-averse officer who is both the film’s moral compass and the scene-stealer. The upright Krishnan does bend when asked to – but only up to a point. Banerjee met several IAS officers and attended meetings as part of his research, resulting in superbly observed scenes of unctuousness involving Krishnan and his superior, played by Farooque Shaikh. One IAS officer fromHyderabad is memorialised in Krishnan’s habit of carrying his tie around and putting it on only when the occasion demands it. “There are a small group of extremely corrupt people and another group that is not corrupt but that is impossible to work with,” Banerjee observed about the government bureaucracy. “In between, there is a large group that is trying to do the maximum good for the maximum people as they have understood it for themselves.” This group relies on “negotiations and transactions” that are not always above board but that may be the only solution in the situation. Deol plays Krishnan with an admirable appreciation of anonymity – precisely why Banerjee cast him. “I needed somebody to be silent but yet be eloquent without opening his mouth.”
Banerjee shot Shanghai in Latur and Baramati in Maharashtra, and returned to Nikos Andritsakis, who worked on his previous movie Love Sex aur Dhoka, to create the film’s brown-and-yellow palette. “Dibakar is a big fan of naturalism, so that was a given from the beginning,” Andritsakis said. The sterile tones of Krishnan’s universe are contrasted with the brighter worlds of Shalini and Jogi. Different lighting textures were used, including the luminescence created by street lights. The production crew, headed by Vandana Kataria, carried around lamp posts that were set down in scenes. A mobile camera and the predominant use of wide lenses ensured an immersive shot-taking style that concentrates on the key players while also making you aware of their surroundings. “A film tells you how it needs to be shot and once you have cracked that, it becomes technical,” Andritsakis said. “This is a character-driven story, so the camera stays close to the characters.”
In its narrative style, Shanghaiis closer to the soft leftie American political thrillers from the 1970s, such as The Parallax View, Klute, Three Days of the Condor and All The President’s Men. These rot-within-the-system exposes usually featured an idealistic protagonist who stumbles upon something big – a shadowy group that organises political killings in The Parallax View, a government that is spying on its opponents in All The President’s Men. These dramas converted newspaper headlines into movie plots and, inspired by documentaries, had a rough, here-and-now feel to them. They had plausible characters (often played by some of the most talented actors of the time) and were shot on the streets and in real offices and homes rather than on studio lots. “It’s my favourite period in filmmaking,” Banerjee said. “Films like Serpico, The French Connection, Marathon Man and Klute were talking about deep-rooted issues without taking too many sides or stupefying the human aspect of the story.” Shanghai shares with these films their virtues and flaws. It is an admirably economic piece of storytelling (1 hour 55 mins) that tries to localise the erosion of the Indian democratic system. Banerjee expertly steers us through the events, creates a convincing milieu of suspicion and corruption, and extract superb performances from the cast (Kalki Koechlin an Emraan Hashmi make a fine pair of unlikely comrades). But if his treatment seems somewhat academic and too subtle, blame it on “negotiations and transactions”. Banerjee has tried hard not to identify with any single character, but his sympathies clearly lie with Krishnan, who manages to get his way despite the system – just like Banerjee has subverted mainstream cinema with films that challenge audience expectations.
By Nandini Ramnath on May 11 2012 4.30am