The Shanghai in the title of director Dibakar Banerjee's latest is not a city, it is an ideal. It's an aspiration held up by politicians and governments that promise the people a lifestyle in return for votes. And when the votes pour in, the aspirations are conveniently tossed out to make way for the same corrupted system attempting incredibly skewed development. In the end, becoming Shanghai means sacrificing India. It's a scathing criticism but Banerjee doesn't shy away from making his point crystal clear.
Shanghai is a taut political drama (not quite a thriller as promoted), that hits us where it hurts. But Banerjee does it in such a subtle way that you hardly notice all the stabs he's taking at the system until the end credits roll and the mental processing begins.
The story, co-written by Banerjee and Urmi Javekar, is adapted from the novel 'Z' by Vassilis Vassilikos. Its Indianization is at times clever but overall isn't particularly new as far as political dramas go. In a nondescript small town called Bharatnagar, the state government is rolling out an International Business Park (IBP). It's an epic enterprise, which involves relocating (or dislocating?) numerous families to make way for a gleaming, pristine urban development of glass and steel. Shanghai is coming to India, as promised. It's a grand illusion, one that we see around us all the time.
There are those in the government - the Chief Minister (Supriya Pathak), her PA (Farooq Sheikh) and I.A.S Officer T.A. Krishnan (Abhay Deol, who thankfully doesn't overdo the Tamil twang). Then there are those who play spoilsport against the government - professor and activist Dr. Ahmedi (Prosenjit Chatterjee) and his loyal and besotted former student Shalini Sahay (Kalki Koechlin, surprisingly one-note barring a powerful outburst). And then the masses in the middle, the witnesses to the political tennis match, represented by videographer Joginder Parmar (Emraan Hashmi, transformed).
When, one fateful night, Dr. Ahmedi is mowed down by a pickup truck right in front of a crowd and hordes of police, the town of Bharatnagar plunges into dangerous mudslinging. While the police covers it up as an accident, Shalini, Krishnan and Joginder set out in their own respective capacities to find out what really happened, repeatedly crossing paths with one another.
But Banerjee gives it such a spin, sets it in such a milieu, and populates it with such characters, that Shanghai is gripping because of the way the story is told. In other words, it's the journey and the not the destination. And what a journey it is.
In keeping with his storytelling style, Banerjee uses drama very carefully, even stingily. So when Dr. Ahmedi's wife Aruna (Tilotama Shome) shows up and figures out Shalini's feelings for her then comatose husband, the interaction between the two women is underplayed and mostly silent. In the hands of any other director, such scenes would be rife with fiery dialogues, punchy music, and cold stares. Here, the thick tension of their silence is all the drama you see and feel.
The restrained drama is also the same reason why some may be put off by the film. It's not entertaining in the traditional sense; comic relief is rare; the background score isn't incessantly telling you to feel angry, scared or upset; and at times the camera just lingers on a face or a situation letting you breathe with the characters. Even when Joginder finds himself running from some goons, there's no background score telling you it's a moment of adrenaline rush, and the chase isn't elongated into a 10 minute sequence through back alleys and over obstacles. It's quick, to-the-point and is over as quickly as it started.
The pleasure of Shanghai is in the details, which Banerjee handles brilliantly. So when there is a tense moment during the enquiry being run by Krishnan, a basketball bounces in through the open window, with a child in hot pursuit. "Is this a place to play?", the child is scolded. The pickup truck that was used to kill Dr. Ahmedi is ever present as the weapon of the crime, whether it's lingering mysteriously in the background or merely being mentioned by the driver eager to get it back. IAS Officer Krishnan performs his evening prayers using a laptop, while a rugged hooligan takes English classes to move up in life. Personal favorites are the moments of cleaning that are subtly inserted into numerous scenes throughout, as if Banerjee is constantly hinting at what we really need to do with our politics. So, when the hallway outside the enquiry room is being mopped, it causes the stressed and angry characters to skid as they storm out. They are all about to fall, they just don't know it.
Cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis captures the environment beautifully. It's gritty, at times crumbling and not always pretty, but Andritsakis displays masterful control over the settings. Bharatnagar really does come across as every town, evoking some element of familiarity for each viewer.
As with all of Banerjee's films, the performances are half the battle won. More than Abhay Deol and Kalki Koechlin in this ensemble, it is Emraan Hashmi that steals the spotlight. He completely reinvents himself as the at-times sleazy, but good hearted and big dreaming Joginder. Complete with a potbelly and stained teeth, Hashmi plays his character with control, emerging eventually as the most sympathetic of the lot.
Shanghai is in many ways Banerjee's most polished film to date. He displays skilled control over the storytelling, as the puppet-master rightly should. His treatment of the topic is unrelenting - no corners are cut, nothing is sugar coated, and nothing is sensationalized. It's how it is and provocative enough to hold a mirror up to society. It's hard to decide if the ending is happy or sad, but what matters more are the questions the film asks about the true price of development, if our leaders really do care about our best interests, and perhaps most importantly, if there is something we're willing to do about it. Don't miss this one.