Dibakar Banerjee has done it again. Just when you thought you’d got him slotted, he’s upped and moved – to a new film, a new genre, a new andaaz – and made it luminously his own.
Banerjee gained his first foothold in Hindi cinema with Khosla ka Ghosla (2006), a superbly observed comedy about an ordinary Delhi family battling a real estate shark. Khosla’s affectionate humour, its cynicism tempered by a wish-fulfilment ending, was gratefully received as a 21st century return to ‘middle class cinema’.
It took Dibakar Banerjee two years and a radically different film – Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! – to throw off the ‘born-again Hrishikesh Mukherjee’ tag. Oye Lucky, with a thief for a protagonist, tore apart with savage delight the hypocrisy of a glittering new middle class. Abhay Deol’s charming, dimpled Lucky was a cleverly updated version of the age-old suave Hindi movie thief – but in Banerjee’s able hands, he also plumbed the vulnerable depths of lower middle class aspiration.
Chalk and cheese they may have been, but Khosla and Oye Lucky were both Delhi films. But any notion of Banerjee as the Dilliwalla who was going to devote his career to unraveling the city’s multiple milieus was destroyed by the disturbing, DigiCam-shot Love Sex aur Dhokha (2010). The triptych of interlinked tales scripted by Dibakar Banerjee and co-writer Urmi Juvekar (a film student’s cross-caste love story, a girl who unknowingly becomes the subject of an MMS, a sting reporter who refuses to sell his footage) was united not by a place or class but by a thematic concern: the camera’s altering of experience in today’s India.
With Shanghai, Banerjee makes an impressive leap into a whole new genre – the political thriller – and lands magnificently on his feet. The unevenness of LSD (whose quietly gutwrenching middle section far outshone the first and third) seems aeons away. Cleverly adapted from Vassilis Vassilikos’ 1966 Greek novel Z (on which Costa Gavras based his celebrated 1969 film), Shanghai is both a heart-pounding piece of cinema and a razor-sharp critique of our contemporary moment.
It opens with the aerial view of an Indian city, laid out as if on a topographical map: a dry, dusty, unidentifiable place in a generic shade of brown. An anonymous place which its leaders promise will soon be remade in the image of a foreign city that its residents have never seen and never will. The very name of that city – Shanghai – is enough to conjure up a vision of the future so glittering that the dark, misshapen present can simply be hidden in its shadow.
Because in the paper-thin universe of contemporary India, it is the image alone that matters. Everyone from the item girl to the politician to the activist wants to package themselves in the right image. Shanghai zeroes in on this unerringly. We first see the chief minister (a pitch-perfect Supriya Pathak) in a promo for her big development project, International Business Park (IBP), folding her hands in a faux-gracious namaste, and next as a gigantic cutout. The starlet due to shake her imported kamariya for the IBP launch first appears outside a slum, on a poster that proclaims her “Bollywood ki Rani Tina”. Our first glimpse of the activist Dr. Ahmadi (Bengali star Prosenjit cast beautifully against type) is a poster, too and then a book: both carrying his face, with the slogan “Kiski pragati, kiska desh?”.
But Ahmadi’s almost plaintive question is drowned by the terrifying chanted pledge echoed by crowds of young men in the service of the image they’ve been fed: “Kasam khoon ki khai hai, yeh sheher nahi Shanghai hai”. Ahmadi may be a charismatic orator with a mission, but his popular base is limited – he even lives abroad. He may be savvy enough to grab a photo-op with the young starlet on his flight, but there’s not much he can do when the reporter cuts him off mid-sentence to ask about her new film.
He can do even less when he is mown down by a pick-up truck, minutes after delivering a speech against the IBP.
Because in this world, where appearances are everything, assassinations can be made to look like accidents, and inquiry commissions are meant only to look like they are inquiring. In this world, a political party can win elections on the slogan 'India Bana Pardes' ('India Becomes Foreign') – while the whiteness of a woman’s skin is used to dismiss her every effort to belong. It is a world that ought to look chillingly familiar to us, Banerjee seems to say – if only we could see past the smokescreen.
Barring Kalki, who replays her single-note tightly-wound-up act from That Girl in Yellow Boots, most of the actors are a treat: Pitobash Tripathi as the sort of young man who acquires his sense of self from hovering on the fringes of the party machine whose protective haath he believes is on his sar; Tilottama Shome as Dr. Ahmadi’s wife, her face a perfect mask of disdain that only breaks once, brilliantly; Abhay Deol, the young bureaucrat superbly inscrutable under a well-mannered TamBrahm exterior; the marvellous Farooq Shaikh as his smooth senior; and most of all, Emraan Hashmi, cutting a wide swathe through every role he’s ever done, with an absolutely incredible performance as a gap-toothed 30-plus porn videowala called Jogi Parmar.
Shanghai takes from Z a plot utterly embedded in the politics of 1960s Greece, and makes of it a film that could not be more rooted in an India of the here and now. Z is a masterful film, but for me, Shanghai’s emotive power is much greater. And the changes Banerjee makes are scarily apt – the visiting Bolshoi ballet becomes a Bollywood show, the military is replaced by a political-corporate machine, and those who fought against militarisation and nuclear power must now fight against ‘development’, something that appears so indisputably a good thing that it is almost a religion. “Jai Pragati,” say the politicians to each other, in a chilling echo of more familiar slogans. The frenzied, quasi-religious atmosphere of the mass political gathering is established in a superb early scene: the smoke, the drums rising to a fever pitch, the coal tar rubbed on a shopkeeper’s face in slow motion, evoking nothing so much as a violent Holi.
Among the other highlights of this admirably crafted film is its use of sound. Shanghai’s soundscape distinguishes precisely between its silences: the menacing quiet of a police station, the genteel, hushed whispers of a Chief Minister’s drawing room, the eerie shutters-down silence of a post-riot town.
But here, too, appearances are deceptive. Shanghai ends by showing us that all silences are pregnant with possibilities, and those possibilities can be ominous regardless of class. As Manu Rishi said in Oye Lucky, “In gentry wale logon se bach ke rahiyo, yeh bolte English hain, karte desi.”