Five days before his new film was due to be released, director Dibakar Banerjee made an unexpected visit to his hometown. "Shanghai to meet bulls***cutters of JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University)", ran the Delhi Times (DT) headline. "Basically, we wanted to discuss the film with people who actually want change, who can make a difference," DT quoted Banerjee as saying. "When we usually promote a film, say in a mall, there are barriers, stars, crowds, a lot of glamour, but here, we want Emraan, Abhay and Kalki to share their experiences, thoughts and ideas with the actual students at JNU. Some of them there are real bulls***cutters, and their engagement with the film will be entirely different, it'll be something I'd like to understand."
The previous afternoon, a Facebook page for the event, titled Anda & Chai with Shanghai had sent invites to 5,139 people; of whom 4 declined, 43 said 'Maybe' and 136 were 'Going'.
Facebook is clearly not a good predictor of actual attendance. At 9.15pm, more than 350 people had gathered outside the JNU Students' Union office. The event was scheduled for 9pm, a standard post-dinner time for events in JNU. There was no sign of the speakers yet, but the atmosphere was one of relaxed anticipation. Some wandered off to eat an aloo paratha at the adjoining Teflas canteen, while others more far-sighted held on to their seats. Little of the usual high-octane excitement around star appearances in India was in evidence.
Then, a little after 10pm, the song Bharat Mata Ki Jai began to play. Two white BMWs pulled up, disgorging Dibakar Banerjee, Kalki Koechlin, Abhay Deol and several security men in black. A buzz ran through the crowd, and there was cheering and whooping.
One boy objects to the song Bharat Mata ki Jai, which he says sounds like an item number. “The film does have an item number. But this is an angry song, a song full of sarcasm,” says Banerjee.
Then Banerjee began to talk about what led him to make Shanghai (he pronounced it American style: 'Shang-High'), and the awkwardness disappeared. "I live in Bombay now, in a building called Dosti Flamingos," he said in crisp Delhi Hindi, "My wife and I paid a lot of money for this flat. One day the building guard told me: 'Yahan par hamara mill thha, yahan par hamari chawl thi, wahaan bachhon ke khelne ka ground thha.' He didn't say it sadly; he was glad he and his wife had jobs in the new complex. Par main chakra gaya. I kept thinking: How is it possible that where you lived yesterday is where you are a safai karamchari today?"
"In Bombay's unauthorised colonies, everything is authorised: it's very clean, there are courtyards, lanes, a Shiv Sena office: it's very organised." The crowd assumed sarcasm and there was laughter. "I mean it," Banerjee cut in. "From the 20th floor, I can see the local Shiv Sena office. And every night there is a street party. Har roz sangeet, celebration: a wedding, a religious occasion or a political one. At midnight, my wife or I call up the police to complain. Once they shut it down, then we sleep... But if someone is pregnant and needs a taxi in the middle of the night, it's the Shiv Sena guys who'll arrange it."
"This strange, blind pragati ki hawa that uproots everything in its path — that is what my film is about," said Banerjee. "When people who belong to a place are made to feel that they have no right to the land – that's when parties like Shiv Sena thrive."
The floor was opened to questions. One boy objected to the song Bharat Mata Ki Jai, which he says sounds like an item number. "It looks like you're not too acquainted with item numbers," said Banerjee dryly. "The film does have an item number. But this is an angry song, a song full of sarcasm." Another questioner told Banerjee that he didn't respect the country which had given him the freedom to make such a film: "You've made a film called Shanghai, but Cheen mein aapko kuchal diya jaata." Banerjee's retort was quick and sharp. "If we don't encourage more disrespect, there'll be nothing left to take pride in."
The crowd got thicker, the mobile cameras increased. The half-French Koechlin, having been quizzed on her Hindi and why her husband Anurag Kashyap didn't cast her in the Bihar-set Gangs of Wasseypur, was drawn away by a TV crew.
A questioner attacked Banerjee for "justifying" son-of-the-soil movements. "You have to see the larger picture," he said. "I completely agree," said Banerjee, his voice finally rising to tower over the crowd. "Come and see my film."