If you love this country, I am certain you have had moments when you’ve wanted to drop to your knees, look up at the sky and scream. Perhaps your moment of mourning came in February 2002, when Gulbarg Society burnt. Or on November 27, 2003, the day NHAI’s 30-year-old Satyendra Dubey was killed. Or in 2006, when M.F. Husain left this country. Or exactly a year ago, on June 9, 2011, when he died in another country…
Director Dibakar Banerjee loves this country dearly and Shanghai is his guttural, anguished wail. But being the super-smart, light-touch director that he is, he conducts the last rites of our beloved country to the loud, cheery strains of the song Bharat Mata ki, Bharat Mata ki… Not of the country that we live in today. No. But the country we carry in our heads and hearts.
As the lyrics of the song suggest, we are in mourning, but we are conducting Bharat Mata’s antim sanskar in a medieval fashion. We are dancing around it, smiling, screaming. And though the lyricist has added “jai bolo” at the end, that’s not the sentiment of this song, or our mourning. The correct rendition of this song would end with the words “le lo”.
Shanghai’s main plot and narration are linear but a large, seemingly static and beatific backdrop casts its long shadow on the small people we are concerned with. The backdrop is quietly wilful, deviously dynamic. It drives the main plot, twisting it this way and that. Someone steps out gently, to intervene or simply to put an end to an inconvenience, before returning to their original place.
The film’s setting is Bharatnagar, a nondescript Hindi-speaking town that stands for every small town in India.
Bharatnagar is in a state that’s ruled by a two-party coalition. There’s chief minister Madamji (Supriya Pathak) and her coalition partner, Morcha (its nameless leader is played by Kiran Karmakar). Bharatnagar’s upcoming IBP (International Business Park), is Madamji’s pet project, and in this she has the full support of Morcha whose slogan is “Jai Pragati!” IBP is tom-tommed everywhere, all the time, especially by Morcha cadres — unemployed men in yellow T-shirts, armed with hockey sticks, stones and buckets of black gunk. They materialise when required, to clap, shout happy slogans, or to protest, heckle, even kill. Of these men, we are introduced to Bhaggu (Pitobash Tripathy) and his mama Jaggu (Anant Jog), who drives a tempo.
Morcha and its chief work on the ground, with the people. The chief minister and her party remain aloof, superior.
One by one we meet members of the mourning party.
There’s Dr Ali Ahemadi (Prosenjit Chatterjee), a Leftist professor, writer and activist who heads the IBP Virodhi Committee. He arrives in Bharatnagar in the midst of protests and death threats and in just one scene, on the tarmac, Dibakar tells us everything we need to know about Dr Ali Ahemadi — his cultivated coolness, his ability to shift gears, straddle two world, and his ego, cause and effect.
His supporters in town include Shalini Sahay (Kalki Koechlin), his former student in New York. In another quick scene we figure their relationship and the fact that Shalini’s father, General Sahay, is being tried for fraud amounting to Rs 40 crore.
At a government function in town — where Tina, a Bollywood item girl, is performing for VVIPs under flashbulbs that announce “IBP: India Bana Pardes” — we meet IAS T.A. Krishnan (Abhay Deol), the IBP’s vice-chairman. We also meet the chief minister’s principal secretary, Kaul (Farooq Sheikh), a smug narcissist who hands over files to juniors with instructions about what they need to do.
Despite protesters and stone pelting, Dr Ahemadi goes to address the IBP Virodhi meeting, to talk about what this sort of development, driven by Stockholm-based multinational Generon, means, and to ask people not to sell their land, houses.
The light in the meeting hall, the camera angle and the wide-eyed hopeless crowd Dr Ahemadi is addressing, all present him as a messiah. People are not just clapping their hands, they are flapping their wings excitedly, ready to fly with him to another world. We later learn that Dr Ahemadi, who has been agitating for a long time, hasn’t been able to resettle a single family.
There’s also Vinod, who runs an all-purpose video-photo studio, and his partner Jogi Parmar (Emraan Hashmi). We had met them earlier, at the Morcha chief’s office, where they were recording and taking photographs. The green cloth against which the Morcha leader was waving will later be replaced with photographs of large crowds.
This almost casual, incidental irony and satire are constant side-shows in Shanghai, adding texture and angst to the main scenes, making the film high-definition, high-voltage, and telling us again and again what we’d rather not acknowledge.
Tina from Bollywood is dancing, Dr Ahemadi has finished his speech and is walking towards the waiting protesters, Vinod and Jogi are trying to get to where Dr Ahemadi is, when suddenly a tempo rams into him, in front of his men, the protesters and the police, and drives off.
Dr Ahemadi is rushed to a hospital and is put on life support. The tempo’s driver is arrested. The other man in the tempo, Bhaggu, gets away.
Krishnan is asked to head the inquiry into this incident but is told to only investigate how the “accident” occurred, to look into police’s bandobast and recommend how many more wireless sets etc the police force needs.
How Krishnan’s inquiry progresses is the story of Bharat Mata. In Shanghai it involves Jogi, who seems slightly off centre and has a creepy obsession with Shalini who he thinks is a foreigner; it involves an enraged Shalini in love with a comatose father-figure who she thinks has all the answers. It also involves two pieces of evidence, several “accidents” and police insensitivity that, we are forced to see, is not isolated, but a direct result of their complicity.
And, of course, there’s what we call the system — the incompetent nexus of politicians, cops and babus that stalls more than it approves. And the other system, the super-efficient one that operates without a murmur — where tenders get passed quickly, witnesses die, where evidence and murderers disappear overnight.
Everyone on Shanghai’s team — on screen and off — has put in their best. Emraan Hashmi has catapulted to another level, and Abhay Deol is truly in his element. But the delightful surprise here is Farooq Sheikh — watching him is like attending a master class in acting.
But the credit for Shanghai, a scary, deeply depressing, brilliant film, goes to the genius of Dibakar Banerjee. He uses ambient sounds, sights and asides as metaphors, as omen, and packs in so much politics, sharp characters and load-bearing dialogue in 114 minutes that even two viewings of this film are not enough. So much is happening that there isn’t enough space to write, for example, about the interesting play with names — Shanghai and Stockholm.
Shanghai is based on the 1966 Greek novel Z, and a French film of the same name. But this fact is totally irrelevant because Dibakar’s film belongs to the world it is set in.
Dibakar, who has written Shanghai’s scrumptious screenplay along with Urmi Juvekar, gives us our very own schizophrenic reality, a labyrinth, where every mourner finds himself/herself lost, especially Krishnan. And he seems to say at the end, with a smirk, that I can only sum up in Dilip Chitre’s words:
Chakravyuh mein ghusne se pehle, kaun tha main aur kaisa tha,
yeh mujhe yaad hi na rahega…
Chakravyuh se nikalne ke baad, main mukt ho jaoon bhale hi,
phir bhi chakravyuh ki rachna mein farq hi na padega…
Us roshni mein jo nirnay ki roshni hai, sab kuchh samaan hoga kya?
Ek palde mein napunsakta, ek palde mein paurush,
aur theek taraazu ke kaante par, ardh satya.
Shanghai is in Ardh Satya, Aakrosh, Party, even Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron frame of mind, but despite its humour, it is more angry, more cynical, more political. That is why it doesn’t allow us to identify with anyone. It gives us flawed characters — Jogi shoots pornographic movies; Kalki has too much baggage; and though all our hope rests with Krishnan, he is passive and a part of a system that’s standing in attention against us. Also, talk of his Stockholm posting keeps us at an arm’s length.
Nikos Andritsakis’ camera has a still, stunned gaze, and that’s because his camera is you and I. It gives us the accident from all angles, taking away our alibi, that we are “confused”.
And Dibakar, by presenting “incidents” from all angles, showing us things that we ignore, glaze over, is telling us that however busy, distracted or stoned we may be on the development, infrastructure spiel, we are very much a part of this game. He is, in effect, saying: “How dare you stay confused? We are complicit, you and I.”
Go watch Shanghai. It doesn’t get better than this.