Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai begins with a prologue of sorts – a scene where casual chatter between two lower-class men slowly gives way to something more intense and shadowy. The younger man, Bhagu, is brash and excited about the assignment that lies ahead; the older one, Jaggu, is reluctant, wary and more concerned about the safety of his small truck than anything else. Bhagu is played by the diminutive Pitobash Tripathy, who was so good in another fine film Shor in the City – he is well cast here as a loose cannon, capable of temporarily unnerving even the smug people who give him his orders. And yet, both men are basically patsies for larger forces that they cannot begin to understand. (One might, at a stretch, say they have been shanghaied.)
Together they will engineer the fatal incident that lies at the heart of this story – the mowing down of political activist Dr Ahmedi (Prosenjit Chatterjee) shortly after he makes a speech denouncing the high-profile International Business Park (IBP) project. “They’ll take your land and call it pragati,” Ahmedi has been telling the poor people who gather to hear him speak (“they” meaning the government, which has started the project in collusion with big business houses). The parable he relates is that of an unfortunate man visited by big-shots who usurp his property, build a mall on it, charge him money for water and behave like they are doing him a favour. Naturally this activism makes him a controversial figure, and when the truck “accidentally” hits him, his former student and sometime lover Shalini (Kalki Koechlin) sees the attack for what it is. But she may need the help of a small-time maker of sleazy films (Emraan Hashmi) if she wants proof that can hold up in court.
Banerjee and his co-writer Urmi Juvekar have done a solid job of adapting Vassilis Vassilikos’s 1967 novel Z (a story situated in a very specific political context) to the contemporary Indian situation – this film is a tightly knit commentary on the aspirations and power struggles that brush against each other in a messy, many-layered society. Though the genre is that of the political thriller (complete with the “what really happened?” narrative that marked such movies as Blow Out and The Manchurian Candidate), this is also a slice-of-life depiction of a world where there is no lasting solution to the hegemony of power, where underprivileged people unwittingly participate in their own exploitation, pages routinely go missing in reports, and the rich and their merry men rob from the poor. (No wonder the descriptor “Robin Hood” is sarcastically used at one point to describe someone who tries to go against the grain of things.)
No time for a structured review just now, but here are a few notes:
– I watched Costa-Gavras’s film version of Z a long time ago and only remember it dimly (not having completely understood the politics of the story at the time), but I do recall the magnetic presence of Jean-Louis Trintignant as the investigating magistrate – very deadpan and very expressive at the same time as he tries to sift truth from fiction. Abhay Deol does a decent workmanlike job as that character’s equivalent, the conscientious bureaucrat Krishnan – a Naxal sympathiser (it is hinted) who understands the many ways in which power can be misused. For all the seriousness of Krishnan’s intentions, however, his “investigation” takes place in a shabby, mosquito-ridden hall with barely functioning coolers and dirty bathrooms. Some of the scenes here – the surreal appearance of a basketball mid-proceedings, a sight gag where first Shalini and then Krishnan slip on the just-washed floor outside the hall – are played for humour, but there is a subtext: this dingy, out-of-the-way setting (galaxies away from the fantasy of the posh business city “Shanghai”) is just the place for this token enquiry, the findings of which are likely to be swept under the carpet. (There is no actual carpet in the investigation room, but if there were you can be sure there would be plenty of dirt under it.) And this is a morally slippery place where people struggle – literally and figuratively – to maintain their footing. Krishnan may seem in charge, but even the policemen he interrogates regard him with a blasé eye. “When a chief minister, other politicians and Bollywood celebrities are in the city, the force has to be occupied elsewhere,” he is told when he asks about inadequate security arrangements.
– The screenplay has many neat little touches. “Mujhe interference na milay toh main aur andar tak pahunch sakta hoon,” (“If my work is not interfered with, I can make further inroads”) Krishnan tells the chief minister (played by Supriya Pathak) during his meeting with her. This is ironical because he is already sitting inside the private chamber of someone who probably orchestrated the events he is investigating – a fly in the spider’s parlour – and also because, a short while later, he will get an offer to become an “insider” in another sense. Incidentally Farooque Shaikh plays the CM’s personal secretary; it’s nice to see him and Pathak together after so many years, but it's also pleasing that these two actors – known best for playing likable, homely people in the Middle Cinema of the early 80s – are made to inhabit very different character types. Pathak looks positively sinister in her one major scene near the end, when the CM steps out of the shadows to greet Krishnan, asking him with fake warmth about how his wife is doing.
– As in his last film LSD, Banerjee makes effective use of the handheld camera, but here the handheld shots are “objective” (which is basically to say that there isn’t someone within the narrative holding the camera: it’s more a case of an invisible narrator juddering between characters, putting us in the middle of the action, creating a sense of claustrophobia). There are some fine compositions, as in a scene where the personal secretary speaks with Krishnan while huffing away on a treadmill. We see the two men’s reflections in the fitness room’s mirrors, but in the very centre of the frame is a third mirror, and in it is the silent, statue-like figure of a man holding a bottle of water and a hand-towel for the secretary. One wonders what “pragati” might mean to this anonymous minion.
There are other clever visuals: a shot of a large SUV being trailed by a small (but lethal) van; the irony of road traffic being stalled by a street celebration in honour of “progress”; the word “Dreemgirl” flashing on the Hashmi character Joginder’s cellphone. And the scary depictions of anarchy in the making include a morcha scene where you feel that the revellers are drunk on the idea of being part of something big and important, regardless of what it is. (The frenzied “Bharat Mata ki Jai” dance has a similar mood.) “Hum China ko peechhe chhod sakte thhe,” (“We could have left China behind”) someone ruefully says at one point. Presumably he means in terms of economic progress, but by the end we have seen the emergence – in the fictitious city of Bharat Nagar – of something that resembles a police state more than a transparent democracy.
– Trying to keep your equilibrium, turning your face away from injustice until your conscience no longer lets you...these are repeated motifs in this film. In a late scene, a character is asked to leave a building from the back-door because there are angry people outside waiting for him, and in the next scene another person (who has amusingly been portraying himself as a macho Rajput) recalls how he had to flee his home through the back-door because people were coming for him. This adds up to a study of individual scruples confronted with permanent threat of repercussion. And so, it makes sense that the ending is cynical and idealistic at the same time: on the one hand, a character does something that in a more simple-minded film might result in the cleaning up of the political order; on the other hand, we see that nothing has really changed. Perhaps the “pragati” being constantly talked about is a version of the secretary on his treadmill, running to stay in the same place.