I had a lot of expectations from Shanghai. Mostly because, in its initial days of production, I thought it was a political thriller involving the Chinese secret service and a plot to nuke India. But apparently, Agent Vinod and Ek Tha Tiger are dealing with the spooks angle. Shanghai, on the other hand, is better than I expected it to be. And its subject matter is much closer to home than the ISI or the Chinese secret service.
Many critics have called the movie a metaphor. For me, the movie was a metaphor and beyond. Set in an Indian periurban village/town, presumably in north or central India, Shanghai tells the story of an aspiration that the Indian state envisages for its cities; an aspiration which pits decades of faulty governance, lack of infrastructure and a volatile Indian public psyche against the clean, geometric facade of civilization, and corporate governance.
I won’t go much into the plot right now, mostly because I wish to keep this review spoiler free, and partly because I intend to go beyond that.
In many ways, Shanghai is about contrasts; more so, contradictions. Bharatnagar – the ground zero of the genesis, so to say is where Dr. Ali Ahmadi (a kurta-jhola-beard sporting Leftist played by Prosenjit) protests against the capitalist state turning the area into a SEZ. His detractors want him out. Not because of the ideological differences; because in India, politics is not about ideology anymore. It’s a numbers game, as we see the ruling coalition trying to keep its aspirations alive for this Shanghai – to the extent of murdering the doctor.
The principal characters Krishnan (Abhay Deol in his finest performance so far), Shalini (Kalki, who is more confused than anything) and Joginder (Emran Hashmi, a fine actor) are caught up in their own agendas; trying to find something to anchor themselves in the turbulent political climes of Bharatnagar. Yet, I would not call any of them protagonists; they’re characters, each organically placed in their roles, which makes the film’s progression more eased and natural without being caught up to explain their agendas. However what really contributes to the organic nature of the film is the fact that the supporting cast does a brilliant job; from the wily mandarin Kaul, to the Chief Minister and her coalition partner – his cronies, the cops and the plethora of angry political hooligans… It’s a myriad picture, both violent and vibrant, and certainly something from which you cannot turn away.
Cinematically, for me, the winning factor was the cinematography by Nikos Andritsakis. And frankly, for someone who managed to execute a movie like Love, Sex Aur Dhokha, I would’ve expected nothing short of brilliance from Banerjee. There was a constant nervousness in the camera movements, a sense of unpredictability as it captured both the loud morcha scenes, and the quiet, narrow, yet palpable curfewed streets of Bharatnagar. I spoke of contradictions earlier, and it’s notable that the cinematography contributes to the visual telling of these contradictions; the government offices, with glass doors, polished conference tables, and the municipal schools, non-functional toilets.
The score, I felt was apt for a movie as intense as Shanghai, and it is what really contributed to the intensity of the film. The most striking feature, however, was Banerjee’s use of silence to fill in the gaps – which I believe is the first of its kind I’ve ever come across in Hindi cinema. My only complaint was Vishal-Shekhar’s music which, despite sounding great in the promos on TV, did not have room in the film, and thus, resulted in a slightly jarring effect; the songs consumed more time than what was required.
Coming back to metaphors, I think Shanghai does more than just talk about the Indian state’s aspiration to compete with the world by converting its cities into Shanghais. It is a commentary on the inherent contradictions within the Indian state; contradictions between the welfare role of the state and its capitalistic nature. It is about more than just corruption in the system and the abuse of state power; the corruption runs far deeper, and into the Indian psyches itself. It is a commentary on the very nature of Indian politics. Elsewhere, I’ve mentioned that political parties today are no longer connected to an ideology – be it the right-wing BJP, or the so-called liberal Congress or the Left, or any of India’s regional parties – the politics of India in the 21st century is that of anti-ideology; about synthesizing a form by positioning itself against an ideology; increased westernization, neo-liberal policy, and so forth.
What makes Shanghai the film it is, is the fact that Banerjee manages to capture these fine nuances on screen, in its profoundness and yes, you guessed it, contradictions. For some reason, I think of Shanghai as a “muted” film, mostly because of its noted and brilliant use of silence, as I said before, and also because you feel a sense of futility, of being inured to its portrayal of corruption and state sponsored violence. The Delhi HC was right it calling it a accurate description of the state of affairs in India; look at the Jaitapur, or Raigad, districts earmarked to become the sites where India would usher in modernity and seal its place in the global economic order.
Shanghai is a warning bell for some alarmists, a time where the Indian state would sell the very people who elect governments to raze areas like Bharatnagar and make them into technological and information hubs, clean buildings, planned streets, and most of all, a populace which is the product of India’s neo-liberal values, who are at best passive consumers and at worse, a stupefied, silenced people. It is also something that would intrigue cynics, because it holds no bars in giving an honest account of the country — that we cannot do without corruption, that we cannot build a township, a sea-link, a sky-walk without our governments and bureaucrats having mud (and often, blood) on their hands. It talks about a genesis, of a violent kind, when our cities become the hallmarks of the modern global world order, in a crass Nehruvian manner of speaking.
This is the India of the 21st century; an amalgamation of contradictions. God, I love this country. And, it seems, the makers of Shanghai do so too. Shanghai is a rare gem of a movie. Many won’t like it, because it raises uncomfortable questions. Many like to see the glass as half full. But optimism would not change the fact that the water in it is dirty.
So long, and Bharat mata ki jai.
Written by Proshant Chakraborty.