Review of Dibakar Banerjee’s ‘Shanghai’ A Bollywood Film Starring Emran Hashmi, Kalki Koechlin, Abhay Deol (Reviewed back in June 2012)

Grade: A

English: Kalki Koechlin at Shaitan promotional...

 Kalki Koechlin, who’s also played the lead in Roger Ebert Recommended ‘Girl in Yellow Boots’ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Summary: Engaging Script, Earnest Performances and Some Hollywoodesque Panache

Not very often do mainstream Indian film directors fully channel their vision onto screen; the true potential gets vaporized in an attempt to please the audiences. Also coming in the way is the director’s self indulgence, profoundly seen in Ram Gopal Varma’s recent ventures, rendering a discordant and utterly baffling soup. Case in point the unbelievable, WTF ending in Sarkar Raj 2 that implicated almost half the cast as baddies (in the third installment, maybe even gardeners and fisher-women may be working for some international drug cartel). What most directors lack is a balance, yes, Indian movies are known worldwide for their colors but let those colors be bright, not gaudy. A majority of them cannot create believable characters or a plot and showcase it on the screen, and I’m just talking films – if I start blasting Indian television soaps, it would probably make up an entire book!

This bastardizing of Indian films either to make money or ape foreign movies had caused me to take a break from Bollywood. I didn’t even buy Vidya Balan‘s Kahaani, which seemed to be an Eat, Pray Love with Bidya (It’s Vidya btw…) one moment and a claustrophobic femme fatale action movie the next. Never overemphasize mundane sequences in an action film, let them stay primly in the background. Four scores and seven years later… or, maybe a month or two later, I saw myself sitting comfortably, with no popcorn in my hand and a bunch of immature boys below my row, in a PVR theater in Baroda, waiting for Shanghai to start. The attendance seemed very poor, but it was a respite for me – a better air-conditioner effect! The title of Shanghai seemed to cover almost the entire screen, already pumped up to make a statement (Jaago Grahak Jaago Re… like) and the names of the cast and crew followed, some familiar, some not very. And then began the movie. The first shot is a bird’s eye view of a city, which looks poles apart from Shanghai and seems more like Mumbai (the film is shot in Maharashtra). The next is a close up shot of a hairy, messy Bhagu as he talks about mutton. The short, pint-sized man then proceeds to assault a shop-owner with his reluctant partner Jaggu. The opening scene itself sets the tone for the rest of the film – we are in for plenty of close-ups, some impressive camera effects such as slow motion, dim and grim lighting, succinct and clever dialogues, dark humor and believable characters.

The movie discusses a familiar concept: Bharat Nagar, a fictional city, is flourishing with new infrastructure projects backed by IBP, the ruling political party headed by Madamji (played wisely with demure restraint by Supriya Pathak). But we already see how demagogically the party runs by using common men as pawns. Only Dr. Ahmedi (Prasenjit Chatterjee), a dissident social worker raises his voice and comes to India to forewarn people about the trickery of IBP – he believes the poor are being deceived regarding their relocation. His campaign in Bharat Nagar is supported by his one-time student Shalini Sahay (earnestly played by Kalki Koechlin) who left the States after having an illicit romance with the married man. After the speech, when Ahmedi sternly rebukes the police for not maintaining enough protection, he is hit by a truck all of a sudden. This event is filmed by a videographer/pornographer Joginder Parmar (diligently portrayed by Emraan Hashmi, who also developed some peculiarities for his slightly obnoxious character), who also covers interviews by IBP and such. In the fracas, Joginder and Kalki’s lives intertwine when the former’s friend has some evidence of foul play in the event. Also working on the case is a studious, no-nonsense bureaucrat T.A Krishnan who strives to collect new evidence but finds (i) a pudgy, gluttonous politician Kaul (a scrumptious performance by Farooq Sheikh) who pressurizes him to close the case immediately and (ii) obdurate police officers who are scared to tell the truth.

One glance at the poster of the film, I never would’ve imagined this was a political thriller; the poster is very misleading and makes this seem like a typical murder mystery with a detective in the form of Abhay Deol. Alter that, please. The movie is a smart political thriller that proceeds in ‘City of God’ style and has traces of Tarantino and Hitchcock in the sense that its various disparate characters gradually come closer as the climax approaches. The performance by everyone is understated and this is partly because the script deals cogently with action, dialogues, location and effects. Never does it get too artsy or too clever or too frenetic. The characters aren’t shown completing one task throughout the film and there are scenes which give them depth; for example, the dangerous Bhagu is insulted by his English teacher, which could be a stimulant for his violence. I heard an interview where Dibakar Banerjee said ‘we shouldn’t bring in Dr. Ahmedi’s infidelity as a shortcoming of his political agenda’ because both the matters aren’t closely related. Such details are what make characters leap alive, and we don’t get dead flowers like the ones in Ra.one.

The award season should be teeming with Shanghai’s cast, all for best supporting roles: Deol, Hashmi, Sheikh, Chaterjee, Koechlin, Tillomala Shome (in a short yet memorable performance as Dr. Ahmedi’s wife), Pathak and even Tripathy. I hope some, especially Deol and Hashmi, do get some recognition. The writing, cinematography, music should strike some gold (or bronze or whatever metal they use to make the lady). The best film, I’m slightly unsure because Shanghai is a one-time watch; as some critics rightly pointed, there could’ve been more. The movie has made a statement successfully but it’s lacking background. But I also feel it’s been some time since I was so invested in a Bollywood film. The Indian mainstream cinema needs a change, and movies like Shanghai should make some difference.

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