The “most progressive state in the country” has embarked on an ambitious redevelopment project that hints at the title of Dibakar Banerjee’s new film, Shanghai. It’s called International Business Park, and the acronym is reconfigured – on stage, during a celebratory dance performance by an “imported kamariya” (no lowly desi dancers, after all, will behoove these aspirations) – as India Bana Pardes. Naturally, there is a spoilsport, an activist named Dr. Ahmadi (Prosenjit Chatterjee), who urges the people being relocated (you might say dislocated) to hold on to their lands and not sign any papers. He will soon be assassinated, and this event will set in motion a lengthy, dry procedural that’s also a depiction of a pulsating microcosm of India, situated around a metaphorically named Bharat Nagar. Manmohan Desai, in Desh Premee, reached for a similar metaphor when he set his story in a Bharat Nagar – but had someone like Dr. Ahmadi existed in that film (made in the cinematic climate of those times), he’d have been a saint. Here, he’s something of a sinner.
In an early scene, as Dr. Ahmadi alights from his plane, he is preceded by a leggy starlet, the one with the imported kamariya. She is besieged by the media, whose members are predictably oblivious to Ahmadi’s presence. Do they even know that he’s written a timely book titled Kiski Pragati Kiska Desh?, attacking the development project, and that he’s here to speak out against it? But with Dr. Ahmadi, there’s no self-pity. There are no laments about the trivialisation of the fourth estate. He simply walks up to the starlet and engages in casual conversation, which directs the media’s attention towards him. He’s smart – perhaps even a bit of an opportunist. He’s cut off soon when they realise they have no use for his moralising, and they return to quizzing the starlet about her next film, but he’s snatched for himself a spot of limelight. Even later, before entering the hall for his big speech, he’s hit by a stone, and instead of fulminating with righteous fury, he goes inside and makes light of this incident.
“Victim nahin banna hai,” Dr. Ahmadi tells Shalini (a miscast Kalki Koechlin), a former student with whom he had an affair, and he subsequently issues threats to intimidate a couple of goons harassing her. Dr. Ahmadi, in short, is far from the good-hearted, conservative Muslim we’d have found in the Manmohan Desai era. (Even his wife, a Hindu named Aruna, was a former student of his, and who can say there weren’t more students that he managed to seduce?) It is this sort of detailing that sets apart the films made these days from the ones we got earlier – we now have evasive characters instead of rock-solid archetypes, and Dibakar Banerjee is nothing if not an expert chronicler of character. This is why he gets such fine performances from actors (yes, even Emraan Hashmi) who do so much with so little. We aren’t given a lot of establishing detail about the oleaginous politician played by Farooq Sheikh – and in that sense, he’s certainly embodying the archetype of the Corrupt Man of Power – but by the end, by the time he’s reduced to exquisite bafflement while staring at the skewer of paneer tikka in his fingers, he’s fleshed out as a completely one-of-a-kind character.
Banerjee’s finely honed sense of detailing extends beyond the people in his films to the places they inhabit. There is a delicious sense of the absurdity that surrounds us when Shalini raises her voice outside the room the bloodstained Dr. Ahmadi has been wheeled into and a nurse reprimands her to step outside: “Yeh hospital hai. Please jaake bahar fighting kijiye.” (The line is also an excellent example of how English and Hindi twine so easily in daily usage, unlike the dialogues in our upscale multiplex movies that creak and groan with the strain of being translated into Hindi from the original English.) And elsewhere, when Krishnan (Abhay Deol), who is overseeing the enquiry into Dr. Ahmadi’s assassination, presides over some sort of hearing, a ball rolls in from outside, where kids have been playing. A man’s death is being discussed, and an assistant has to break away to warn a child, “Yeh khelne ki jagah nahin hai,” that this is not a playground. Speaking of which, when was the last time you saw a character sweating it out in a game of badminton?
If God is in the details, then Banerjee’s films are certainly sky-scraping cathedrals. As if in cognizance of unspeakably dirty dealings, something is always being cleaned in the first half – a bookshelf is dusted, a floor is swept, a corridor is mopped (which only causes someone to skid). And when it comes to who really runs the country, we’re shown clearly that it’s not the power brokers who have minions standing by with bottles of mineral water when the taps in the bathrooms run dry, but the great unwashed masses who throng the streets in constant celebration and bring the cars carrying those powerful men to a grinding halt. Banerjee even manages to delineate, through Abhay Deol, a reasonably convincing Tamilian – a far cry from the caricatures we see in films like The Dirty Picture, which are all surface. With Krishnan, we see a neatly trimmed moustache, hints of talking to his amma, and a way of lapsing into owr (instead of aur) and bejna (instead of bhejna). He doesn’t do this always (in other words, he doesn’t overdo this) – just enough to betray his roots, his tongue, no matter how many postings he’s held in Hindi-speaking states.
But look past these dazzling details, and we get a hollow shell of a film that’s about as “timely” as yesterday’s newspaper. When Costa Gavras made Z (from the Vassilis Vassilikos novel that Shanghai is also adapted from; there are nods here in a permission denied to hold an event in a hall, and in a pickup truck that hovers around menacingly), it was the late 1960s. It was the counterculture, when the Cold War (with its threat that the world would vanish in a mushroom cloud) was a frightening reality, and a peace-mongering politician who spoke of disarmament (the equivalent of the Dr. Ahmadi character) was a genuinely vital figure that people identified with. More importantly, that was an era of widespread mistrust. You couldn’t trust the parents who raised you, the politicians who governed you – and Z, along with the decade’s other political thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate, paved the way for the subsequent decade of mainstream Hollywood movies (Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men) that played on audience’s fears about shadowy government conspiracies.
The fear of those times, that the System was corrupt and out to get you, is no longer a fear – it’s an institutionalized reality that we’ve become inured to. Whether this attitude is healthy in a democracy is a different question – but as drama, these stories simply don’t have the power to jolt us anymore. Banerjee is an admirably high-minded filmmaker, and he won’t resort to conventional dramatic devices. A “lesser” filmmaker would salivate at the prospect of milking the transition of Emraan Hashmi’s character (a pornographer named Jogi, whose most telling detail is that he’s a Rajput who’s a skin-saving coward) from uncaring onlooker to an active participant in the political drama that forms the film’s core, and Jogi’s rooftop escape from thugs out to get him might have become an action set piece. But Banerjee won’t go there. He drains the pulp elements of his story of all juice, as if following Hitchcock’s footsteps from Torn Curtain, where an assassin’s murder is presented not as a thrilling set piece but as a protracted and agonising portrait of how difficult killing someone can be.
That may be how things are in real life, but it cannot be the motivation to watch a movie whose trajectory is so numbingly familiar. People keep making Romeo and Juliet over and over, but the reason an Ishaqzaade works is because of the detailing as well as the drama. There is no shame in amusing an audience, as Banerjee himself proved in his masterful Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, which was both a smart critique of the India we live in as well as a bloody entertaining movie. Even the big reveal here, at the end, carries no charge. Besides, if you’re no fan of conventional drama, why incorporate traditional dramatic moments like the Big Reveal? Why stage half-hearted songs like Bharat Mata ki Jai, which is shoehorned badly into the film in a moment that makes no sense? Shanghai is full of memorable filmmaking but it isn’t a memorable film. There’s a lingering sense here of wanting to rise above the material, which is fine, but then why pick this material in the first place? In a sense, the title could refer to Banerjee as well. Like the politicians in the film who want to sacrifice India for a shining simulacrum of China, he’s rejecting the inbuilt cravings of Indian audiences in favour of a low-key, Western kind of sophisticated filmmaking, easier to admire from a critical distance than be entertained by up close.
Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.