Direction: Dibakar Banerjee
Actors: Emraan Hashmi, Abhay Deol, Prasenjit Chatterjee, Kalki Koechlin
The Shanghai in the title isn't a city. It’s a state of being, a metaphor, an aspirational fantasy. The story, adapted from Vassilis Vassilikos’s novel Z (earlier made into an Oscar-winning film, also named Z, by Costa-Gavras), is set in an unnamed town in India. The powers that be speak of making the town into Shanghai — a shiny city brimming with housing blocks, flyovers and gleaming office towers. But ‘progress’ comes at a price. It involves dislocation, corruption, moral compromise, murder. Shanghai is a terrifying portrait of the state of the nation.
An activist leader, played by Prosenjit Chatterjee, is mowed down by a truck on a crowded street. The chief minister institutes an enquiry. The bureaucrat in charge, TA Krishnan (played by Abhay Deol), is expected to toe the official line and declare it an accident. But he starts to dig deep.
Aided by the leader’s aide, Shalini (Kalki Koechlin), and part-time pornographer Joginder Parmar (Emraan Hashmi), Krishnan discovers that it was, of course, murder.
Writer-director Dibakar Banerjee and co-writer Urmi Juvekar tell this brutal story with minimal drama. There is nothing high-pitched here, except Kalki’s one-note performance. Instead we have a precise skewering of politicians, bureaucrats, lumpen party workers and the footsoldiers who do the dirty work. Even the leader has chinks in his armour — he’s an adulterer with an eye for attractive students.
Shanghai warms up slowly, so you need to have patience — especially in the first half. But the pleasure of the film is in the details. So Joginder saves Shalini’s number on his cellphone with the name ‘dreamgirl’, spelt d-r-e-e-m, and his boss, who has an incriminating recording, roughly asks her: Who are you to the accidented man?
Dibakar slyly finds flashes of humor where there are none — so in the middle of the tense climax, we inadvertently get a glimpse of Joginder’s porn film, which is both desperately funny and sad.
The ensemble cast is wonderful — from Deol, as the straight-arrow Tamilian IAS officer who finds the strength to be defiant, to Hashmi, whose days of being dismissed as a ‘kissy boy’ are clearly over. Joginder’s cheerfully cheesy world falls apart in a heartbeat. Hashmi imbues him with a startling innocence and even nobility.
Shanghai doesn’t provide the comfort of answers or happy endings. But it forces us to ask urgent questions. It is the best Hindi film I’ve seen this year. I strongly urge you to make time for it.
(You can watch Anupama Chopra review the latest releases on The Front Row, every Friday at 8.30pm on Star World)