Shanghai was released at the height of interest in the new Independent Indian film production cycle. Though the film managed a commercial Indian release it did not reach UK cinemas and I was frustrated not to be able to see it at my local Cineworld in Bradford. I recently unearthed it from deep in the bowels of MUBI’s catalogue. I’m not sure that MUBI has known what to do with some of its Indian acquisitions since this film has not been given the full treatment with reviews and extra material. In the end I was glad to be able to see it before it disappeared from the streamer.
My interest in this film was sparked first of all by its director Dibakar Banerjee. I had enjoyed his first film, the comedy Khosla Ka Ghosla! (India 2006) and then found his contribution to the compendium film Bombay Talkies (India 2013) to be the best of the four short narratives on offer to celebrate the centenary of Indian cinema. Banerjee is an intriguing character whose career began in advertising and by Indian standards he has made relatively few feature films, having started in his late thirties. He seems to have continued making advertising films so perhaps that is how he gets his funding (but I note that this film also had some support from the NFDC – National Film Development Corporation). His films are generally received as being at the more commercial end of the Indian Independent spectrum. Shanghai seems placed as more controversial and ‘edgy’. The location for the film suggests a city blessed/poisoned by modern capitalist exploitation, something like Shanghai and its depiction as the great postmodern global city. It also occurred to me that the narrative includes elements similar to those in Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger (2008) which gained recognition in the UK after winning the Booker Prize.
The film’s story actually has a rather different source, the 1966 Greek novel by Vassilis Vassilikos that was adapted a couple of years later for the Costa Gavras film Z (France 1969), a film made in Algeria masquerading as Greece that was a significant commercial hit and awards favourite. The original was based on the story of a Greek opposition politician during the period of the military junta in power in Greece from 1967 to 1974. This more recent Indian adaptation by Urmi Juvekar and Dibakar Banerjee features several scenes which match exactly those in the Costa Gavras film, but also some different themes and a slightly different tone I think. It feels authentically like an Indian political thriller – i.e. it is familiar from other Indian films. In the fictitious city of ‘Bharatnagar’ (or is it a smaller district/town in a wider urban sprawl?), presumably a state capital, a large business development project known as ‘IBP’ is being pushed through by ‘The Front’, a coalition of political parties on the right, headed by the state’s chief minister, ‘Madamji’ (Supriya Pathak). The project is clearly damaging for several groups of the poor and lower caste peoples whose land is being illegally re-possessed. A leading leftist figure Dr Ahmedi (Prasenjit Chatterjee) comes to the city to speak to his supporters but the local ‘goons’ in the pay of the The Front are being organised to sabotage the meeting. When Dr Ahmedi comes out of the meeting hall where he has addressed his followers, a small truck is driven at speed knocking him down as he faces the mob. He will spend the rest of the narrative in a coma.
The Chief Minister institutes an investigation into the ‘accident’ and appoints an ambitious civil servant, T. A. Krishnan (Abhay Deol) to head the enquiry. Meanwhile, Shalini Sahay (Kalki Koechlin), Dr Ahmedi’s former student in New York and his most ardent follower, is outraged and determined to uncover the corruption and the conspiracy that has put her leader in hospital. Her response to the hit-and-run soon brings her into contact with local videographer Jogi (Emraan Hashmi) who has captured aspects of the events on a disc. Shalini also meets Dr Ahmedi’s wife (Tillotama Shome) at the hospital and the two women don’t immediately get on. These are the six principal characters of the narrative and the six lead actors. There is also a group of secondary characters who are the paid disrupters and in effect murderers/assassins. I won’t spoil the plot directly any more and I’ll turn instead to analyse the kind of film Shanghai develops into and how it creates meanings. It’s a film that does have some problems, at least for me, but overall it is very successful.
I struggled with the narrative a little because of the six lead actors I only know the work of Kalki Koechlin and Tillotama Shome (who has very little to do, but don’t miss her at the end of the film). Both are associated for me with the ‘Independent’ sector of Indian cinema and at this time in 2012 Kalki Koechlin was in many ways the ‘poster girl’ of this new kind of cinema, partly because of her relationship with Anurag Kashyap, the leading writer-director of the Independent production movement. In his blog posting on the film, Omar Ahmed suggests that Koechlin is miscast in the film and she is indeed an odd character, especially because she seems to have been given a peculiar hairstyle (is it a wig?) that doesn’t suit her and she is required to be quite volatile in the frustration she feels in trying to uncover the truth. This means some almost melodrama acting is required that is sometimes even more disruptive than might be intended. I think part of the problem is the background information about her character which I found confusing. She is introduced as the daughter of a General who has been arrested and kept in prison on remand by the government. Dr Ahmedi is taken to her house as his base for the visit and there is clearly a strong attraction between the two of them. Later on, during her investigation, Shalini is assumed to be a foreigner or an ‘outsider’. (Kalki Koechlin is the daughter of a French couple living in Tamil Nadu but she is an Indian citizen and speaks French, English and Hindi.)
The most intriguing character is Jogi. Emraan Hashmi, like Koechlin, is a well-known actor who is given a beer belly and other distinctive features to turn him into a ‘disreputable’ character. The character has a back story forcing him to leave home and move to Bharatnagar where he is now a videographer making money from filming anything that pays. His ‘bread and butter’ is cheap pornography made with his friend Vinod. He has got some work filming Front politicians and is always sniffing round any action. Jogi and Shalini will make a strange pair. Initially he wants to sell his evidence but later he will have other motives. Krishnan plays the Jean-Luis Trintignant role from Z, except that he is a very Indian figure – a career civil servant who takes his investigation seriously but is also drawn into playing dangerous political games.
The biggest difference between Shanghai and Z is arguably the former’s exposure of the corruption/incompetence of the police and the exploitation of the poor. Those who carry out the attack on Dr Ahmedi include one character who needs money to pay for the English lessons which might help him get a better job. Many of the poor will be removed from their homes and shipped to a re-settlement development out of town. They will not advance economically since it will become more expensive to commute back in for any service jobs that might become available. The poor who resist or who cause problems are easily eliminated by more paid thugs with the police turning a blind eye to the crimes. Although it is set in 2012, Shanghai seemed remarkably on the nose when it refers to corruption within the governing party – contracts going to friends of those in power without proper contracting bids. Now, what does that remind me of in the UK during the COVID pandemic? Several current British ministers need to be investigated on that score. Things in India have seemingly got worse in India as well since Modi won the 2014 general election and increased his majority in 2019.
Shanghai is only 102 minutes long but it packs in an enormous amount of plot – possibly too much. When I thought back over what I’d seen, I realised that there were aspects of the plot that I had forgotten. Included in that running time are two extended musical song and dance sequences. No subtitles for either I’m afraid, but one within the politicians/senior police officials etc. and one within the poorer community: I wish I had had more time to think about what they contributed. Whatever its minor flaws, I think Shanghai is an important film showing real ambition to present the genuine evils of the current political situation in India. The world really is a shitty place right now and this kind of narrative of exposure is needed more and more. If you can find it, Shanghai is well worth investigating.
Here’s the Hindi trailer (no English subs):