A SEARING THRILLER
One hasn't watched an 'angry' film on the Hindi screen in a very long time. Gone are the days when filmmakers took a hard look at contemporary socio-political events and projected their concerns and consciousness through compelling cinema. Between frivolous global romances and paeans to the underworld, we have compromised the art of reflection and introspection on the immediate. Perhaps the last such film to rattle our collective conscience was Sudhir Mishra's Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi. Finally, Dibakar Banerjee's fourth film, Shanghai, makes another distinctive statement about the discontent and chaos of modern India.
Obviously the filmmaker doesn't have answers to the cauldron of repressed rage that's being systematically quashed in the name of progress. But at least he cares enough to put it out there, and doesn't alienate himself by taking an intellectual or moral high ground. Shanghai is not a new story. An unnamed town is caught in the throes of unrest when politicians and foreign investors flock to transform it into an urban paradise by creating special economic zones and start vacating colonies indiscriminately to speed up the process. Goons masquerading as protestors run amok in broad daylight while the police and the establishment look away. Sounds familiar?
At the centre of the crisis is a neighbourhood called 'Bharat Nagar', a microcosm for the nation in flux, where a small band of social activists fight a losing battle to save the colony from falling into the hands of big business. A respected and savvy leftist leader Dr. Ahmedi (Prosenjit Chatterjee) arrives in town to unify the residents against the acquisition, but is quickly and callously eliminated. His student and lover (Kalki Koechlin) is horrified by this staged 'accident' and determined to seek justice. A porn videographer (Emraan Hashmi in a career-defining role) who has watched the incident from the sidelines gets drawn into the action for different reasons, while the IAS officer who is appointed as a one-man commission to investigate the episode (Abhay Deol) finds himself trapped in a no-win game, but ends up unearthing more than his bosses would have liked.
Through this political drama we see the minutiae of a complex network of deceit and depravation from which nobody can come out unscathed. Banerjee and his co-writer Urmi Juvekar have adapted a novel called Z by Vassilis Vassilikos which was first brought to the screen by Costa Gavras in 1969 into a blistering thriller. It's a slow-burning screenplay built piece-by-piece to the final implosion, where everything collapses on itself. There is no room for catharsis in this bleak world.
The triumph lies in Banerjee's vision marked by small details of character -- the truck-driver responsible for the accident (Anant Jog in a gut-wrenching act) is perhaps the most poignant face in the crowd. He is a disenfranchised, clueless pawn who will be crushed one way or another. Principal secretary Kaul (Farooque Sheikh, such a delight to have him back!) on the other hand, is a slimy smooth-talker to the core, while Supriya Pathak's Chief Minister sends a chill down your spine in a single scene that encapsulates the machinations of political bigwigs.
Employing a minimalist style in dialogue (the only person who makes declamatory speeches is heard babbling in the background -- his words are pointless in any case) and exposition, the director allows Nikos Andritsakis' stunning impressionistic cinematography (characterised by close-ups and harsh back-lighting) and an unsettling, clamorous sound design to convey the message. So that when the videographer and another local goon (Pitobash Tripathy) break into a frenzied dance number called "Bharat Mata ki jai", the irony is a body blow to the world's largest democracy.