Movie Name: Shanghai
Critic Rating: 3.5 Star
Star Cast: Emraan Hashmi, Abhay Deol, Kalki Koechlin, Prosenjit Chatterjee and Amin Raj
Director: Dibakar Bannerjee
Producer: Ajay Bijli
Music Directer: Vishal-Shekhar
Genre: Political Thriller

Shanghai Story
A tiny, twisted fellow with an odd set of stained teeth lies around holding a hockey stick, contemplating the English word for mutton with friends one afternoon. He’s handed over a bucket of black paint. Suddenly, surrounded by a supporting mob, this jobless bloke leads a march down the street. We’re not sure if the person he’s attacking is a bookstore owner or a local academic. He smears black paint over that person’s face, in slow motion, bringing to life the common metaphor, “Mooh kaala karna”. This is a recurring image of mob violence in India. We’ve seen news clips of university professors going through this quite often. You wonder what kind of people indulge in this.

Well, this scruffy boy Bhaggu (Pitobash, delivering an absolutely cracking performance) does. You don’t know what kind of a world he inhabits. That’s precisely what the film wants to go backstage and explore. It’s the film’s first scene. The intention is made clear. What follows is a picture that strikingly captures the chaos and curfews of middle India (deftly handled by cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis), exposing the rule of mob where democracy is merely centred on state-craft and elections, as against statesmanship or equality.

We see this goofy goon Bhaggu again. This time the henchman is hired to bump off a prominent professor, who’s visiting his small-town. His target, Dr Ahmadi (Prasenjit), is a slightly unexplained figure – part academic, part local activist, he seems a cross between Amartya Sen, Arundhati Roy and Medha Patkar. He wants to stall an international business park being set up in this town. He can see how a ‘special economic zone’ will be exploitative towards locals. They will be moved out of their homes, some may be rehabilitated further away, few may find jobs, but they will get relegated as second class citizens servicing a new economy. Dr Ahmadi's opinion bears mass appeal. This can’t be good for the government sponsored project. He dies in a road accident that everyone is convinced was pre-planned murder. The chief minister is in a spot. She institutes an inquiry, plants her chosen bureaucrat to investigate the case.

Hence emerges a pious Tamilian Brahmin IAS officer Krishnan (Abhay Deol, brave choice for a leading man). The wily principal secretary (Farouque Sheikh, bang-on) is his boss. The local SSP, an IPS officer, could be involved in this murder. Or maybe the entire state machinery is, who knows. This becomes then the first Indian mainstream film (perhaps since Dev Bengal’s English, August) to dig into the protocols and plotting that greases the wheels of Indian civil services. The film details it right down to the badminton court at the club, which is bureaucratic India’s equivalent of the corporate golf course. We complain about the system quite often. Well, this is the system. Civil servants over time become minor mimics of political masters they salute to. That Krishnan could be a neutral investigator, you know, will become a problem. But he’s no saint. No one can be.

There are startling evidences before him. Dr Ahmadi’s activist girlfriend (Kalki) conducts a parallel probe of her own. A seedy porn filmmaker (Emraan Hashmi, in his finest performance yet) was present at the site few minutes before the accident or murder took place. His partner who had vital clues has been killed. Both Kalki and Hashmi’s characters are now on the run. Krishnan’s lodge is attacked. This is a gritty drama, just as amusing as it is disturbing. 

Between artistry and analysis, Dibakar Bannerjee, one of the most exciting filmmakers around, chooses to entertain first. He doesn’t shy away from slipping in an “item number” either. This is what separates his deeply observant, highly visual cinema (Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, LSD, or this one), from socially conscious art-house movement of the ‘80s. This film, like ‘80s parallel films, is co-produced by NFDC. It will probably connect with crowds far more.

Yet, in its breathless pace, the film sadly fails to shine any light on several facets of democracy that would play key roles in a high-profile case such as this – opposition parties, for one, higher judiciary, for another. Even the dead activist’s wife (Tillotama Shome) who becomes a face for the alert media is strongly introduced but quietly forgotten.

An investigative drama where culprits are already known isn’t a novel idea. Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988) was only recently rehashed and destroyed by Priyadarshan’s Bollywood remake Aakrosh (2010). This film is inspired by Vassilis Vassilikos’ book Z, based on a true incident from 1960s Greece. It was made into Costa Gavras’ well-received film of the same name. Reviewing that film, top critic Roger Ebert had said, even for Americans, this could be a movie about (locally popular subjects) like My Lai massacre, killing of Fred Hampton, Bay of Pigs... It’s not that Greek after all.

Bannerjee smartly finds in the book the central conflict of rising India: displacement of poor locals versus development for richer millions. Neither side can be ignored. India, at present, houses the world’s largest number of people displaced for development projects. Not all of it could’ve been fair. The CM in this film could well be Modi or Mayawati, though she (Supriya Pathak) decidedly looks like Vijayraje Scindia. Shanghai could well be called Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Punjab, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh.... This is that universal story of modern India, interestingly told, enticingly captured. It must be watched, and relished, for sure.