Shanghai: Bharat Mata Ki Jai!
A superbly crafted film that is a mirror to present day India, may need a sequel to fully explore the issues it raises
Aakshi Magazine Delhi
The striking thing about Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai is that it builds its initial story around a confusion. Some time into the film, you keep wondering who Abhay Deol and Farooque Sheikh’s characters are working for. Are they working for the government? Then why do they behave as if they are working for the 'IBP'? What is the IBP?
This confusion, which in many ways the film indulges, is the basis of its critique of the ‘Sheher ko Shanghai banana hai’ development model. It very aptly shows the problems with a model where the lines blur, and the government itself is working towards making Bharat Nagar, the (not so) fictitious town in which the film is set, into “ The city of IBP”. An abbreviation of International Business Park, IBP stands for an idea, a development model which works only in the interests of the few over the rest - “ pragati ke naam pe aap inko pachas meel door jagah doge. Phir apne hi ghar main inhe guard bana kar khada kar doge” says Ahmadi, the foreign returned activist-professor who is leading a group of protestors against the proposed SEZ.
This sentiment is expressed clearly in the film. What is not clear is what, in the film’s understanding, are the mechanisms of how and why this situation comes about. In many ways, the form that Banerjee chooses to tell the story through- a crime and the inquiry around it- though making for a good link of its different threads, holds it back.
Nonetheless, this is a remarkable film in many ways. The plot centers on the conversion of Bharat Nagar into an SEZ, in the midst of which Dr Ahmadi (Prosenjit Chaterjee), an activist, gets mowed down in an ‘accident’, while the police stands by as a mute spectator. An IAS officer T.A. Krishnan (Abhay Deol) is made to head what is supposed to be a farcical inquiry into the accident ( “Don’t focus on who was behind it, just find out where the police lapsed” is what his senior, Kaul (Farooque Sheikh) tells him). However, during the course of the inquiry, Krishnan cannot help but get too involved, having to make a choice between giving in and getting a plush position in Stockholm, or staying back in India.
Abhay Deol plays his Tamilian Brahmin character well, with just the right hint of a Tamilian accent that surfaces in his intonation and accent. Kalki gives an unexplained and puzzling tone to her character, Shalini, with a static expression and momentum throughout. Emran Hashmi plays Jogi Parmar with what initially seems like too much effort, but soon settles down well into his video journalist cum porn film-maker character. Farooque Sheikh slips into his role of a manipulative bureaucrat with an ease that makes you wonder if he’s acting.
Banerjee’s trademark sharp observational skills, visible in all his films (Khosla ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Love,Sex Aur Dhokha), are fascinating. Here he moves beyond the style he had mastered in his previous films, displaying a restraint different from his last film LSD, whose characters were in the danger zone of becoming caricaturish. There are endless examples of little detailing here that come to mind. For instance, the manner in which the Chief Minister (Supriya Pathak in a brilliantly essayed cameo) , begins her interaction with Abhay Deol by enquiring about his pregnant wife, while her body language conveys a cold and formal vibe indicating that she doesn’t really care.
Banerjee’s trademark sharp observational skills, visible in all his films ( Khosla ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Love,Sex Aur Dhokha), are fascinating
Though much has been made of Banerjee having used an ‘item song’, ‘imported kamariya’, it has been shot differently- with distance and critique built into it. As the ‘white’ item girl is dancing on stage, she is interrupted by the entry of the neta. She doesn’t seem to mind and there is a vulnerability and everyday-ness about her, unlike the confident seductress we are used to seeing in such songs.
The song is first shown echoing in the background with a long shot of the stage, giving it an alienating effect of actually being a rehearsal you are watching from a distance. So when the film finally cuts to showing it like you are used to seeing such songs, your perspective is different; it no longer remains a seductive dance number. (The inter-cutting of the song with the protestors outside of this space, and the attack on Ahmadi adds to this). A brilliant detail in this song is the ironic use of the rickshaw, reminiscent of the use of the cycle rickshaw at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Delhi, displaying the very things the remaking of the city in the run up to the games had displaced, as exotic ‘symbols’ representing the city’s culture. The other song- Bharat Mata ki Jai- very powerfully captures the passion that only nationalism evokes among people, simultaneously commenting on the dangerous sense of power it entails.
This is a film that has to be watched again to understand its myriad nuances. Abhay and Emran’s characters spell out their caste identities in two similar instances. Abhay’s Tam Bram character is shown wearing a janeyu and performing a puja in front of his laptop, right at the moment when he is attacked and has to cow down in fear. Hashmi’s self professed 'rajput ki mardangi' doesn’t stop him from running away from his home when a tussle over a girl involving possibly class and caste issues made his father ask him- “Bhagna hai ki ladna hai”. Ahmadi, the professor-activist, is not shown as self sacrificing. He seems well settled, traveling in a private jet, with a published book on development. There is a mystery to his character, which though never explained, works well for the film. You are not sure if he is manipulative and his wife’s expressed anger at his not having been able to settle the displaced, adds to this suspicion.
The first scene of the film introduces us to Bhaggu (Pitobash Tripathy) and Jaggu (Anant Jog) who then go on to become a part of an attacking mob, and then the perpetrators of the crime around which the film centers. Interestingly, you never see either of them as the “culprit”. And so Shalini’s outburst at Jaggu doesn’t evoke your empathy. (In that moment, she also says “tumko paisa diya, tumhari beti ko padhaya”, as if demanding almost a feudal loyalty from her ‘maid’ and his husband.) And when Jaggu reacts to her question – “How could you have killed somebody” - with “ You just hit at me in front of my daughter”, the scene has a profound resonance with many unequal interactions you see and are a part of in your everyday life, going way beyond its specificity in the film’s context. Anant Jog hardly needs any dialogues to convey so well his anguish and helplessness. (Perhaps Kalki’s quiet but expression heavy character would have been more lucid had it been played like this?).
A brilliant detail in this song is the ironic use of the rickshaw, reminiscent of the use of the cycle rickshaw at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Delhi, displaying the very things the remaking of the city in the run up to the games had displaced, as exotic ‘symbols’ representing the city’s culture.
But what about the workings of the system within which individuals function. Is the Chief Minister to be blamed? As the film moves towards its resolution, it seems to juggle between being a thriller that will pin all blame on one person, to one which moves beyond affixing individual blame, to understand the larger context.
On the one hand, a resolution seems to emerge in pinning down the CM as corrupt, making the film a part of the convenient 'corrupt politician' drama one has always seen in Bollywood. On the other, the manner in which this plays out, hints at other possibilities. The powerful ending, which shows the perpetuation of the ideology of the IBP, despite the CM having been exposed, starkly undercuts the first resolution. Abhay Deol is not shown as changing the system (nor do we know if he wants to). He only manipulates and maneuvers around it. But as the disturbing ending plays out, you get the feeling that maybe the film hasn’t fully explored the ideas expressed aptly in Ahmadi’s protest speech, which the film began with. Maybe there’s another film there.