Why We Need Films Like Shanghai in the Age of Hyper-nationalism

Bollywood

Why We Need Films Like Shanghai in the Age of Hyper-nationalism

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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n one of the early scenes of Dibakar Banerjee’s terrific Shanghai, a stone is hurled at Dr Ahmadi (Prosenjit Chatterjee), an activist, while he is mid-speech on a makeshift stage. Ahmadi brushes off the attack lightly, jokingly calling it “hail”. Applause ensues and his convincing speech about the heavy price of development continues. Except, it’s merely the calm before the storm. Once he steps down after finishing his speech, Ahmadi is mercilessly mowed down, which the police justify as an unfortunate drink-driving case.

The setting had all the expected ingredients for unrestrained and continuous drama, yet the film chose to leave it muted, forcing the audience to let it affect them sans any decoration. This scene is a classic example of films provoking you to feel, instead of telling you how to feel. It’s a rarity in the Hindi film industry, where the currency is always overdoing and every frame is overloaded with profound dialogues. You don’t go “Less is more” when you sit through an elaborate two-hour long Yash Raj Film, do you?

But some of the greatest films are often marked by the directors leaving just their visual signature on frames. Take Dibakar Banerjee and what he pulled off with Shanghai, for instance. The film, which completes six years this week, was one of the most politically astute Hindi films and an anguished cry at the state of our society. Yet, this underrated gem wouldn’t have worked had the film not maintained an adequate cloud of silence in every frame through its laborious pacing, taut writing, and strained lighting. It is effectively a masterclass in minimalism.

Dimly lit frames, dark alleys, tight spaces, and underdressed characters make for an uncomfortable viewing experience. And, the best part is that Banerjee doesn’t even pretend to ease you in and familiarise you with its universe. The audience is instead, expected to be nothing more than a distant viewer, for they are witnessing nothing less than the death of their civilised society.

One of Shanghai’s strongest points is its accurate delineation of Delhi’s bureaucratic culture. That the system is rotten to the core is common knowledge. But Banerjee eschews painting the officers in broad strokes. TA Krishnan (Abhay Deol), is an IAS officer, whose righteousness doesn’t come in the way of wielding power over Dr Ahmadi from speaking out against his pet project. Granted, he is flawed, but the film refuses to paint him as evil. As a result, Banerjee successfully conveys a refined understanding of the culture of corruption where even though individuals and the system feed off each other, not all of them are corrupt. As Shanghai illustrates, people and their actions are coloured by their circumstances and what the system coerces them into being. It’s a nuance that’s been rarely depicted in pop-culture that chooses to be reductive.

In the film’s opening scene, a mob backed by the ruling party vandalises a bookstore and blackens the owner’s face for stocking copies of Dr Ahmadi’s book, which is critical of their big-scale project.

It’s also how the film sees its other characters. There’s the dispirited Shalini (Kalki Koechlin), who is impossible to like even though you can’t help but empathise with her. She’s a bundle of contradictions — inexplicably stubborn yet instantly vulnerable. On the other hand, there’s Jogi (Emraan Hashmi), a devious man who is adept at emitting disgust every time he’s in the frame. Yet, despite his unabashed raunchiness and complete lack of morality, it’s Jogi who makes the most telling metamorphosis in the film. (It is probably the only time a filmmaker envisaged Emraan Hashmi for a part that didn’t involve a testosterone overdrive — and boy did he deliver.) For, in the world of Shanghai, life happens only while dealing in the grey.

In doing so, the film actively thwarts the audience from taking a moral position. Even as it delves into the politics of development. In the film, opulent projects are often comfortably sold to the public in the name of progress and the vanity that accompanies them distracts people from pondering over their social costs. Shanghai takes it a step forward by proving how easy it is for the state machinery to conveniently label those who resist this celebration of grandeur as enemies of growth. In the film’s opening scene, a mob backed by the ruling party vandalises a bookstore and blackens the owner’s face for stocking copies of Dr Ahmadi’s book, which is critical of their big-scale project. Doesn’t sound very unfamiliar, does it?

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Despite its characters meeting their logical ends, the film doesn’t go out of its way searching for closure.

Image Credits: Dibakar Banerjee Productions

In the film, the ruling party’s loyalists – overcommitted at demonstrating their devotion toward the chief minister – have adopted “Pragati” (development) as the buzzword for routine parlance. Party members — without an iota of irony — greet each other with a chucklesome “Jai Pragati” while exchanging pleasantries. It is confounding to discern how accurate Shanghai was in foreshadowing the country’s future. In less than a year of the film’s release, “Pragati” translated to a more masculine “Vikas”, that doesn’t just thrive but also continues to dominate the Indian political discourse. And, as the past weeks have taught us, those unwilling to be swayed by the embrace of Vikas meet the same fate as the Sterlite protestors.

What also makes Shanghai stand out even more, is its abject abandonment of false hope. Despite its characters meeting their logical ends, the film doesn’t go out of its way searching for closure. No character attains anything significantly better than where they’d started from. In fact, one might suspect that they are actually left in despair; their struggle amounting to nothing. The system though, against all odds, reaches where it aimed for: Pragati does take over. But, it comes at a staggering cost.

Reality is seldom laid out this bare on the celluloid and that’s the beauty of Shanghai.

Even though Shanghai makes for an uncomfortably visceral viewing experience, it could have easily have been adapted into a political potboiler with countless twists, item songs, and stereotypical portrayals of the bureaucracy. But, Banerjee refuses to let go of his conviction, and instead manages the impossible: humanising the dealings in the grey.

It’s precisely what most Bollywood political thrillers fail to do, instead going the predictable, verbose, and OTT route.

Shanghai, on the other hand, pledges its commitment to a minimalist experience from the get-go and is ultimately an exercise in restraint. In a way, it can be looked as a balm for the hyper-nationalistic age we live in. Nearly every Banerjee film has had political undertones in varying degrees. But with Shanghai, he pulled off something so disturbingly evocative that it makes for an authentic account of the murky waters lying underneath the veneer of development. For that alone, it is one of the most important films of our times.

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