Shanghai is a masterclass in the craft of filmmaking. There are no two ways about it. The sound design (by Pritam Das) is colossal, as it should be, in a film that rightfully ignores a background score altogether. It works tremendously, doing for atmospherics what even an intense Hans Zimmer score can't. It works in a behind-the-scenes kind of way, which is definitely what a good political thriller must aspire to look like. From the whirring of a ceiling fan in a crucial revelation scene, to the incessant ringing of phones at a cop station, you'd feel that it was Rahman himself conducting this intense symphony of cacophony. And when the few notes of a background score (by Michael McCarthy) are introduced as pure narrative tools, the silence of the noise is long forgotten. Achieving this mood is an art, and the collaboration of this entire department puts you right into the mind of the tortured protagonists. The editing, by the infallible Namrata Rao (Kahaani, LSD), is seamless enough for you to experience more than watch - nothing flashy, just basic solid cutting that should be the hallmark of any good storyteller. The filming, by Nikos Andritsakis, is a different kind of gritty, almost seedy, making you feel the environment of the fictional, but omnipresent Bharat Nagar.
Dibakar Banerjee, the Hindi film director, well-known for his remarkable authenticity and attention to detail, must be lauded, not so much for his powerful latest coming, based on the novel Z by Greek author Vassilis Vassilikos. but for the fact that Shanghai is now officially a 2012 'Bollywood' release. That it falls in the mainstream category is open to debate, and even his most loyal fanboys will realize deep inside that, despite their wishes, this particular offering will not be about numbers at all.
That this director has made it to the top on the back of pure filmmaking skill and technique, and then used his reputation to make a difference with a hard-hitting topic dealt with in the most 'film-festival' way possible is astonishing, given the existence of the parallel world of money churning blockbusters.
So be it, because this 'should' ideally be what Indian cinema is about - a dark, realistic, sans-glamour, thought-provoking portrayal of politics in the heartland at its most brutal. As a pure combination of film elements, Shanghai stands right up there, with the best in the world, reminding us that cinema is but an extension of life, not always a celebration of life. It is all around us, at every moment, engaging us and sucking us into a world we so badly try to ignore.
Already a critical success, it is easy to overlook Shanghai's most basic fault - something that is a product of Banerjee's reputation, and as a result, our expectations from his scripts. What is most underwhelming about this polished product is, surprisingly, its writing, that could have been so much more powerful had it been vintage-Dibakar. By infusing it with the most minimal dark humour, instead relying on the offbeat style of keeping it intense without respite, the writers may have missed a trick. A few wry moments of government office humour apart, the entire pre-interval part begins to resemble the events preceding the killing of the activist in Ghulam. Serious as serious can be, you dare not chuckle hoping to see a Lajpathnagar aunty enter the fray. This drawback might have a lot to do with the filmmaker's decision to stick to the original Z style of not really being very forthcoming about the exact region Bharat Nagar is at. This may cost viewers that delicious sense of relation and hence the power to continuously engage - a skill he has normally excelled at.
Emraan Hashmi has gained a whole new legion of fans - regular movie enthusiasts that ridiculed him for his liplocking expertise - with his sincerely shady portrayal of video-shooter Jogi Parmar, caught at the center of an investigation. Using him as a marketing tool is only natural, and is the least that can be done to publicize a film that would have been relegated to the dusty archives of an obscure European film festival if it'd have been anybody but Banerjee at the helm. Abhay Deol, as TA Krishnan, the bureaucrat with a cat-and-mouse conscience, is extremely effective towards the climax, where he engages in a poker faced power game with his senior. But the scene-stealer would have to be the versatile Pitobash (as the regular ruffian pawn in the game), and seasoned performer Farouque Shaikh, who, as Kaul, lets his face twist into all those expressions you generally see looking back at you from political hoardings at your neighbourhood signal.
All said and done, the best filmmaking course in the world won't be as effective as assisting Dibakar Banerjee in each of his four films. His clear evolution (from storyteller to a technically-efficient director) from the days of his first, Khosla Ka Ghonsla - his arrival as a freshfaced raw-on-the-edges young director with an enviable ability to recreate India's most popular region - to his last, LSD, a classic example of experimental cinema at its entertaining best, must have been a lesson to every single person on the crew he has continuously retained. Now he proves his versatility in what could be his most meaningful, if not best work.
As a regular viewer, the question still remains the same. Would you rather have a Shanghai being discussed as a contender for Best Foreign Film (often a choice that fails to break even at the box office, or pure arthouse cinema) at the Oscars or any other international competition, as chief representative of the new cinema wave in India OR have gaudy posters of a Rowdy Rathore remind the world that THIS is what is breaking 'overseas' records at the Montreal and Melbourne box-office.
Whatever the answer, co-existence is the name of the game. This is worth a watch, just to see what the other end of the spectrum looks like.
- Rahul Desai aka Reel Reptile