The main reason to watch Ghost Stories, the four-film anthology on Netflix, is Dibakar Banerjee's terrifying short. The film, which features a post-apocalyptic zombie town, humans transformed into beasts who eat humans, and two little kids trying to survive, works as straight-up horror. I can't get out of my head a scene in which the boy rubs a dripping-with-blood human bone on his face and gums so that he smells like a cannibal and the zombies, who eat anyone who doesn't eat humans, will spare him. But the film is a Trojan Horse – go beneath the exterior and it turns into something else – a sharp critique of the current political scenario. The last shot, with Gulshan Devaiah gritting his teeth, is guaranteed to haunt you.
For fans of this short, I'd like to recommend another political film that Dibakar made eight years ago – Shanghai. Too few people saw it but, like the short film, Shanghai is a chilling excursion into the Indian polity. It's a journey into the heart of darkness. Shanghai isn't about the Chinese city. It's about what it represents – gleaming buildings, flyovers, factories – in short, progress. The story is set in an unnamed town in India, where the powers that be – politicians, bureaucrats, brokers, foot soldiers – dream greedily of better things. Mostly for themselves of course. They are willing to pay the price that progress involves – corruption, compromise and even murder. When a photographer who is also looking to get rich quick, is killed, another character casually remarks: Abhi dekh shehar ka sensex kidhar gaya abhi marta hai koi?
Shanghai is adapted from Vassilis Vassilikos' novel Z, which was earlier made into an Oscar-winning film (also named Z) by Costa-Gavras. Dibakar and co-writer Urmi Juvekar skillfully graft the premise to India – an activist leader is mowed down by a runaway truck on a crowded street. The chief minister orders an enquiry but it is understood that this is merely a performance. The bureaucrat heading the enquiry, T. A. Krishnan played by Abhay Deol, is expected to declare it an accident and close it without ruffling any feathers. But Krishnan refuses to follow the official diktat. He starts to dig deeper and the breathtaking venality comes spilling out. Dibakar doesn't go for big drama. What makes this film so effective is how quietly it lands its punches. So in once scene, the terrific Farooque Shaikh playing Krishnan's superior, tells him – isko complicate mat karo Krishnan, finish it. Then he casually turns to a server and says, halwa lao. The corruption isn't a big deal – it's a routine part of the job.
Dibakar doesn't go for big drama. What makes this film so effective is how quietly it lands its punches. So in once scene, the terrific Farooque Shaikh playing Krishnan's superior, tells him – isko complicate mat karo Krishnan, finish it. Then he casually turns to a server and says, halwa lao. The corruption isn't a big deal – it's a routine part of the job.
Dibakar is too sophisticated a storyteller to paint in black and white. So everyone is compromised to varying degrees – even the much-worshipped leader. He seems to have a pattern of getting romantically involved with his students. At one point, his wife, who no longer seems enamoured by his idealism, bitterly remarks: Logon ko toh devta chahiye, marne ya maarne ke liye. We the viewers aren't spared either. The film ends with the slain activist looking directly at us. Which reminded me of the last shot in Fandry, Nagraj Manjule's searing portrait of the caste system, in which the traumatized Dalit boy hurls a stone directly at the camera. If the nation is a cesspool, we are all to blame.
Shanghai is arguably Selfiee actor Emraan Hashmi's finest hour on screen. He plays Jogi, a low-level pornographer who gets caught up in a game that is much bigger than him. There are no kissing scenes here, just a brave portrayal of a nondescript man who finds his spine. Abhay Deol as Krishnan and Supriya Pathak as the chief minister are also persuasive.
In Visaranai, director Vetri Maaran's harrowing portrait about police brutality, a character says: The system is all-powerful. We are all but pawns. Shanghai shows us this in exacting detail. The film gives us the comfort of victory but it also establishes that the corruption continues. As a song in the film puts it – Bharat mata ki jai/sone ki chidiya/dengue malaria/gud bhi hai/gobar bhi. And this is unlikely to change because the system, is indeed, all-powerful.
You can find Shanghai on Netflix.