It all began with a film about a middle-class man who had saved up some money to buy a little piece of land in his old age. He discovers, first, that his elder son has already made his plans to move to America and then that this little piece of land has now been taken over by a greedy Delhi builder who demands an exorbitant price for the same. Khosla Ka Ghosla, the first film that Dibakar Banerjee directed, with a charming script by writer Jaideep Sahni, was a tale of middle-class dreams crushed by petty corruption and then resurrected again. It is a warm and witty story of wish-fulfilment in which the simple happiness of the happy ending is tempered by the believable realism of its portrait of self-serving venality that can almost thwart a hapless man's simple, even humdrum dreams and aspirations. And yet, as in the fiction of Anthony Trollope, all's well that ends well and we are skilfully led to applaud the denouement when justice is done.
"Is this your idea of justice?" asks a man caught guilty of lining his pockets in the end of Shanghai, a film so completely a contrast from the warmth of the earlier film, that the "happy ending" feels as elusive as the ideas of freedom and fairness. In the six years between the two films, the director had been compelled, through the superbly observed satire Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and the unsavoury but often gripping Love, Sex Aur Dhokha, which bluntly exposed society's capacity for violence and depravity, to question the very optimism of his first film and re-examine the cracks in the plaster of present-day India with a far more critical and cynical gaze.
Shanghai reveals, with the visceral, urgent and eye-opening effect of great political reportage or, to be more precise, eerily prescient fiction, the skeletons of selfishness and venality that lie only loosely hidden beneath the larger-than-life advertisements and announcements of those so-called "redevelopment" plans. Plans that promise to transform a city or a village but which only end up corrupting our morality by playing on our aspirations.
Dr. Ahmadi is a respected, handsome and preening crusader of causes, far from morally upright himself but still worshipped due to his way with words. He has arrived in Bharat Nagar, a fledgling town which the ruling party of the state has grandly planned to transform into a Special Economic Zone with promises of better livelihood and lifestyle for its residents. Even as the local authorities have cancelled his permission to cry out his dissent and his young paramour Shalini has also received a fatal warning, the doctor is not to be deterred. And after he has won again a rousing applause from his devoted listeners, a truck mows him down on a street too conveniently empty and all hell breaks loose.
The police declare it as a case of drunken-driving, Ahmadi's estranged wife appears on the television screens insisting on an enquiry and so that the confidence trick succeeds even more perfectly, an enquiry is indeed set up. But soon the damning truth starts to trickle out through the cracks in the public statements and the slickly-groomed bureaucrat appointed to administer the verdict seems to be too curious about why the diary at the police station is missing a page.
The said bureaucrat, Krishnan is played brilliantly by Abhay Deol, who conveys the stiff-lipped demeanour of a conscientious man trapped by his duty with perfect restraint and believability. Helping him reluctantly to dig deeper is Emraan Hashmi's seedy videographer who witnesses the act himself. Hashmi coats this dirty and disillusioned character with the grimy texture of a man so morally compromised that he yearns for a shot at redemption. Banerjee cleverly casts many an unfamiliar face as enigmatic characters who make their own meticulous moves on this stained chessboard of duplicity. It is also a delight to see veteran actors like Farooque Sheikh and Supriya Pathak play supremely cunning players, each pulling the strings with their officious instructions.
Banerjee is also known for the stylistic economy of his direction, the single-minded linearity in which his camera follows his characters and chronicles their actions and instincts. Shanghai revels in its immediate and atmospheric cinematic style, in which the danger and cathartic horror of the revelation are heightened by how the director places us frequently in the thick of almost every situation conveyed. Be it in the hot, dusty classroom where Krishnan coldly interrogates an indifferent police commissioner or in the back of a truck driving through streets aflame with angry rioters, a particularly unsettling scene that captures all the murderous disorientation of needless anarchy in a single shot that whirls around in a dizzying circular movement, we are always at the center of the action. The film's photography is as important as its script – Banerjee never even hints what lies in the darkness of night on the side of the road but when a light is flashed on the horrible secret, the sight is as horrifying as the reason behind it.
Every decade of Hindi-language cinema gets the political film that it deserves. The post-independence years saw films critiquing the ethics of industrialisation and capitalism; The art-house movement of the 1970s and 1980s revealed the ill-built foundations of law and order that allowed social injustice to flourish and in the last two decades, films like Maachis and Hazaaro Khwahishein Aisi took viewers out of the cold comfort of the millennium and reflect on the revolution and anarchy that stormed the decades before them. The 2010s, by contrast, was a largely apolitical decade – storytellers were more interested in defeating stereotypes and reinventing the language of cinema. Even as other skilled directors like Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bhardwaj did flirt with the troubling concerns of the time, they faltered in bringing these concerns under the spotlight.
In contrast, Banerjee's film is wholly devoted to its indictment of the sham called "Progress" and does not rein in its punches. But what is even more admirable is how honest it is, both morally and intellectually. Excepting Krishnan, who too cannot summon enough courage, till the end, to tell the truth, every other character in the film is flawed in more than one way and instead of a convenient conclusion in which the guilty would be punished, Shanghai ends with a bitterly ironic closing scene which reveals that the conspiracy is far from over.
And it goes on even today, which makes one realise just how prophetic Shanghai has turned out to be, a film to revisit today in a time when most of our political cinema is only propaganda for whatever cause the directors believe in themselves.
Ten years ago, it would have been a despairing cry of protest at the hollowness of dreams to make our cities as gleaming as its titular namesake. Watching it today feels like seeing a reflection of everything wrong in India right now – political hooliganism, spineless servility, pointless deification of our leaders and a violent attack by the state and its foot soldiers at whoever raises a voice of dissent. The dream of becoming Shanghai has remained beyond our grasp as ever and in its wake, only new nightmares have filled our minds.