Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai, while receiving much acclaim, has also been subjected to scathing criticism. The first line of attack, ostensibly aesthetic, compares Shanghai with Costa Gavras’ 1969 political thriller Z, and finds it sorely wanting. The second type of criticism, often merging with the first, holds Shanghai’s politics up as either ridiculously unbelievable, deeply compromised, or both. By not showing working-class activists, “by portraying only the hypocrisies and the futilities of middle and upper class characters, whose so-called good intentions and attempts for justice are constantly thwarted by ‘the system’”, the film “betrays the one place where inspiration is found: the protest in the people’s movement,” writes one critic. Another criticism, in the pages of this newspaper, contrasts the “brilliant agitprop” of Costa-Gavras’ “protest classic” with Shanghai’s “elitist” tale of “middle-class saints, villainous politicians, and cartoonish proletarian thugs”; “in a movie supposedly realistic”, it argues, “Mr Banerjee cannot handle politics except as a joke”.
Z, based on a 1966 novel by Vassilis Vassilikos, was a thinly fictionalised account of the 1963 assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis. In the film, an activist leader referred to as “the doctor” arrives from abroad to lead a peace rally, and becomes the target of a drive-by clubbing. A young magistrate is appointed to investigate the incident, and proceeds, almost accidentally, to uncover evidence that it was not an accident but an assassination.
In Shanghai, an activist leader called Dr Ahmadi (Bengali actor Prosenjit) arrives, also from abroad (“America”), to address a meeting in a dusty little North Indian town. He is there to oppose the International Business Park, pet project of the chief minister of the “most progressive state in the country”. He is mown down by a pick-up truck, and a young IAS officer called T A Krishnan (Abhay Deol) is put in charge of an inquiry into the incident.
Despite these surface plot similarities, I would argue that what Dibakar Banerjee does with Shanghai is quite different from what Costa-Gavras did with Z — and deliberately so.
The most striking difference between the films is one of tone, and of the possibility of identification. Z is clever and obviously satirical: you enjoy the fall of the buffoonish generals, you revel in the unmasking of their pretence of rule of law. But you’re kept at a distance: you know nothing about these people, and you cannot identify with any of them. Not the activists sniping at each other even as the doctor lies dying, not the photojournalist who seems driven only by a desire for a scoop. And yet it seems very clear indeed who the good guys and bad guys are.
Shanghai replaces Z’s generals with high-level political operators – Supriya Pathak’s smilingly sinister “CM Madam”, Farooq Sheikh’s smooth Principal Secretary – who are no buffoons. Mr Banerjee also gives his characters just enough of a past that we might begin to understand them — but their histories are grayer than anyone in Z’s world. Dr Ahmadi is charismatic but glib, a clever opportunist, his womanising and his clay feet hinted at by his wife; his student Shalini is a wide-eyed acolyte with a scam-accused father; sleazy porn videographer Jogi has a history of running away. So much for “middle-class saints”.
As for “cartoonish thugs”, that seems much more accurate as a description of Z’s Yago and Vago than Shanghai’s Jaggu and Bhaggu. Unlike Z, Mr Banerjee’s film actually opens with these characters: we see Jaggu reluctantly acquiesce to a plan that the more optimistic Bhaggu has already promised to carry out. We hear of Bhaggu’s aspirations: encapsulated in the short term by the eating of mutton, and in the long term by the learning of English, sole ticket to a white-collar life: “manager ban ja, tie pehen ke bindaas”. Jaggu and Bhaggu, much more sympathetic characters than Yago and Vago, are dupes of a system that can easily sacrifice them — and does.
But the most crucial re-orientation here is in re-orienting the magistrate from a neutral face, in Z , to a figure known to be “CM ke favourite”. It is Krishnan’s investment in the India Business Park’s vision of development that makes the possibility of his turnaround significant. If he can be made to see the rot, the film gently suggests, so might the rest of the educated urban elite.
But to accuse Mr Banerjee of turning “the movie’s sole upright, religious, overeducated, upper-class man” into an agent of “salvation” is simply wrong. Salvation, or the possibility of it, is precisely what Shanghai does not offer us. Even the much-criticised “filmi” climax only gives us a small personal victory: the system carries on.
The new Bombay cinema of the multiplex cannot produce a “protest classic”. Mr Banerjee, I suspect, would be the first to tell us that that was not his aim. Far from being a failed attempt at realism, Shanghai is the stuff of nightmares. It is a mirror in which the middle class might see its distorted face.