(Published in The Sunday Guardian on 10 June 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/subtle-moments-of-irony)
Cast: Abhay Deol, Emraan Hashmi, Kalki Koechlin, Prosenjit Chatterjee, Supriya Pathak
Director: Dibakar Banerjee
Rating: 4 stars
Thriller and satire don’t usually make good bedfellows, but Shanghai is an exceptionally clever mix. It’s also that rare thing in Indian cinema – a fast-paced crime story that allows for subtlety and sound design. There are so many delightful moments and lines whose import is in timing that I’m not sure how much to reveal.
The wordplay begins with the title – the noun refers to a promise that Bharat Nagar, the fictitious setting of the film, will equal the phoren metro through development; the verb form is a synonym of ‘trickery’. The film opens to an aerial map of Bharat Nagar, where prime tracts of land have been claimed by slums. A woman Chief Minister (Supriya Pathak), who it is later hinted hails from Delhi, is trying to become a national player, while chasing industrialisation.
At the centre of the tussle between slum dwellers, represented by fiery activist professor Dr. Ahemadi (Prosenjit Chatterjee), and the government, is the International Business Park (IBP) project, for which land must be acquired. When Ahemadi is mowed down by a truck, bureaucrat Krishnan (Abhay Deol) is tasked with conducting an enquiry to establish whether it was an accident. As Ahemadi lies in the ICU, his protégé Shalini (Kalki Koechlin) and opportunistic videographer Jogi (Emraan Hashmi) get involved, forcing Krishnan into tricky decisions.
Despite limited screen time, Chatterjee excels as the magnetic mass leader on whom celebrity status sits easily. He is no saint, though, and that brings me to one of Shanghai’s best aspects – every character and situation is believable. From the women who succumb to Ahemadi’s charisma despite feeling betrayed by his glad eye, to the motormouth who’s silenced by mockery of his English, to the murderer who tries to warn his victim, to the sleazeball who’s moved to chivalry, each character is complex.
The filmmakers go out of their way to establish Krishnan’s Tam Brahmness – his IIT education, his sacred thread (worn correctly, a rare feat on celluloid), shlokas stored in MP3 format on his laptop, Madrasi Hindi devoid of aspiration. Short of setting his ringtone to Bhaja Govindam in M S Subbulakshmi’s voice, he gets everything right. The only aspect I couldn’t relate to was Abhay Deol’s incomprehensible Tamil. But that, like a couple of implausible occurrences that set off the denouement, is forgivable in a thriller this good.
This stylised film injects humour into the gravest moments, as so often happens in life. Irony is found in the idiosyncrasies of Indian English, in the lyrics of Bharat Mata ki Jai, the greeting ‘Jai Pragati’ and, most hilariously, in the epilogue.
The Verdict: This film’s worth more than one watch.