(Published in The New Sunday Express on 10 June, 2012, retrieved from http://newindianexpress.com/entertainment/reviews/article539736.ece)
Cast: Abhay Deol, Emraan Hashmi, Kalki Koechlin, Prosenjit Chatterjee, Supriya Pathak
Director: Dibakar Banerjee
Rating: 4 stars
Shanghai, based on a Greek novel, Z by Vasilis Vasilikos, translates beautifully to the Indian scenario. The claim that the film is a work of fiction seems ironic, because it echoes an issue that every metro is familiar with – land acquisition and the bulldozing of slums.
As an aerial map shows us Every City – Bharat Nagar – we hear a man trying to whistle. He then frowns in consternation as he asks an interlocutor what the English word for ‘mutton’ is. “Mutton,” the other man mumbles. “Matlab Hindi mein same-same?” the first asks, bewildered. Just when you think the scrawny fool is everyone’s punching bag, he gets all aggressive, and threatens the bulky man he’s speaking to. He’s got him an assignment; and it isn’t an offer, it’s an ultimatum. Scrawny Man, addressed by the generic ‘Jaggu’, then joins a group that’s tormenting a shopkeeper and breaking his goods, screaming with the exuberance of vandals.
The scene segues into a tacky presentation watched by a bored T A Krishnan (Abhay Deol). He’s one of those babus, stuck between oily politicians and angry public, as he monitors the construction of the International Business Park (IBP), a dream project of the woman Chief Minister (Supriya Pathak), who’s about to cement her alliance with the Centre.
That’s where things get complicated. We meet the other characters in quick succession – Shalini (Kalki Koechlin), an activist who idolises her former professor Dr. Ahemadi (Prosenjit Chatterjee), Jogi (Emraan Hashmi), who runs a videography (and porn) studio with his brother, and Ahemadi himself, jumping off a chartered plane behind a top-billed actress, whom he doesn’t care to hide he’s having an affair with. He’s witty, charming, magnetic, and we see why he can play Pied Piper with the masses he rouses, as well as the women who know he won’t commit to them. Chatterjee is brilliant in his execution of the part, and brings out the character’s grey shades – he’s the guy who’ll kiss an actress in front of the flashbulbs, he’s also the guy who’ll step up and question the police who’re harassing a single woman. The worlds of all these people collide when a truck mows down Ahemadi, leaving him fighting for his life. And thus begins a satire on our democracy, with the fabric of a thriller.
In a film that has more heavy breathing and silence than dialogue, it’s a remarkable feat of Banerjee’s to portray the corruption everyone takes for granted as such a frustrating, and yet comical, thing that affects us only when it confronts us. He uses several ploys to put in clever commentary – sycophants of the CM use ‘Jai Pragati’ the way some say ‘Ram Ram’; a basketball is hurled into a room where a public inquiry is on, and the player is crossly asked if this is the place for games; an advertisement for a ‘Speak English’ course carries a picture of Superman.
Middle India’s aspirations – money, language, fame, security – are expertly sketched, through asides, lyrics, overheard conversation, and incidental shots. The mockery is poignant in itself, and no one is entirely good or evil. We find ourselves laughing at pronunciation errors, at the story of how Ahemadi met his wife, and – unintentionally on the filmmaker’s part – Abhay Deol’s Tamil, which is the only glitch in his portrayal of a Tam Brahm.
The Verdict: There is an unlikely twist or two, to facilitate a fitting climax, but that’s irrelevant in a film that is such a telling commentary on India.