Sunday, June 10, 2012


China Syndrome

The title of Dibakar Banerjee’s new film comes from various politicians' pronouncements about turning Mumbai into Shanghai—the Chinese city being the benchmark for progress. 

Indianising Greek writer Vassilis Vassilikos' Z, which was made into an outstanding film by Costa Gavras, Dibakar Banerjee—one of Hindi cinema’s brave new voices—has crafted a contemporary thriller, a simmering cauldron of political skulduggery, corruption and greed.  By now, of course, this sort of thing has been done innumerable times, and the finger of blame pointingtowards a powerful corporation that sounds like Enron would hardly get areaction today, so the film seems a bit naive by present day amoral times.  If Shanghai were to really reflect thereality of small town India aspiring to a slice of the ‘pragati’(progress) pie, it would have to be far more brutal than it is--it should have been disturbing and it isn’t.  Which has more to do with the thick-skinned times we live in, than any shortcomings in Banerjee’s intentions to provoke.

Then there is his verite style; shooting with his LSD cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis,the film seems coated in grime, not even a bit of accidental beauty.  The fictional town it is set in, is populated by ugly, violent men, perpetually in a state of mob frenzy—either dancing with religious fervour or rioting.

The issue that has polarized the fictional town of Bharatnagar is the displacement of a settlement of poor people to build an international business park.   The state’s chief minister (Supriya Pathak) and her cohorts are in favour of it,  but Dr Ali Ahmedi (Prosenjit Chatterjee) tries to get the potential oustees to resist.

After a public function, Dr Ahmedi is knocked down by a truck.  His follower and lover Shalini(Kalki Koechlin) believes it was murder and the man who can help her prove it is a creepy pornographer Jogi Parmar (Emraan Hashmi).  Ahmedi’s grim wife (Tilottama Shome) demandsaction. The state’s principal secretary (Faroouque Shaikh), dangles a Stockholm posting in front of a bureaucrat TA Krishnan (Abhay Deol) and asks him to heada one-man commission to probe the accident. He is up against surly, uncooperative cops and violent hooligans.

What the manipulative wheeler-dealers had not bargained for was Shalini’s persistence and the remnants of a conscience in Krishnan and Parmar.  In the real world, the politicians would have gotten away with murder, smug in the certainly that idealism is dead, and the corpses of dozens of honest whistleblowers line the road to dissent.

The film is dark with short bursts of cynical humour (Krishnan saying his prayers in front of a laptop), and a sense of relentless danger just around the corner.  But its idealism in the face of utter hopelessness somewhat dulls the impact of the film. That and a curious indifference to the plight of the poor who are about to lose their homes. A senior and seasoned bureaucrat being stymied by the threat of exposure of a corrupt deal can only be a script convenience.

Shanghai is not an easy or pleasant watch, but it has a point of view, a thought-out cinematic style and a bunch of actors who play spectacularly against type. Abhay Deol as the inscrutable babu and EmraanHashmi as the scruffy videographer are first rate and can expect a few awardsnominations next year.


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