Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai (2012) is a peep into the mess of urbanism, the static everyday and it manages to tell a tale of vast proportions. A tale of our cities and its underwired nexuses. You may say this is an old story. Well all stories are. The builder-politician-bureaucrat underhand dealings were well etched even in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1981). What is different in Shanghai is the presence of the ubiquitous digital video camera. I felt the camera continuing its quiet but prominent presence from LSD (2010) into Shanghai. Like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, the underdogs piece together information and re-connect a crime to its perpetrator through images. Much into the film, Kalki’s character Shalini tells the shady but trustworthy Emraan Hashmi’s Jogi “You can do anything to me if you want, but I need that footage.” Yes, it is the footage that counts. The mainstream media in the film is relegated to the television screen. What we see on ground is the migrant from Jodhpur’s digital video store where cheap green curtains form the chroma backdrop for a politician’s advertisement to a couple’s loving proclamations. It is here in a cubby hole on the second floor of a dilapidated building that images are made, copied, renewed, re-processed and saved. There are millions of stores like this in our cities and in our small towns where images are played with. It is here that Banerjee provides the power to fight against a system that remains the same, as much as it changes.
There is time to breathe here. To look carefully at every frame and notice the little details that the filmmaker fills it with. This could have easily been made into a classic political thriller of a ride with quick cuts, pacy action or preaching dialogues. But it is not. And that is its strength. It quietly creeps onto your skin and grows on you as the story unfolds. For me, Dibakar takes conventional material but gives it an unconventional twist. For the enquiry sequence by Abhay Deol’s IAS T.S Krishnan, we watch an ordinary empty room with peeling walls being converted into a enquiry room of a major murder – a woman sweeps the floor, a water cooler whirs, a basketball falls inside, and both Shalini and Krishnan slip on the wet floor outside. The action is almost real-time, but not slow. Every character is slippery and dual. There are nuances which can probably be read and re-read on multiple viewings. This is an urban dystopia unlike that of Satya (1998), where the underworld ruled the netherlands of Mumbai. This is a new dystopia stemming from SEZ’s, displacement and party hooliganism on the streets. The city and film have always had a relationship and in Shanghai, we see a story oft heard and told. But it does so in a rejuvenating way which can only be a good thing for Indian cinema.