There's quite a bit to unpack with Shanghai. It's arguably a new height for Dibakar Banerjee (LSD and Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye) as well as a fascinating portrayal of the violence embedded in the political establishment. It's also quite easily Emraan Hashmi's career-best performance.
The city of Bharatnagar is going through rapid change; the political leaders seek to resettle poor people from their homes and construct International Business Park to make for further economic progress. An anti-IBP intellectual, Dr Ahmadi (Prasenjit Chatterjee), gets run over by a truck, which leads the political establishment to launch an enquiry into the incident, lead by political climber Krishnan (Abhay Deol). Shalini, Ahmadi's former student and close ally, believes the case to be a murder by political opponents. Photographer Joginder Parma (Emraan Hashmi) seeks initially just to impress her, but gets more involved in the case as things progress.
Emraan overall was quite a find for me in this film. He embodies the character perfectly. Joginder is quite a useless, aimless layabout (though with a fledgling career in producing pornography, the film seems to imply), sucked into events he doesn't even begin to piece together until it becomes crucial. There's a physicality to his performance that really drew me in, and made me wonder if there really has been a terrific actor hidden in all those shitty films that I've avoided for so long. It just goes to show; you should always give actors a second, third or fourth chance to impress you. You never know what they might turn up with.
A good example of how much Banerjee manages to pack into some of the scenes is the Scarlett Wilson (yes, another white girl in Bollywood! yes, I cringed) item number. The song and dance takes place at a political gathering, where members of the ruling parties clap while the white girl dances in full Indian garb, singing about how far India has come (lyrics, romanized & translated). The subtext is thick; "progress" means Westernization, the girl is dressed "Indian" but imported (which also relates to the white beauty ideals pushed by the media), and the political leaders cheer all this without giving the common man much thought. You have to give Banerjee some serious kudos for not just shoehorning in a white girl in an item number, but actually making a comment on not just politics of progress, but Hindi cinema itself.
And for once, I don't think I'm reading too much into it, and that's a good thing, too.
Every film has its flaws, though, and the central one in Shanghai is that as much as the themes and the overall story fascinated me, the characters did not. I was about to criticise the actors, because as solid as Kalki Koechlin and Abhay Deol were, I wasn't invested in their characters. However, on second thought, I think that might be unfair on the two actors - Kalki does do a good job with her portrayal of the driven half-outsider Shalini, and Abhay's character is supposed to be as stiff a political figure he portrays Krishnan as. They both do their excellent usual, but nothing extra. Does the script not give either enough to work with? I'm not sure, to be honest.
For a portrait of political violence, Shanghai is not the most nuanced, but it does reach some interesting conclusions. It's not a character piece like so many Indian films about politics (Raajneeti, Iruvar) , and it touches on corruption as it penetrates levels of the establishment, but doesn't focus on it. It's a good film, but perhaps what it does best is show us more of what Dibakar Banerjee is capable of.