Some films solely entertain, some are pure self-indulgent art. Some films bridge the gap between art and entertainment and are lauded for being a perfect alchemy of the two.
And then there are films like Shanghai. Films that need to be made, films that need to be watched – that stand apart for what they dare to reveal and the artistry through which they reveal it.
I wouldn’t say Shanghai is an entertaining film – no, that is not it’s purpose. But it IS an engaging one, an important one. It grabs you by the soul and forces you to keep watching, to keep anticipating, to keep pondering. And to keep asking.
The film may seem to drag at first. But by the time you hit the third act you realize how the fuse has been burning, soft and slow, from the very first frame, quietly building towards a finale that isn’t stunning because the mystery is solved, but because of how the story unfolding before you makes you feel.
As the pieces fall in place and come together to reveal the true picture, it leaves you awestruck and heartbroken and disgusted all at once. Yet it’s never heavy. There is a wicked humor underpinning the whole thing that is absolutely delicious and signature Dibakar Bannerjee.You may have thought you were one up on the storyteller, but the storyteller is playing you like a puppet all along. And by the time it’s all over, you marvel at how much it managed to say without ever being preachy.
The pacing – which some have complained about- for me, is the absolute hero of the film. It needed to be slow in the first act and a half because it leaves you all the more unprepared for what’s coming. The finale creeps up on you gradually, quietly in a measured way – rather than as a big explosion or big reveal. It is so beautiful – the way the whole thing comes together, I have no words to describe it. The film seems to mirror the viewer’s mood of jaded apathy towards the subject of corruption at the start, but slowly, gently and cunningly coaxes you out of your benumbed state as it reaches its conclusion. It’s marvelous.
You realize that it’s not even the plot (which is pretty straightforward) that’s been building quietly and steadily with the drums beating in the background all along, but the gradual awakening of your emotions and your conscience. And this slow awakening is deliberate. At the start you are several worlds removed from the characters but by the end – you become them.
Rarely is it seen in Hindi cinema – that being so very understated can leave such a powerful, lasting, haunting impact. The whole film lingers like smoke after you’re done watching. Truly magical.
Dibakar’s specialty is paying attention to the small details. Those tiny quirks of character and setting that elevate a basic scene several hundred notches above what it is. And when these details are essayed by a cast of actors as accomplished as the ones in Shanghai, they keep you riveted.
Emraan Hashmi, it goes without saying, is the absolute scene stealer of the show in an utterly endearing turn as pornographer Jogi. Yes, I said “endearing” and “porn” in the same sentence. He’s followed closely by Pitobash who packs tremendous, manic screen presence in his tiny frame. Abhay plods along without too much to do for most of the film but delivers such a bristling, deliciously understated ass-kicking at the end that he may be the thing that stays with you longest after you walk out of the theater.
Farooq Shaikh and Supriya Pathak are the thespians they are, their effortlessness a sheer delight to watch. Veteran Bengali actor Prasenjit Chatterjee is suitably intellectual as Dr. Ahmedi. And Kalki pretty much does her usual angsty thing. The doe eyes do start to annoy after a while but there’s so much going on with her character, especially post-interval that you’re willing to overlook it.
Shanghai doesn’t just make you think. It reaches inside you and forces you to confront the ugly, tucked away truths of our society – a society that isn’t something that exists outside of us in newspapers and the evening news, but lives and breathes inside of us every single day. A story about corrupt politicians is nothing new in India. But one that manages to make you feel so much – without even a hint of emotional manipulation anywhere in sight – is exceedingly rare.
You become the characters on the screen. They are you, you are them. I was Jogi (Emraan) and I was Krishnan (Abhay) and I was Shalini (Kalki). These characters are splinters of all of us. This society and the broken dreams that fester in it, is all of us.
For me, that was the greatest accomplishment of Shanghai. The slow burning fuse, it’s been within you all along. Shanghai just makes you remember that it’s there.
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