Dibakar Banerjee and Abhay Deol were reason enough for me to watch Shanghai in the first week of its release. Dibakar set high expectations with Khosla Ka Ghosla and Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (haven't watched LSD), and Abhay remains a favourite right from his first flick.
Shanghai gave me a good feeling with the opening credits itself when I saw the NFDC stamp on it. Expectations were somewhat set there. The film opened with Pitobash in his Shor-like zingy state, assuring his accomplice on how it's ok to kill someone. As the film progresses, we don't really get the context right away, and there is no voice-over to help us understand it soon either. Dibakar cleverly gets us into the thick of the story through intertwined events with multiple characters. The characterizations are made clear with subtle hints - Prosenjit as the poster-boy activist who doesn't mind taking risks to his life for the cause he's fighting for and doesn't mind being seen hobnobbing with an actress because she sits in his morcha, Abhay Deol as the sincere babu who wants to do something but is thrown into something else because the CM likes him and wants him on an important action, Emraan as the lively photographer who wants to make sleazy films but is dragged to cover political events by his brother/employer.
Dr. Ahmedi (Prosenjit) is against the government and business houses' plans to build IBP as he believes that the poor will be displaced from their homes and doesn't consider it development when the poor are forced to leave their homes to see development in their area. The politicians, of course, are not happy and hatch a plot to erase him from the scene. When he braves them by speaking at a meeting despite the hall being cancelled by the local authorities, an attempt is made to kill him. His girlfriend Shalini (Kalki) with the help of Emraan sets out to find the culprits who planned to kill Ahmedi. Krishnan (Abhay Deol) is put on an Enquiry Commission which investigates the case in parallel.
We slowly get to know the conspirators and the way the whole plan is executed as the story progresses. I won't reveal the whole plot as there's no fun in watching it when you know the story. The high point of the film is the brilliant screenplay which slowly gets you into the story. BG score is almost non-existent with just the background songs in some of the celebratory scenes. Abhay Deol plays his role as a babu perfectly, though not a perfect Tamil. Emraan Hashmi took me by surprise, watched a few of his films but didn't really expect much from him - did an excellent job as a small-time photographer who unwittingly gets to witness and becomes the key to unearth a major conspiracy involving the bigwigs of the state. Kalki was her usual self and Prosenjit makes his presence felt despite having a short role. With the kind of press his role received, I expected him to have a full-length role. Farooq Sheikh and Supriya Pathak are, as usual, brilliant in their roles. It was such a pleasant sight to see these actors on screen after such a long time and in the kind of roles that they've never done before! Kiran Karmarkar has a short but important role, and he's fine for that.
A few points which made me admire Dibakar and his team's brilliance and attention to detail:
The choice of words is excellent - IBP (International Business Park) is conveniently changed to 'India Bana Pardes' by the politicos while celebrating IBP's launch with an item number, 'Pragati' meaning development gives Dr. Ahmedi play well with words while driving his point home.
Smooth context setting and transition from scene to scene - e.g. Pitobash and his accomplice chatting up on the auto to the incident to their links with the morcha - loved the way Dibakar got all such links through the flow and not a sudden twist or a voiceover. The audience is assumed to be intelligent enough to understand the flow, which is why most people might have felt the first half of the film to be slow and boring.
Some subtle hints and interpretations of characters make you sit up and appreciate the thought that goes into making even the simplest of scenes quite impactful. Pitobash, while dancing incautiously for 'Bharat mata ki jai' song wears a tee that reads 'Hackett London' indicating that not everybody cares about motive or ideology always. When Kalki beats up Jaggu when she learns that he was the guy who drove the truck and questions him how he can think of killing someone, he asks meekly 'You hit me in front of my daughter without thinking of anything. Do you think it's ok for the rich to do it under frustration but not the poor?' That's a brilliant and well thought out scene. Also the climax when everything has undergone unexpected changes but Jaggu still remains poor and has to raze his own house is quite powerful and shows the state of the poor who are made pawns in conspiracies by the powerful but seldom have their own status changed.
The scene with Supriya and Abhay - again loved the choice of words. Abhay talks about non-interference in his work, not yet knowing of the full ploy, but with an honest intention to get to the bottom of the conspiracy. Supriya, as the woman wielding the power, knows how to use people for her convenience. She makes Abhay subscribe to the view that the case should be handed over to criminal court and shows her sinisterness subtly while she asks him how's his wife and how many months pregnant. Her words and expressions make a lot more sense when we get to know about the whole conspiracy.
Abhay Deol, despite being a mere babu with simple aspirations in life, doesn't dare to question his superiors immediately when he's moved like a pawn to achieve their own motives, but cleverly uses his wits to ensure the culprits are brought to notice of 'Delhi'.
Farooq asks Abhay when he blackmails him to do what's right - 'Ye tumhara insaaf hai? Ye CM PM ban jaati, hum Cheen se aage nikal jaate' is such an impactful line. Justice or practicality? Justice or Development? Being right or seen as right?
The scene with Emraan and Kalki - He tells Kalki he wants to run away because he's scared for his life and when she asks him why he alone is in the city while his family is in Jodhpur, he tell her why he came here. He finishes his story and says 'Babuji ne kaha ladna hai ya bhaagna hai. Aur main bhaag gaya', which is reflective of his current situation as well. A nice way to illustrate his character.
Overall, it's a realistic representation of our current political system and the way bureaucrats and party workers are made pawns in big conspiracies and eliminated without a second thought when there is a danger to the powers that be. Most scenes are hard-hitting minus the loudness and drama that you see in other political thrillers and make you quite uncomfortable. Definitely not for someone looking for masala fare or typical thrillers. One that makes you notice and ponder over reality. A job well done by a good team.