Dibakar Banerjee's "Shanghai" is a short and sweet political thriller that has the right motivation in the plot but lacks conviction in its lead characters. A distorted whodunit, with bits and pieces scattered with the characters throughout the movie, the film brings them together in a gradual way, genuinely surprising us during its unraveling.
The plot revolves around an upcoming infrastructure project "International Business Park" that is supported by the ruling political party of the state (No names are mentioned. It is only hinted that Delhi is a night's journey) and a social activist opposing it citing the threats it pose to the locals of the Bharat Nagar. The state is run by a coalition government shared by the ruling party and the extremist Morcha Party. After a local meeting, the activist Professor Dr. Ahmedi (Prosenjit Chatterjee) is run over by a truck and is hospitalized under critical conditions. There are signs of a premeditated murder as smelled by Ahmedi's followers, especially Shalini Sahay (Kalki Koechlin), the professor's student, lover and adherent. Prior to his arrival, she was warned by her maid about a threat on his life and Shalini's pleas to drop the meeting are ignored. Joginder Parmar (Emraan Hashmi), an amateur photographer, who was present in the venue as well, approaches Shalini about possible evidence that can incriminate the Morcha party. Supervising the investigation is the passive bureaucrat Krishnan I.A.S (Abhay Deol), who is in line for a promotion that would put him in Stockholm, in charge of the IBP project. There is also the loud-mouthed Bhagu (Pitobash Tripathy) who executes the hit-and-run on the professor with his elder driver friend.
The strength of the film is the simplicity of its plot; by taking the truck accident as the center of the story, it sees the issue from several points of view, from those ruling and the ruled, from the victim's lover and a bystander. The characters are placed in the crosswires, forced to form alliances and take decisions they may not consider otherwise. Shalini agrees to meet with Jogi, a part-time sleaze photographer, after witnessing the pace of the investigation, driven mostly as an eye wash. Their friendship is shaky, but is bonded further after the death of Jogi's friend who talked about the tape to the 'wrong people'. Krishnan, a straightarrow officer and a favorite of the Chief Minister, is caught in the bureaucratic machine; every step of his investigation slackened by the lack of cooperation from police officers, who might have had information about the accident prior to its happening.
But "Shanghai" fails to emote its characters; there is no character expansion of any sort takes place, there is not a moment we sympathize them and wants to be part of the story when it solves. This happens mainly to Kalki Koechlin and Abhay Deol, two talented actors who has the potential to work out their roles effectively, here turn out to be weary and bland. We are told Shalini is a daughter of a General who was incriminated in a major scam but nothing is done about that. We see in the beginning that she may be emotionally unstable, but to what length? Abhay Deol has some brilliant moments during the film, but his overall performance falls flat. Because of their indifferent presence, the film seems dragging in the middle. This film and Abhay Deol reminded me of Navdeep Singh's "Manorama Six feet Under", a "Chinatown" inspired neo-noir thriller with brilliant plot and excellent performances. That was an Abhay Deol worth watching.
Of the trio, Emraan Hashmi scores in every scene with his cheery, sly performance, gradually emerging into a character of importance, his audacity proving to be of great help towards the end. Prosenjit Chatterjee has but brief moments yet is memorable. The film walks on a mild satirical line in many places and uses its characters in the stereotypes, for example, Farooq Sheikh as the gluttonous senior officer of Abhay Deol, munching throughout the movie while making slimy threats. The government and party functions are always crowded, noisy and deliberately rowdy filled with 'oomph' ingredients. There is also a personal assistant of the Morcha leader who is handling the ropes of the entire scheme.
The atmosphere of the film is one of its strongest aspects, accentuated by the cinematography. The places look real, feel real and with the people in it, almost makes it look like a documentary. And Dibakar has the right characters to show us what it is to be in them. When Krishnan is conducting an investigation in a classroom, a ball drops from the window and kids come to pick it up. Someone is always cleaning the corridors of government offices and hospitals, and people trip off in their haste. And people like Bhagu can just walk into the crowd and brush tar in the faces of victims.
Dibakar Banerjee, after his acclaimed "Love Sex aur Dhoka", has delivered again a realistic-looking thriller with a taut plot that falls together in place at the right moment. Had he given attention at the right places and to the right people, it would've turned out pitch perfect.
Genre: Political Thriller
Running time: 114 min
Directed by: Dibakar Banerjee
Cinematography: Nikos Anritsakis
Abhay Deol Krishnan
Emraan Hashmi Joginder Parmar
Kalki Koechlin Shalini Sahay
Prosenjit Chatterjee Dr. Ahmedi
Pitobash Tripathy Bhagu
Farooq Sheikh Kaul