There are two musical interludes in Dibakar Banerjee's Shanghai (2012). I can't say that they aren't jarring, because they totally are. I mean, I get it. This is an Indian film and hews to the conventions of its cinematic tradition. Bollywood is hard to escape. But, man, there's a serious cognitive dissonance involved. This film is dark and political and gritty, and then suddenly, we're in the middle of a Bollywood musical? In retrospect, the musical numbers actually work in context, but the change in tone is enough to give one whiplash.
Shanghai is not set in Shanghai. The title is a reference to the way some cities in the emerging superpowers of China and India--Shanghai, for instance--are being built, by forcibly displacing their underclass in order to erect glittering modern cities. It's a reference, too, to the corruption that accompanies this practice. This film is based on "Z" by Vasilis Vasilikos, source of the 1969 movie of the same name by Costa-Gavras. The adaptability of the book to India speaks well of its universality: the rich will do anything to get richer, they will rig the system, they will co-opt the masses, they will kill to have their way. The story here finds Dr. Ahmedi, a leftist activist, returning to his home city in the north of India to oppose a big development project that will displace hundreds of mostly poor people. He stays with his former student, Shalini, toward whom he still has feelings in spite of his being married. Shalini, for her part, reciprocates. As a big pro-development rally takes place, complete with Bollywood film stars, Ahmedi gives a more subdued speech, and after the speech, he's run down in the street. The circumstances are suspicious. Did the police allow the truck through a cordon? Were the developers responsible? How high does the plot go? That's where Jogi, a lowlife photographer, comes in. He and his sound-engineer boss have evidence of...something...and it costs the engineer his life. Jogi hangs around the periphery of the investigation, wanting to do the right thing, but also wanting to keep his head. The investigation is conducted by Mr. Krishnan, a city councilor, who finds himself being stonewalled at every turn, even from his superiors, who insist that the investigation be concluded with a pre-determined outcome. But Krishnan is an honorable, uncorrupted man and he can't do that. His innate sense of right leads him to uncomfortable conclusions...
This is a film that by all rights ought to collapse under its own weight: it's sprawling, with dozens of characters and an overarching need to make a STATEMENT (in capital letters) about India's emerging economy. This could easily trap itself with a burdensome sense of significance. That it manages to avoid this is a minor miracle. The filmmaking in Shanghai is propulsive, shot handheld most of the time, edited like a thriller, and built like one, too. It has such a fierce sense of place and such a clear-eyed and cynical sense of politics that it's easy to miss the fact that it's also a sly piece of metacinema. The first clue to this is when Dr. Ahmedi's plane lands and he strides onto the tarmac arm in arm with a film star. The film star speaks to the press in English and is played by an English actress, so when the film gussies her up for the first of the film's musical numbers in traditional Indian/Bollywood garb and puts her through the dance number, the film is having fun at the expense of its own cinematic traditions. There's a critique of the Indian identity here in the face of a globalized cultural economy and an almost sub rosa dig at the racism that inflects India's own cultural anima. The British did a thorough job of colonization. I wish that the print of the film that I saw had translated the song. I wonder if the lyrics are equally ironic. The second musical number is staged during a street party, and I'm unsure of its ultimate significance beyond pointing out that Jogi is played by Emraan Hashmi, who has significantly uglified himself for the role. Jogi is a thoroughly nasty character, a low-rent pornographer and opportunist who, in the best tradition of film noir, finds himself in the midst of an insoluble moral dilemma that forces him to be better than he naturally is. This second musical number functions to get the audience on Jogi's side, when it might otherwise dislike him. The procedural elements of the film that make up its second half play out under significant threat, which makes them fun to watch.
It's fun, too, to watch the characters in this film wrestle with their sundry existential moral crises, and this is down to the cast. The film pays the most attention to three characters: Shalini, Jogi, and Krishnan, and all three of them are performed beautifully by Kalki Koechlin, Emraan Hashmi, and Abhay Deol, respectively. Kalki Koechlin, in particular has one of those expressive faces that doesn't need actor-y histrionics to communicate. You see everything in her eyes and posture. Hashmi plays ugly, as I've mentioned, but he does it in a way that undercuts the unsavory nature of his character. He's a sleazeball, sure, but he's a good-hearted doofus, too, and surprisingly nuanced. Deol has the hardest part, given that the procedural doesn't give him much room for emotional development, but the film is patient and so is the performance, and it chips away at his professional demeanor to reveal a core of moral outrage at the center of it. But it's not just the major characters who have these kinds of interior conflicts. You also have the assassins, Jaggu and Bhaggu, who are the first characters we see. They have no politics beyond doing for themselves in hard times, and it destroys both of them in the end. There's also Krishnan's superior, whose corruption corners him at the end of the movie, and Dr. Ahmedi's wife, who has to reconcile her husband's ideals with his real failings as a man. Only Ahmedi seems untroubled by some internal demon, though even he struggles with his feelings for Shalini. This is a sprawling, Dickensian canvas of characters.
The politics of the film are leftist, mostly because its heroes and source text are on the left, but also because corporatism is an easy villain, especially in a part of the world that is suffering and benefiting in equal measure from its depredations. If the characters in the film are nuanced, the politics are not. Indeed, they appear to be constructed out of whole cloth, because if there are pro-corporate riots happening in the world, even in India, I haven't heard of it. The grand scheme of the International Business Park at the heart of this film is never shown as a plausible public good, only as a scheme to defraud the people and line the pockets of political cronies. The politics here function at a base level of McGuffin, in so far as they don't matter so long as they motivate the characters. I don't know that the filmmakers intend this, but it's how the movie plays none the less. Or maybe it's more correct to say that the politics of the film are transmitted through the characters who perceive all of this.
In any event, even if the politics are dubious, this is a film of rich visual textures and terrific performances. It's also a good example of that old writing adage which holds that the best stories are those about the human heart in conflict with itself. In this film, the hearts in conflict bleed in more ways than one.