Cinema is not always a very helpful medium journalistically,” the critic David Thomson observed once, “because movies so easily yield to their own atmosphere and make the intrigue as dark as noir plotting.” He said this in the context of investigative political thrillers such as Oliver Stone’s JFK (“made with extraordinary skill and panache but so carried away by the power of film as to ignore the forces of logic, argument and responsibility”) and Costa-Gavras’s Z. Thomson’s point was that this type of movie, if really well-crafted, can be so seductive for an audience that it can result in obfuscation rather than in the revelation of truth. At worst, it can even be a form of misleading propaganda.
Film as investigation Jai Arjun Singh / New Delhi Jun 16, 2012, 00:00 IST
I do see his point, but I also feel that if good cinema has the power to stir and disturb us viscerally, then surely the political thriller is one of its most promising expressions. I was thinking about this while watching Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai. Like most films in the genre, Shanghai is fuelled by a jigsaw puzzle of a narrative (based on the question “what really happened?”) but it is also a taut comment on aspirations and power struggles brushing against each other in a many-layered society.
The fatal incident at the heart of this story is the mowing down of political activist Dr Ahmedi shortly after he makes a speech denouncing the high-profile International Business Park (IBP) project. “They’ll take your land and call it pragati,” Ahmedi tells the poor people who gather to hear him speak (“they” meaning the government, which has started the project in collusion with big business houses). The parable he relates is that of an unfortunate man visited by big-shots who usurp his property, build a mall on it, charge him money for water and behave like they are doing him a favour. Naturally this activism makes him a controversial figure, and when a truck “accidentally” hits him, his former student Shalini sees the attack for what it is. But she may need the help of a small-time maker of sleazy films if she wants proof. There are many clever visual motifs and neat little touches in the screenplay, and I particularly enjoyed the use of setting. A conscientious bureaucrat named Krishnan is asked to conduct an investigation into Ahmedi’s “accident”, and he does this in a shabby, mosquito-ridden hall with barely functioning coolers and dirty bathrooms. Some of the scenes here — the surreal appearance of a basketball mid-proceedings, a sight gag where two characters slip on the just-washed floor outside the hall — are played for humour, but there is a subtext: this dingy, out-of-the-way setting is just the place for a token enquiry, the findings of which are likely to be swept under the carpet. And this is a morally slippery place where people constantly struggle — literally and figuratively — to maintain their footing.
The film’s title isn’t really underlined, but it has its own resonance. “Hum China ko peechhe chhod sakte thhe,” (“We could have left China behind”) a political higher-up ruefully says at one point. Presumably he means in terms of economic progress, but by the end we have seen the emergence of something that resembles a police state more than a transparent democracy. Shanghai has its little flaws — including gaps in character development — but it’s about as satisfying a political thriller as Hindi cinema has yet seen. It was adapted — by Banerjee and co-writer Urmi Juvekar — from a 1960s Greek novel (the same book that Costa-Gavras’s film came from), but it is recognisably Indian in its depiction of a world where there is no lasting solution to the hegemony of power, where pages routinely go missing in reports and underprivileged people unwittingly participate in their own exploitation.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer