THE leitmotif of adman-turned-film maker Dibakar Bannerjee’s oeuvre thus far is his ability to throw a well-timed spanner into your mental machinery; his instinctive ability to lead you along a particular train of thought and just when you are comfortable with where the journey is taking you, to derail that train, to push you into rethinking your comfortable assumptions.
That ability has driven his three previous films – Khosla ka Ghosla; Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Love, Sex and Dhoka – to that rare Bollywood double, critical acclaim and commercial success. And with each successive film that he has helmed to success, the aura surrounding Dibakar, as a young film-maker working at the boundaries of both his personal craft and industry convention, has grown, leading to the inevitable questions: What next? How long can he keep going against the industry grain before he succumbs and becomes a packager as opposed to a story-teller?
Part of the answer to those questions will come this June, when his latest offering Shanghai hits the marquee. Headlined by Emraan Hashmi, Kalki Koechlin and Abhay Deol, the story is set in a small town with big ambitions – the Shanghai of the future, no less.
Click on the picture to view the trailer
That ambition has as both fulcrum and totem the about to be inaugurated International Business Park – a multi-billion dollar construct that is expected to provide the thrust to a future filled with opportunities. Against the backdrop of hype and expectation in the count down to the inauguration, a runaway truck mows down a prominent social activist in what, at first sight, appears to be one of those senseless tragedies that punctuate the story of India’s runaway development.
Except, one girl -- an eyewitness to the incident – believes it was cold, calculated murder; her voice gets unlikely backing from a porn film-maker who has, or claims he has, proof that can bring down a government and rock the Shanghai-of-tomorrow dream to its foundations. A bureaucrat brought in to investigate the incident completes the third angle of the triangular political thriller that is Dibakar’s latest offering to his growing fan base.
Dibakar has consistently mined, for creating tension, the clash of opposites that characterizes developing India: that clash of rich versus power, empowered versus the powerless; haves versus the never-will-haves. Shanghai promises more of the same, and the director says as much in his official note on the film:
“India is a huge, developing democracy with large gaps in public education and empowerment, veering slowly towards rampant capitalism from stagnant socialist tendencies.
“Unchecked, this move makes the poor poorer, and the rich, richer. Also, the uneducated, unaware urban poor are manipulated with impunity by the political class in a system where mass vote support is a coinage of political power.”
Democracy, he argues from the above, has in practice become a mobocracy with the bullet replacing the ballot as the means to power and position. He says:
“Even today localized oppressive state regimes come up through democratic channels and then subvert the very ethics that they apparently uphold. Dissent is suppressed, or blanked out through new age media blitz tactics. Court cases, justice department inquiries, police probes are subverted, ignored or mired in red tape. The new age industries, in collusion with state governments (even leftist state governments!) oust farmers from their home and land to forcibly acquire land without adequate compensation. Political assassinations are left unsolved.”
Dibakar’s strictures on the morphing of democracy into controlled anarchy are clearly drawn from the headlines of the day, but in the ‘director’s notes’ he shared with Yahoo!, the director traces the actual inspiration for Shanghai to Z, the 1996 novel written by the very prolific Greek author Vassilis Vassilikos.
The novel, later made into an Oscar-winning (Best Foreign Language Film) film by Greek auteur Costa (Constantinos) Gavras, tells the story of the murder of a prominent politician, the efforts of government officials and the military to cover up their respective roles in the killing, and the work of an investigating judge to unravel the plot.
His own story and screenplay, Dibakar says, is loosely adapted from Vassilikos’ novel (IMDB credits the Greek author with writing credits for Shanghai). “It is the story of State oppression and collusion in crime – a theme I think very relevant to contemporary India,” says Dibakar in his director’s notes.
Oftentimes, the ‘political thriller’ is merely an excuse for the larger-than-life hero to tear off his shirt, strip down to whatever brand of vest he is currently endorsing, and make the world safe for democracy with his flying fists (and some special effects). In the process, the storyline becomes a pretext – some injury or insult suffered by the hero or his nubile girl-friend is the spark for mayhem.
‘Time pass’, perhaps – but as you leave the theater you realize that you don’t really care: the hero has solved his problems, but you what difference does it make to you?
Dibakar seeks to view – and make us view – the political thriller from a different, more personal, prism.
“This is a political thriller that truly looks at how politics – basically levers of power exercised remotely in hallowed chambers of the governing class – effects our lives in a very direct and fundamental manner without us being aware of it,” says Dibakar in his official notes, inter alia answering the fundamental question posed to fiction: ‘Why should I care?’
“The suave, elite, seemingly benign governing class takes decisions essentially that benefits and perpetuates its own interests, while deeply hurting and disenfranchising the urban poor. And instead of focusing on sentimental petty jealousies and family feuds, the film tries to shine a hard light on the real reasons behind why India is going a certain way.”
Dibakar’s previous films - particularly his last outing, Love Sex and Dhoka - have been characterized by a gritty, noir-ish treatment, and the director says that will be true of Shanghai as well. The treatment will be realistic, and aimed at focusing on the grimness of the urban nightmare that is modern India, he says in his notes.
These are tall promises, from a director who in the past has delivered beyond promise - and that fact alone builds expectations of Shanghai to a very high pitch. By releasing the film in the midst of the IPL season, when big production houses are “market savvy” enough to hold back their offerings, the director is basically placing his bets on what should be, but very infrequently is, the central tenet of his profession: Tell a good story, and they will come.
Have you read these?
Doodling Abhay and Emraan for ‘Shanghai’
Films we fear someone will make in 2012