Sunday, June 10, 2012

Shanghai: A nice place to visit...

A lot of (virtual) ink has already been spilled in praise of Shanghai and I’m not sure how much more I need to add to what’s already been said but when has that ever stopped me before? The critical consensus is that the film is good and Emraan Hashmi is excellent. Surprisingly, I agree with both of these statements. This is the first time I’ve actually been impressed with Emraan’s acting and you all know I’m one who finds a lot of these “Hindie”* films extremely dull (e.g. I couldn’t sit through Oye Lucky) but in Shanghai Dibarkar Banerjee actually manages to tell us a good story.

Shanghai, based on the novel Z by Vassilis Vassilikos, is set in the town of Bharatnagar, which is on the brink of a big development boom. The film tells the story of the attempted assassination of social activist Dr. Ahmedi (Prosenjit Chatterjee), in town to protest the urban development and relocation of poor residents, and the political rot it uncovers. The story unfolds like a juicy detective novel, dropping clues and red herrings for us to follow, and though there are no real “items” (much like Kahaani) the film clips along at a tight enough pace that there is never time to get bored.

There are two things that really stood out in Shanghai for me. The first is the wonderful cinematography from Nikos Andritaskis. There were so many lush images and interesting crowd scenes, that it’s difficult for me to pick out my favorites. There is a wonderful moment where we see Pitobash coming out of an English language class; the camera panning down to show Kalki Koechlin covered in blood; Abhay Deol saying prayers in front of his laptop. Really wonderful stuff.

And then there are the characters. Shanghai is packed full of interesting and intriguing characters, brought to life by an incredible cast. From the leads all the way down to the junior artistes (how great was that one “cool dude” guy with the reddish hair?! And Ahbay’s no-nonsense secretary?!) the casting was excellent.

Let’s start with Emraan Hashmi as Jogi. The promotional material has all been about how he’s playing a “pornographer” but that’s not quite right. Jogi isn’t exactly about to move to San Fernando Valley, he’s a hustler, doing what he can to make a buck - whether that’s filming ladies with their clothes off or making deals for political information. Jogi works for a videographer, so filming porn just happens to be a quick way to make a buck.

I’ve never been as taken with Emraan Hashmi as I was in Shanghai. He was actually - and I can’t believe I’m going to type this - lovable. In every other movie of Emraan’s that I’ve seen, he’s been playing some sort of uptight douche, whether it’s Gangster or The Dirty Picture, for all of Emraan’s reputation as “the serial kisser” his characters never seem to be enjoying themselves whilst doing the serial kissing. His Jogi, on the other hand, was full of endearing insecurities and had a big heart. I actually cared about what was going to happen to him. I didn’t expect that. Full kudos to Emraan and to Dibarkar for taking a chance on him.

Kalki Koechlin was also superb as idealistic Shalini. I really enjoyed the different shades she brought to her character. Here’s a girl working on behalf of the poor who finds the poor themselves kind of tedious. She’s a girl of high morals who has no problems sleeping with her married professor. Kalki sinks her teeth into the role with relish and you can really feel Shalini’s desperation and her entitlement and her goodness.

As vice-chairman Krishnan, Abhay Deol puts on his best wishy-washy act. Krishnan bumbles around, pushing paperwork and straightening his tie. An empty suit. Abhay is not as skillful as the others in the cast, though, and when Krishnan has some exposition later in the film, I found his sudden flip from bureaucrat to skilled politico rather unconvincing.

Filmi Girl favorite Pitobash was in fine form, stealing scenes left and right with his big eyes and lending a kinetic energy to the stillest frames. Pito makes any scene come alive. Even if he’s just standing there, he makes standing the most compelling standing you’ve ever seen. And can I add that Emraan and Pito’s song “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” was so good it made my stomach hurt.**

Prosenjit Chatterji was so on point with his smarmy Dr. Ahmedi that some left-leaning social activist types must have been squirming in their seats while watching this.

The last actor I want to single out is Tillotama Shome as Dr. Ahmedi’s wife. This was one of those small roles that proves the adage of “no small roles; only small actors.” Though she is only on screen for a short amount of time, Tillotama manages to convey her character’s story as the idealistic student turned world-weary wife with a single glance at Kalki. Where has she been hiding?

All in all, I didn’t find much to pick at in Shanghai. In fact, the only thing I think could have been handled better is the “Imported” item song. The song flowed awkwardly where it was placed and should really have come towards the end of the second half of the film during the party scene. Also, I found the visual composition of the song uncomfortable in the way it wanted to both comment on how the Indian male gaze loves these imported women while at the same time induling that gaze. Was it really necessary to glamorize the foreign girl to that extent? Couldn’t the same song and message have been conveyed without resorting to the same camera angles and tricks they were allegedly mocking? The song was played too straight to be an effective commentary on anything. It would have worked better for me if they had made more of an attempt to pick apart the tropes at use - think “Dil Dance Maare” from Tashan for an example.

But that’s small beans in comparison to how great the film as a whole is.

If you get a chance to catch Shanghai in the theaters, I highly recommend that you do! It’s got thrills, chills, and some great performances.

2012 is turning out to be a fine year for films.

* I vomit internally every time I have to type that.

** How about a two-hero film for those two,? Eh, producers?

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I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

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