Looking both east and west for tougher themes and rigorous drama, Bollywood helmer Dibakar Banerjee (“LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhokha”) delivers an absorbing political thriller with “Shanghai.” Based on the novel “Z” that inspired Costa Gavras’ landmark 1969 film, this Indian pic successfully massages the original story to become the tale of small fry caught in the web of property developers meting out murder and paying off politicians. Buttressed by strong perfs, the big-budgeted “Shanghai” has earned a respectable $4 million domestically so far, but hasn’t surpassed the powerhouse earnings of current Bollywood masala actioner “Rowdy Rathore.”
When charismatic academic-cum-political activist Dr. Ahmedi (Prasenjit Chatterjee) comes from New York to the fictional Indian city Bharatnagar on the eve of a local election, he expects trouble. Due to speak at a leftist rally organized by his India-based protege and former mistress/student, Shalini Sahay (Kalki Koechlin), Ahmedi wants to expose the backroom machinations of property developers who are promising to make the provincial city India’s answer to Shanghai by bankrolling a business park. With bucketloads of baksheesh at stake, the corrupt incumbent government is determined to see that Ahmedi doesn’t get his anti-development message across.
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As the night of the rally approaches, the number of increasingly volatile anti-Ahmedi demonstrations increases. Under pressure to keep his political masters happy, an ambitious yet idealistic government staffer, T.A. Krishnan (Abhay Deol), hopes to keep a lid on the unrest by ensuring Ahmedi has police protection. Anticipating a violent clash between the opposing groups, lascivious wannabe video journalist and part-time pornographer Jogi Parmar (Emraan Hashmi) gets his camera ready to cover the pre-election event.
After giving a fiery speech at the rally, Ahmedi is mowed down by a speeding pickup truck as he walks through a cordoned-off area. While Ahmedi lies dying in hospital, Krishnan is placed in charge of a government inquiry, arranged by his minister to quash further protests. Meanwhile, the distraught Shalini tries to convince the amoral Jogi to share his footage to prove that the accident was, in fact, an assassination attempt.
Banerjee keeps a tight rein on the story, inventively updated and adjusted for its Indian transplant, working it hard and fast all the way; the film moves at breakneck speed through the riots and chases that occupy much of its running time. Yet even the drama’s smaller dilemmas, such as how Shalini and Ahmedi’s wife deal with the emotional consequences of Ahmedi’s philandering, have a similar intensity.
Editing by regular Banerjee collaborator Namrata Rao is exemplary, and the cutting of the crowd scenes in particular recalls her fine work on similar scenes in Sujoy Ghosh’s recent “Kahaani.”
Perfs are strong across the board. Hashmi bounces back from his stiff turn in “The Dirty Picture” as he shapes his journalistic and sexual opportunist into a man with a dawning integrity. Deol (“Road Movie”) likewise breathes life into his stuffed-shirt role, and Koechlin brings a biting edge to her somewhat compromised left-wing heroine. In the small but pivotal role of a crowd agitator, Anant Jog is as frightening as he is credible.
With the exception of a glossy number featuring Blighty model Scarlett Mellish Wilson, lenser Nikos Andritsakis captures a shadowy, gritty world that adds a heightened sense of malevolence to this bleak political drama. Score by Mikey McCleary deploys a cacophony of drums to wrack nerves in the protest scenes, but is equally effective in the pic’s more subdued moments.