Dir. Dibakar Banerjee
The events of Shanghai unfold in the fictional city of Bharatnagar, India City, a city that is any city in India, a microcosm of India. In Bharatnagar, political rallies halt traffic daily, working people's homes are bulldozed to make way for shiny commercial developments, and police and state officials collude to manipulate process. Shanghai exposes a strain of naivete in many of its characters, in a contrast to the hardened cynicism one might expect of people who live in that sort of city.
Shalini (Kalki Koechlin) spends the film on the edge of hysteria, barely contained. But her devotion is patently to her mentor and, it would seem, erstwhile lover, the professor-activist Ahmadi (Prosenjit Chatterjee). Indeed, she is devoted to the professor himself far more than to his cause, protection of poor communities threatened by the relentless pace of development that lines the pockets of the corrupt and unprincipled. Shalini's maid lets slip that the professor's life is in danger. But after she refuses to say how she knows this, Shalini fires her. The maid returns to her home, in the very neighborhood that the party is trying to raze to make room for the new high-class developments. The maid is one of the resettled people for whom the professor risks and loses his life, and Shalini casts her out without a second thought. Koechlin's performance in this role is frenzied and on edge, conveying a sense that Shalini is beyond all reason. Her naivete comes in believing that others in the professor's circle are as irrational as she; when the professor's wife expresses weariness at his constant exposure to danger, when she says that the professor's crusade is his and not hers, Shalini is uncomprehending.
The videographer, Jogi (Emraan Hashmi), is a character of surprising depth, a more realistically drawn version of the classic tapori hero with a heart of gold - think Aamir Khan in Ghulam, who like Jogi, also develops a rough-hewn sense of justice and goes up against powerful politicians. He starts the film a gaping idiot, all stupid smiles and even stupider come-ons to every woman he encounters. But Jogi's attraction to Shalini motivates him to help her uncover the professor's killer, even after he sees his own boss murdered - as the stakes get higher, Jogi's character becomes more focused, more purposeful, and takes greater and greater personal risks to help her. In Jogi's turning point, Shalini comes to Jogi to demand information. Jogi grabs and threatens her, and Shalini, desperate at this point, tells him he can do whatever he wants with her. Jogi lets her go, and gets to work on the footage she is asking for. Jogi is no longer the horny half-moron of the early parts of the film; he has become a man willing to take risks to expose the political conspiracy that he and Shalini are uncovering.
The young hired thug, Bhagu (Pitobash Tripathy), goes beyond mere naivete into fatal stupidity. He is cavalier about the work he does for the party, whether inciting riots or helping with the professor's murder. But he's also cavalier about his place in the party pecking order. He confronts the party's top hired heavy, demanding the return of the truck that he and his uncle Jaggu (Anant Jog) used for the murder, at a public rally in front of dozens of onlookers, threatening to rat if he doesn't get what he wants. How can Bhagu not see that this will get him killed? Bhagu is all id, high on his moment of importance, hopelessly incapable of foreseeing consequences to his actions. He is emblematic of the endless supply of prospectless young men to which the party has access to do its dirty work.
In Bharatnagar, though, naivete is not limited to the uneducated or rough-hewn types. The bureaucrat T.A. Krishnan (Abhay Deol) is, in his own way, as shockingly naive as Bhagu. Putting him in charge of investigating the professor's death, Krishnan's boss Kaul (Farooq Sheikh) tells him in almost so many words that the investigation is a sham, its conclusions (scapegoating a junior police officer) foreordained. Krishnan seems not to believe what he has heard, and investigates in earnest despite Kaul's increasing frustration with him. By film's end Krishnan's goody-two-shoes innocence is broken, and he learns to use party machinations to further his principled ends.
The interplay of these characters, with their blind spots, varying motivations, and waxing dedication as the stakes get higher, makes for a damn good story. I love films like this, films that expose the ways human needs and desires grease or gum up the grimy wheels of politics. Shanghai is a very satisfying exemplar.