History Of The Present: Shanghai

June 8, 2012 at 9:15 PMJun (Cinema, Literature, Musings)

In the year 1979 at a seminar held in connection with the International Film Festival of India, in Delhi, one of the finest minds, not just one of the finest actors, of this country- Utpal Dutt- began his keynote address by saying, “I believe any discussion on films in semi-colonial or newly independent countries must start from the illiteracy, poverty and cultural starvation of the masses. It seems blasphemous to engage in comfortable talk about the aesthetics of cinema in a country where the majority starves. It reminds me of the Russian countess who wept for Rigoletto and Gilda at the theatre while her coachman froze to death outside.”

I recollect these words of Utpal Dutt, again, now after watching Dibanker Banerjee’s film Shanghai because Utpal Dutt concluded his speech saying, “… This is the country which went through the days portrayed in Z (1969); this is also the country where politics has been scrupulously avoided in films. If a director does not believe in political commitment, he has every right not to make it. It is his freedom. But if it is fear or opportunism which keeps him from saying anything about hunger, riots, degradation of man- the daily reality of our country- then we say he is no artiste. It is inconvincible that they see all this and breathe the air of animal-like existence and yet do not explode in anger and hatred. I think the time for anger arrived many years ago, but most of our creative artists in the cinema have been unpardonably timid and have not reacted even when they turned this country into a vast prison.”

Z (1969) is a film by Costa Gavaras which was based on the novel Vassilis Vassilikos penned with the same title. It is based on the same novel that Dibanker Banerjee makes his political thriller Shanghai. The film which begins with images reminding one of Costa Gavaras film, as though providing a tribute to the film, as the film proceeds takes its own course. But even when paying its tribute to the film of Costa Gavaras and even while basing itself on a novel of the 1960s the film, from the very first frame, is speaking of here and now.

International Business Park or what is called as IBM in short throughout the film (also India Bane Pardes) is a development project which is opposed by a few while the rest of them, including many who are more affected by it, love the idea of IBM as it promises “development.” One of the strongest voices of opposition Dr. Ali Ahmedi is murdered in public while the police force becomes mute spectators to the murder. Shalini Sahai who is a student of Dr. Ahmedi, gets the information that the life of Dr. Ahmedi, is in danger. But her voice is eclipsed by the charged revolutionary spirit. Once the murder takes place it is passed as an accident. But the television byte by the wife of Dr. Ahmedi, Aruna, saying it was not an accident but a murder, makes the Chief Minister set up a commission headed by Krishnan, an IAS officer, investigate the matter. His investigation gets major proof from Joginder, a photographer who is also into porn film making, whose brother also gets murdered. The investigation of the Krishnan with the interest and cooperation of Shalini, Joginder and one of their other friend Tiger unfolds the political story of our times the political side of ‘development’. Even when the end doesnt shock the path that takes us till the end of the film does shock us.

In unfolding the political side of ‘development’ it reveals, whose interest this idea of development caters to. The question ‘whose development is it and to whom does the country belong’, which is incidentally the title of the book written by Dr. Ahmedi in the film, is the question which the film too poses. But the film does more than just posing the question. It weaves a dramatic story around the development story to speak of the horror of our times, the dystopic present, and not just restricting it to a “so sad” story of the displaced. The film speaks of how people opposing the interest of some, projected as national interest, is silenced and the hands that actually run riots, sow poverty and also script displacements. Thus the film becomes the history of the present in metaphors.

It is history of the present because what India is witnessing today is the horror and murder caused by the idea of development. Be it Tata, Posco, Vedanta the innumerable SEZs all have the similar stories with different characters. Everywhere people are being shown a utopian dream of Shanghai, everywhere people are being displaced, everywhere there is resistance, everywhere there is silencing of resistance, everywhere there is political interests intertwined with the corporate interests, which finally is projected as the national interest, everywhere there are innocent victims. Around every utopian dream of Shanghai lay a dystopic world. But he doesnt present the non-‘developing’ spaces as utopia either. The story of why Joginder had to migrate tells the dystopic story of the non-‘developing’ worlds.

Dibanker Banerjee has the gravitation of reality. He knows the times in which he is living. He knows the dystopic reality of our times. He knows how to voice them in today’s tongue too, which he proved in the best possible way in his previous film Love Sex aur Dhoka (Which I consider as his best film and rate it over Shanghai). He knows the other side of ‘developments’ that are taking place. He weaves all of these stories of real life to make Shanghai, which is the history of the present. He also knows that he is speaking to the real people of his times. So he doesn’t take an intellectual and philosophical stand to the extent that the intellect and philosophy gets divorced from the people. This is the major problem that many of our finest filmmakers have made, I feel. In the process of making an intellectually and philosophically elevated cinema, using personal signature symbols and metaphors, they are playing their film to the empty gallery when the issues they have been taking up needed and needs to be spoken to the people. Not to underestimate the intellect of the people but as Utpal Dutt said in the very same lecture, “at all times he must begin with the present level of the audience and advance with them to whatever philosophy he wishes to preach.” Dibanker Banerjee does exactly the very same thing. He knows who he is speaking to and also knows what he must be speaking. This balance makes him the chronicler of times who is speaking of his times and to the time in which he is living.

Lot can be said about the music, camera and editing which makes the history of the present be voiced in an amazingly effective manner. But there is a repetitive method that he has adopted in this film i.e. of interruption which is quite interseting. This interruption pulls us out of the flow in regular intervals. First it happens when we see the item number “imported kamariya” has begun but stops before the third line is sung. It stops because the minister arrives at the programme and to welcome him the dance has been stopped. Next we see that while we are all set to listen to the hearing we see the cleaner still sweeping the room. During the hearing when Shalini bursts out in anger a basket ball from the nearby play ground enters the hall. Later when Shalini is thrown out of the hearing session she almost slips and following her Krishnan also slips. In one of the later scenes we see a few workers painting the wall in the hall where a police constable is being questioned by Krishnan. The painters are immediately asked to leave, when the interrogation begins. This breaking of the seriousness makes us take the issues more seriously as we are not let to settle down like a spectator. The entire film itself is an interruption between all the soapy soapy films are arriving at nearby theaters to displace us from reality. Shanghai pulls us out of that flow and pulls us out form that comfortable position of a spectator. It raises questions, it raises issues. It triggers thoughts.

Utpal Dutt in that memorial lecture said that a film can be both intellectual and popular at the same time. He said, “I think, developing countries need the brilliance of a Ford and Chaplin, at once intellectual and popular.” Dibanker Banerjee in all his previous films has been both intellectual and popular. He continues to be the same in Shanghai too. Dibankar Banerjee as exploded in anger to the reality of our times, while chronicling our times. He is a great artiste.


  1. Aaditya nayak said,

    I think the interrupting editing is deliberately used to break the monotony of editing style.
    The camera angles are superb.
    And the plot flawless.
    Dibakar banerjee’s movies has and will always be on my must watch list.

    • crazymindseye said,

      Aaditya, when i speak of the “interrupting” i am speaking of it in appreciation of it. It is a method that Brecht called as the ‘alienation technique’ which has been adopted in cinema, in many ways, by many directors throughout the world.

  2. Nishant Nimish said,

    What is the name of the book written by shalini???Also can you suggest where can I get it.I’m 22 years old and live in India.Thanks

  3. Shubam said,

    Wonderful description and saga of the film

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