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My experience watching Shanghai (Dibakar Banerjee’s latest film, starring Emraan Hashmi, Abhay Deol, and Kalki Koechlin) on Sunday afternoon was a good example of the danger of going to see a movie without your expectations firmly in check. Since it released Friday I had been seeing a lot of praise for it on Twitter. I also made the mistake of re-watching, the day before, Costa Gavras’s 1969 movie Z based on the same novel by Vassilis Vassilikos that inspired Shanghai. It’s a very powerful film and as good as Shanghai is, it just couldn’t stand up to the comparison.

The disclaimer at the beginning of Z, which reads: “Any similarity to real events, to persons dead or living is not coincidental. It is INTENTIONAL”

[Note: this post contains spoilers for Shanghai and Z, strong language, and bullet points]

Images: Jacques Perrin as the journalist in Z, Emraan Hashmi as the videographer in Shanghai

Some differences between the two films that bothered me:

  • Changing the circumstances of the assault – in the original, The Deputy dies not from being run over by the truck, but from a blow to the head he receives from the man in the back of the truck. This revelation during an autopsy is what spurs the Examining Magistrate to keep pursuing the investigation. Without this detail, the investigation in Shanghai felt pretty pointless and toothless.
  • Related to this, in the original The Deputy dies within a day or two of the assault (about half way through the film). This casts a pall over the second half of the film, and significantly raises the stakes of the investigation. Having Dr. Ahmedi die only at the end of Shanghai was anti-climactic and lowered the stakes of the investigation.
  • Dr. Ahmedi’s affair with Shalini. By not making his character a good guy and an explicitly viable threat/alternative to the ruling party, Shanghai gives us less reason to care about his assault and the subsequent investigation. Also: is it so hard to believe that a woman would support a political cause if she isn’t fucking its leader? Give me a break. ALSO: two out of three female characters in the film and they have an acrimonious relationship over a man? I’m so tired of this shit.

Images: Irene Papas as Helene, The Deputy’s wife in Z, Kalki Koechlin as Shalini in Shanghai

  • Not sure why Emraan Hashmi’s character was made a sleazy videographer instead of an opportunistic journalist like in the original, except for laughs and titillation. Similarly, why make Abhay Deol’s character a Tamilian if it isn’t going to relate to the story in some way, and if no-one is even going to comment on it? (To me, this is like having a movie set in Toronto and all the characters are from Toronto except for one who is from Newfoundland and no-one even says anything about it – totally unrealistic and pointless).
  • Finally, maybe this was clearer in the film and was just lost in translation in the subtitles, but the location of the story was confusing. I spent most of the film thinking it was set in Mumbai and that “Bharat Nagar” was the name of the neighbourhood that was being razed to make way for the business complex. Towards the end of the film I started to doubt this assumption and wonder where the film was actually supposed to be taking place – and was surprised when I read in some reviews of the film that “Bharat Nagar” was the name of the whole town. I think this could have been made much clearer, along with where, exactly, in India the town was supposed to be located.

Images: Jean-Louis Trintignant as The Examining Magistrate in Z, Abhay Deol as the high-ranking bureaucrat in Shanghai

This isn’t to say that Shanghai isn’t a good movie, because it is. It’s certainly very stylish – I especially liked the dramatic black-and-red Devanagari title card, the really excellent background music by Mikey McCleary, and the cinematography. Some scenes that stood out for me:

  • Kalki Koechlin’s face lit only by the light of her cell phone screen, followed by a shot of Emraan Hashmi with the light of his cell phone visible through the pocket of his shirt.
  • The tracking shot of Kalki and Emraan’s characters sneaking through the city after curfew, past all the storefronts with their gates down.
  • Another tracking shot, this one showing a post-riot street and revealing Bhagu’s body.
  • And Emraan’s frantic dash with the computer tower toward Kalki and the waiting rickshaw.

Those last three, with their sense of dread and touch of surrealism, actually reminded me of Alfonso Cuarón’s excellent film Children of Men. And there was one change from the original that I actually really liked – in Gavras’s Z on the night of The Deputy’s assault the elite of the town have gathered at a performance of the visiting Bolshoi Ballet, while in Banerjee’s Shanghai they are taking in the performance of an “imported” item girl. I thought that was a clever and sly update.

Images: my favourite shot from Z, just because, and Scarlett Wilson as the item girl in Shanghai

However, the bottom line is this – in Z you can feel Costa Gavras’s outrage over what had happened in his native Greece. I was fully expecting to feel a similar outrage in Dibakar Banerjee’s film, but it just wasn’t there. Banerjee has crafted a stylish political drama – it isn’t really a thriller, as the stakes aren’t nearly high enough, mostly for the reasons I mentioned above – but it seems to me he squandered his opportunity to make a scathing movie about dirty politics, and that’s a shame.

Z ends with a list of things banned by the Greek military junta