Shanghai has emerged as one of the most powerful and thought-provoking films of TIFF 2012. The Indian ensemble thriller follows a group of characters as they struggle to make sense of, and avenge, the politically-motivated murder of a doctor and activist.
To see such a dark and potentially controversial film come out of India, a country known largely for escapist Bollywood productions, is a great surprise. To learn that director Dibakar Banerjee [pictured above] and actor Abhay Deol, a major star in his country, were able to release the movie with political and public support speaks highly of their homeland’s emerging interest in challenging cinema.
TORO sat down with Dibakar and Abhay, who plays a civil servant tasked with examining the crime, to learn how Shanghai has gone over with Indian audiences and the powers-that-be.
Shanghai does a great job explaining the complexities of Indian class and political systems to an uninformed Westerner like myself. Did you make it hoping it would be seen by an audience with minimal knowledge of modern India?
DIBAKAR: Yes and no. Yes because every director wants his movie to be seen by every last human being on Earth. A director would be lying if he said otherwise. I would like the whole world to see my work and clearly understand the predicament of my characters. But you have to confine yourself to your culture. You make it through communication – I’m speaking to you in English, not my mother tongue, but I’ve learned it. So Shanghai certainly has some symbols and codes that will only speak to someone from my country and culture.
I was surprised at how controversial Shanghai seems to be in its treatment of politics in India. Are modern Indian audiences used to seeing something so critical of government?
DIBAKAR: It had a degree of controversy in India, yes. There’s two levels of that. Controversy is a manufactured public / social interaction that you don’t get until there is some news about the film.
A political party asked to see the film in secret so they could vet it and judge whether it was appropriate for the public …
Is that unusual?
DIBAKAR: Not for political art. I am known in India as a bit of a maverick, but it’s also known that I have no real agenda beyond engaging my audience. But they asked to see it in secret because there might have been outrage [if the public had known], there might have been backlash in my favour. So they saw the film, and approved it.
Once it came time for release another party tried to fight it in court. But the court threw it out, and there was ultimately public support for its release.
Were you prepared for that kind of response while making it?
DIBAKAR: For any political film you should be prepared to some extent. India has a tradition of political films in the sense that they are about politics. Politicians as characters but that could be in something like a revenge drama or a romance. But a film where ordinary people are actually effected by the modern politics of the day – very rare. So we were aware of that importance.
So the second level is the feeling in the audience, the unsettlement it might provoke. The film does indict the public as well.
Because the “villains,” the corrupt officials, in the story are largely unseen. We mostly follow people who are trying to do the right thing.
DIBAKAR: You don’t need some characters if the situations they create are obvious, if the information is there in the screenplay.
Abhay, your character Krishnan is soft-spoken and does not explain his motives in great detail.
ABHAY: He’s the only character who tries to do something for the greater good. All the other characters have personal reasons to get back at the authorities. My character [is on the inside] and he risks his good standing.
DIBAKAR: That character is the spine of the film. His actions push a lot of buttons with the middle-class audience, most of them would not make the choices he does.
ABHAY: I have had civil servants tell me in real life that, in the end, Krishnan would definitely not get away with [defying his superiors.] But you have to have some kind of closure.
Is the primary audience for Indian movies middle-class?
ABHAY: The biggest market would be lower-middle.
DIBAKAR: This kind of film would reach Indian viewers in big cities. Educated people, with a slightly Westernized orientation. And children of the new Indian economy, those raised in the last 20 years of economic growth.
You are a well-known star in India. Was this kind of role a new challenge for you?
ABHAY: In terms of the level of controversy, no. But being political in this way, yes. Dibakar and I have worked together before, so he brought the idea to me. I read the news and know that there are things people need to hear and to know. The cinema of India is largely escapist but I’ve always tried to integrate entertainment with important content.
The movie’s soundtrack is incredible. It stayed in my head all day after watching the movie. Where did it come from?
DIBAKAR: It was composed by Mikey McCleary, a talented musician and producer from New Zealand who now lives and works in Mumbai. The style that inspired it is the street music of Mumbai: political, celebratory, aggressive, threatening, but reassuring.
Shanghai will screen Saturday September 15, 6:00PM @ The Bell Lightbox Theater.