Sunday, June 10, 2012

Shanghai - A Highriser but not quite a Skyscraper

Hey guys, it's me. Oh, wait a minute, let me clean up the spiderwebs off the screen for you. Ah... there. Can you see me now? Remember me? It's a little dusty in here, and weeds have started growing in the corners of the floor of this space, but I brought a broom and a review to try and make this blog seem alive again.

And contrary to my usual format, I'll give you Dolce and Namak only for the first half while reserving the second half to a long rant about what didn't sit right for me in Shanghai (link to trailer).

Dolce: Emraan Hashmi is totally adorable! Where has he been until now? And more importantly: how did he manage to be the only character in this movie that my heart went out to despite his horrible looks? 
Namak: He's been around, but either he was great in movies where others stole the show, or he was strictly ok in movies that weren't much to write about. I'm pretty sure this is the first role where I can say he was absolutely brilliant. 

If someone had told me I would ever watch an Abhay Deol movie and fall in love with Emraan Hashmi I would have laughed for hours. Not because I haven't appreciated him before, I have, but he never blew me away. In Shanghai he most certainly did. From behind his Quasimodo-like appearance this videographer turned pr0nographer displays more warmth and wit than any other character in this story (sorry about the hacker spelling, by the way, just trying to avoid popping up in dirty searches). 

Dolce: And how s3xy was that angular moustache on Abhay Deol? 
Namak: I'm not sure about s3xy, but it did certainly add a je ne sais quoi to his persona. 

Dolce: Perfect casting? 
Namak: Perfect from where we're sitting. Though some critics have taken issue with the fact that his Tamil accent is not up to par, this is one of those times when not being native Hindi speakers really works in our favour. 
Dolce: Indeed. Besides, I can't think of anyone who would have pulled off his last scene so smoothly and with so much panache. Proof that you don't need to wield a machete or to shout your lines at the top of your lungs to be a badass. You can deliver a deadly blow even in a soft spoken, almost blank tone. A masterpiece of direction and histrionics that scene. 
Namak: Agreed. Though when it comes to Abhay Deol I expect excellence anyway.
Dolce: Sheesh! I would not want to be your kid. 

Dolce: And Kalki? 
Namak: Kalki is a tricky one. She's certainly competent but just like I'm getting tired of seeing Anushka Sharma playing the cheerful Punjabi kudi, I am also getting a little bit fed up with Kalki being typecast into the feisty outsider roles. For once I'd like to see her be happy in a few scenes. She has such a radiant smile, she comes across as such a fun person in her live appearances, if only someone could bring that on the screen too.

How adorable is she? Why can we not get that in her movies?
Dolce: Well, it's hard to avoid playing the outsider, she's white. 
Namak: True, but even outsiders can be happy and normal in India, no? 

Really all the actors in Shanghai did a fabulous job. Not a single character felt out of place, and it's a tribute to the fantastic craftsmanship of Dibakar Banerjee that we never once got lost in trying to keep track of the politicians and play-makers. In a film where so much space is given to the main characters and so little to the myriad of secondary characters surrounding them, I was truly impressed with how easy it was to identify not only who each of them were, but also what title they held and whose side they were on.

Dolce: Let's not forget the wonderful music! 
Namak: Though I'd rather forget that they didn't use our favourite song from the soundtrack. 
Dolce: I'm willing to forgive them for this because Imported Kamariya was such a delight! Not only was the song gorgeous (and tongue in cheek) but its deft editing around the scene that jumpstarts the movie was top-notch. 
Namak: That it was. And you know what else was top-notch? The background music. I can't remember the last time a film's background music made such an impression on us.

From the background music to the editing, to the sets, to the little things, such as a little slip on the freshly washed pavement, or the enthusiasm of the chai-wallahs buzzing around the politicians, or the subtle (and not so subtle) displays of power of the various police officers that come and go, Shanghai certainly gets all the details right.

One thing can not be denied about Shanghai: it's a well-crafted movie. Which makes my next comments even more painful because I really wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to leave the theatre and tap my feet on the subway anxious to get home and blog about it. And in a way I did, but not because it was a fabulous movie, rather because it wasn't fabulous enough.

Corruption is a big topic. In fact it's so big, so prevalent and so powerful that it becomes background noise for most of us, like pollution. We're aware of it, we know our way around it, we live in it, so we don't really notice it anymore. In order to make a powerful film about such a big topic, you would have to zero in on a situation, a set of characters, a moment in history that people can truly relate to. I felt that this was Shanghai's biggest flaw: it didn't make me care. Not only did it not give me enough background on the situation overall (though I can fill in the blanks thinking about similar situations in my own home country), but it also didn't manage to focus enough on the one situation it chose to describe.

Let me make a parallel. In the excellent The Ides of March there is a character (a woman) whose death sets in motion the entire plot of the movie. Her death is used and abused by everyone involved, in whatever way better serves their own purposes, without any regard whatsoever paid to the fact that she was a human being. THAT was irony. And it hurt, it made me shake my head, it made me think, it made me angry. In Shanghai, dr. Ahmedi's death is used much in the same way, but nothing about it made me give a crap or lament his cruel fate. I thought about the differences and it basically comes down to: the woman in Ides of March was a real person, we got to know her in a few short scenes, we knew her aspirations, knew her motivations, we knew she wasn't an angel, but that made her even more human. In Shanghai we know almost nothing about the doctor. He comes to deliver his speech and he exits the frame as empty as the street that he's left lying on. I can't bring myself to care for his death or for his cause because I'm not told at any point why he is fighting it, what he hopes to gain from it, or even who he is. It doesn't help that throughout the movie details about his womanizing ways keep popping up, but again, with more character development these details would have only made him human. This backstory minimalism ends up rippling through the entire movie: we can only guess that Shalini's motivations have something to do with her feelings for the doctor and with her own sense of justice, but neither feels terribly compelling. We can guess that Krishnan's actions are driven by disgust and disenchantment, but none of it is showcased in a significant way. Shanghai's characters just float above their own actions without any kind of engagement. And maybe that's the whole point, maybe this movie is supposed to be exactly about Gen Y and its detachment from its own future, its abandonment to a present that it feels it can't change, but in this particular case the economy of emotion ended up alienating me from the very topic that I'm supposed to invest in.

Another example that may resonate more with Indian movie-goers is Vidya Balan's Kahaani. Leaving aside the sloppiness that allowed me to guess the twist (and effectively ruined the movie for me), her character keeps the viewer engaged because we feel in every frame how passionate and driven she is. In Shanghai my eyes and my ears never told me why I should care, even though my mind could easily piece it together. But that simply wasn't enough.

Last but not least since we talked about Imported Kamariya, another pet peeve of mine: when, oh when, will they stop putting the equal sign between progress and corruption. When, oh when, will they stop confusing moving forward with killing India's soul? Is everything that's imported bad? Capitalism is not the devil, people! It's a system like any other. One that can be abused, or that can be used for good. Capitalism and progress don't bring corruption if corruption is not already there. You don't think capitalism would work in India? Fine, come up with an alternative. But enough of this habit of blaming everything that's wrong in that country on progress. A system doesn't abuse itself, you need people to abuse it. Ponder a bit on that, scriptwriters!

Maybe I went in with the wrong expectations, most of them caused by the film being described as a satire (which I didn't think it was, I thought it was merely social commentary). Maybe the wit and the irony got lost in translation. Maybe too much praise on Twitter did the film a disservice. Either way, I felt that Shanghai fell short of greatness. A good movie, a movie that should be watched, but not the brilliant satire that it claimed it would be. At least not for me.

Shanghai (2012)
Director: Dibakar Banerjee
Starring: Abhay Deol, Emraan Hashmi, Kalki Koechlin, Pito Bash, Prosenjit Chatterjee
Music: Vishal-Shekhar


Jenny said...

Ahh Nice to see you back Dolce! Really wanted to read your review on Kahaani. Got a glimpse of that here.

About Shanghai, well Abhay deaol worked for me all along. I loved the fact, that he being in the system, knew how things worked, and still pulled off that trick in the end woth a panache. The climax was beautiful.

And yes, I didnot feel much for the death of Dr Ahmedi too. Agreed!

Mette said...

I am DYING to see Shanghai - hope I won't be let down.
It's true that Kalki has been cast in the same type of roles, although I love her doing them.

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Jenny! I'm trying to ease back into blogging. :D So far so good. So true about Abhay, I've read reviews that complained he was too one-tone and every time I wanted to scream: BUT THAT'S THE WHOLE POINT!!! :) Glad you enjoyed reading this! :-*

Hey Mette, yeah with Kalki it's not the roles so much as it is the stereotype. Like it's fine to be typecast in a white girl's role, but... make her fun, just once. :)
I think you'll like Shanghai. I was really influenced by all the good buzz so my expectations were sky-high, but it really is a well made movie, despite my complaints.
Thank you for the visit!! Tschuss!

Mette said...

So now that I've finally seen it, I absolutely agree. Surely I could've tried to pay more attention when I started to feel bored but it just didn't capture me. Like you I had read real good reviews, especially one from a guy I trust a lot concerning movies (he rated it 10/10!) so I was disappointed. Not as disappointed as with Vicky Donor though, but that's a whole other story.

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