Saturday, 2 June 2012

'Shanghai', the difference between our dreams and reality: Dibakar Banerjee

Anurag Kashyap may have held the title of 'India's leading Alternative Filmmaker' for more than a decade but Dibakar Banerji's doubtless about to take over that mantle.

Just ask Kashyap, who tweeted this week: 'Dibakar Banerji is the best director in the country, period!'  High praise indeed.

And certainly deserved.
While Banerjee cannot claim any kudos for being prolific - four features in six years: continents shift more swiftly - his first three films were widely acclaimed, cinematic delights that have explored a myriad array of subjects: from existential crises in Middle India to the country's sensationalist media.

Audiences in London will be familiar with the director: his last film, the visceral Love Sex Aur Dhoka opened the London Indian Film Festival in 2010 and caused a stir - not least in India - for its exploration of honour killings and media ethics.

Despite its controversial themes, the film was an unmitigated success with audiences embracing the film and critics acclaiming its authenticity.

Two years later, Banerjee is back with 'Shanghai'; arguably his most commercial film to-date with a far more 'mainstream' feel to it than any of his previous efforts.

The film, releasing June 08, is Banerjee's most expensive to date, costing a reported $3m.  An equally extravagant amount has been spent promoting 'Shanghai'.
But whilst the production and marketing of the film has been as commercial as it gets, early previews suggest there is nothing mainstream about the story.

The film is inspired by 'Z', Greek writer Vasilis Vassilikos's masterpiece about the rebellious spirit that lurks beneath the surface of Greek society of the 1960's against the corrupt military junta which is slowly, deliberately asphyxiating the country.
The political thriller stars Emraan Haashmi, Abhay Deol and the beautiful Kalki Koechlin - aka Mrs Anurag Kashyap - in a story that continues Banerjee's love of interwoven storylines.
Set in an unnamed Indian city, 'Shanghai' follows the stories of four individuals, inextricably linked to the city's politics.

A young activist witnesses a road accident which leaves a prominent local politician in critical condition.  Another witness believes the accident to be premeditated murder.

A porn filmmaker claims to own incriminating documents that will bring down the government, prompting the arrival of a political 'damage control' expert.

What none of them realize is that they are merely pawns in a bigger game of cat and mouse carefully orchestrated by a corrupt government.
'Shanghai' has already stirred something of a hornet's nest in India with one nationalist organization taking exception to one of the film's songs and the powers that be slightly agitated about where Banerjee has drawn inspiration from.
Ultimately, all things point to the film being a classic; Kashyap has described 'Shanghai' as the most "visceral, stunning and ballsiest film ever made in India".  If there's one man - apart from Kashyap - who can pull that off, it's Banerjee.

Poonam Joshi discusses politics, independent filmmaking and the delights of Shanghai with the director himself.    
It's been two years since 'LSD' thrilled audiences, not least here in London.  Why has it taken so much time for you to return?
Well if you look at my record, in 2006 it was Khosla Ka Ghosla, then Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! in 2008, LSD in 2010 and now Shanghai in 2012.  So I've been pretty consistent with my output.  But because I produce and direct my own films I take plenty of time to get things absolutely right.  Each project had no precedent.  With Shanghai, just in terms of the cast, no one has ever seen Emraan, Abhay and Khalki Koechlin together on screen.  Every film is a first of its kind or at least that's what I want it to be: exploring a whole new subject.  So it takes time to write it and fine tune it to the extent that I am completely satisfied with it.

Vassilis Vassilikos' 'Z' was about an extremely oppressive military junta.  India's the world's largest documentary.  How have you related the themes found in 'Z' to a modern Indian context?
When I first read the book I felt that the violence and corruption depicted in the book could happen in a political context in contemporary India where ordinary people from all walks of life were affected and their lives dictated by decisions taken by people they didn't even know.  The result was an extremely interesting one.  I was confident from the outset that I could translate it into a contemporary Indian story.  At its core, 'Z' is a whoddunit, the unravelling of a mystery so it was a fantastic opportunity to marry a popular cinematic genre with a message about contemporary politics.  I wanted a true blue political thriller in the Indian context. Our political thrillers are essentially family dramas which are incidentally about politicians and politics.  But I wanted a film which had politics as the central fault line of the characters; about what they did and the choices they made and the destinies that they embrace.  All of that leads to the political ideas that govern our country at the moment.

There's something quite commercial about the way the film has been promoted.  Some say you've "sold out" by moving into the 'mainstream'.  What are your thoughts on that?
I have never really considered myself 'alternative'.  The media's perception always moulds the public's perceptions.  My films play in the same multiplexes that many of the bigger Bollywood blockbusters play in.  I definitely don't consider myself as an "alternative filmmaker".  At the end of the day if I'm going to market my film then I should do it aggressively because ultimately it's a commercial product.  And Shanghai is essentially an edge-of-the-seat thriller with a nail biting climax.  I've had a chance to see the final edit of the film and it doesn't let you breathe until the end.  It's a story about India and why should it not be promoted aggressively?  I have never considered myself above or below the usual 'mainstream' as it were.  These are all media inventions.  The dynamism of the Bollywood film industry is as much a part of me as I am a part of it.

The name Shanghai refers to India's obsession with that a bad thing though?  Surely there's a lot of good that can be drawn from China?  Shanghai is a lovely city to begin with!
There's nothing bad or good about China or anything else.  It's the process and the thinking behind that obsession that needs to be examined in the context of the political ideas that govern our lives and our country. The name Shanghai alludes to the gulf between what we aspire to and dream about between Shanghai or any other Western city and the reality that hundreds of millions of people live in every day.  The film is also about the social and political ideas that govern India and whether they take us towards that 'Shanghai' or takes us away from it.  I think that is what will define India and where we are going in the next twenty or thirty years.

Some say that China has better used its wealth, far better than India, to uplift the lives of its people.  Do you think that's an accurate statement?
If you look at purely statistic oriented economic growth, of course China has fared much better than India.  But the question is, and this is the question that 'Shanghai' poses, can someone else's parameters and solutions be our solutions?  Can one solution fit all?  Is there one solution that can go easily down the throat of every nation?  Can every nation pursue a western model of economic growth or should every nation define its own goals and aspirations within its own cultural parameters?   That's the question the film poses.  In terms of purely economic statistics, China has fared better but there are other areas where India has fared better.  We must look at those statistics and figures and find out whether they are the ones that we want or are there other parameters by which we must define ourselves for the greater good of our country.

You've already run into problems making and releasing the movie.  There will always be crazies in the world but given a context like that how difficult was it to get the movie made and are you worried by some of the threats?
Not really.  India is a pluralistic democracy and one interesting thing about India - unlike China for instance - is that everyone's opinion can be heard.  No one is switched off.  It's a noisy society where various opinions can be heard.  I'm absolutely fine about the threats so long as whatever is considered legitimate under the law of the land prevails.  In terms of getting the film made I didn't have any problems because I've got two of the brightest stars in Bollywood on the project and they were so committed to it.  Ultimately, the film's an adventure that these guys embarked on.  It's an edge of the seat entertainer.  Hopefully once people have seen the film, all the layers of the story will come apart for them and hopefully get them thinking.  First and foremost, my job with the film is to entertain and then inform people.

The film is clearly a critical look at India and its politics.  What do you think is fundamentally wrong with Indian politics?
There is nothing wrong with Indian politics that is not similarly wrong with another country of a similar size or similar nature.  There are as many honest people and politicians in India as there are corrupt politics as any other country.  But after our country's economic liberalization, we have come to the crossroads of history and we need to judge for ourselves and define for ourselves the route forward.  The question that we need to ask of ourselves is whether it's going to be a country where a few people are very rich and are we going to break through the barriers and achieve an equanimity forcefully or are we going to take a little longer and work towards a society where a vast majority of people have access to the same privileges and opportunities?  Are we going to work towards a society where everyone has access to justice and not just the rich and powerful.  Everything else falls into those parameters.

It is said that people are powerless.  You have said that you feel frustrated at how your own life is dictated by politics.  But is it strictly accurate to say that people are unable to do anything?
Well people are able to take action on one level or another.  I've made a film!  There are many countries in the world where I would not have been able to make this film and I'm very proud that I have been able to that in India.  It's not true that people cannot do anything to change the status quo.  Of course they can and it is happening.  I think these are exciting times.  Things are happening.  It's now about defining our route and our journey.  Whatever we do we need to be cognizant and keep our eyes and ears on the debate.  Debate is crucial as is dissent.  If dissent is silent or silenced then there won't be anywhere to go.

You've always dealt with social issues and continue to do so.  What compels you and how do you think Bollywood has reacted to you and your stories?
It was difficult when I began making films.  Khosla turned the tide although I struggled to get it released.  Once it was, it was a lot easier to then go on making films.  It's an exciting time for filmmakers to tell different stories.  I suppose as a filmmaker, it's an itch for me!  These are the kind of stories that I relate to and respond to.  They are my stimuli and they energize me.  I know all my films have been about social issues but I'm sure a change is coming.  Perhaps my next one will be about relationships and the complexity of any relationship.  I don't know, we'll have to wait and see.
- Interviewed by Poonam Joshi

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