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The Political Thriller ‘Shanghai’ Team Gets Candid

Emraan Hashmi and Abhay Deol in “Shanghai.”
  • MUMBAI, India

    As the tag-line goes, it is “A film about a dream called Shanghai and a truth called India.” 

    This refers to a politician's false promise over a decade ago that the city of Mumbai would soon be converted into a dream city like Shanghai; interestingly, the word is also a British colloquialism for being conned fatally.

    And that is exactly what Dibakar Banerjee (“Khosla Ka Ghosla,” “Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!,” “Love Sex Aur Dhokha”) is trying to highlight in his Indian adaptation of the Greek bestseller “Z” by Vassilis Vassilikos.

    This is a political thriller in which three unlikely souls join to blow the lid off a heinous conspiracy: NRI Shalini Pearson Sahay (played by Kalki Koechlin), slimy scribe and part-time porn filmmaker Joginder Parmar (Emraan Hashmi) and Tamilian Brahmin bureaucrat T.Ananthakrishnan (Abhay Deol).

    Says Banerjee, “The city I present can be Mumbai or Vijaywada or any other. The idea is the stark contrast between the rosy promises made and the reality today.”
    He shot the film in Latur and Baramati, two small-towns in Maharashtra that had to be “modified” for the needs of the film. And so well was it done, it ate up the lion's share of this most expensive of Banerjee's films. But the outdoor set design and look of many key locations seemed so real that Banerjee often forgot that they were sets engineered by his team.
    Dibakar says that the film is a thriller, whodunit and a mystery and not just a comment. He is okay with T-Series having its way in incorporating an additional item song for ‘commercial’ reasons, stressing that all his films were commercial films anyway.
    “I already have one song in which a political 'tamasha' is happening even as violence is unleashed in another part of the town. The satirical lyrics go ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. I have used my music as per the film’s needs. We have used a lot of street music and what I call political music — there are a lot of drums that signify violence. In India, a political procession will expect you to move aside to make way for them, but if it comes in your way, you have to wait in the car for an hour if needed until they move away!”
    What are the changes he has made for a film first planned in 2008 (and based on a Greek novel) to make it contemporary today and India-relevant? “We kept making changes through the years,” says Banerjee.
    “And Urmi Juvekar, my co-writer, deserves a big share of the credit, because she kept emotional creatures like we directors in control.” The casting coup of getting flop Hindi star-son turned Bengali super-star Prosenjit to do a key negative role in the film took him 10 weeks. Prosenjit (son of old-timer Biswajit) had two issues – the character and the fact that he was getting outside his comfort zone. But he liked the treatment of the role (all actors were characters) and took to practicing Hindi.
    We come to his lead actors and realize Banerjee's acumen for casting actors against their grain. A pedantic, boring, cold and very religious Tam-Brahmis just on the right side of 40 – Abhay Deol would be the last actor one can visualize but Abhay loved the challenge. Says Deol, “I was scared. I first dressed that way and began to feel like the character. The brief was clear: I was older, mature and a bureaucrat. I had penetrating eyes. Everything about Mr. Ananthakrishnan was alien to a Punjabi Arya Samaji like me.”
    But even before he put on the right physical adornments and accessories, Abhay decided to work on the Tamil accent. “That was the key. I wanted the accent right, but not become the Bollywood stereotypical Southie who said “taak” for talk,” smiles the actor.
    Dibakar reveals Abhay's dedicated approach. “For three months, Abhay insisted on coaching in the language and read books to improve it,” says the director. “Every day before his shoot, he would insist on sitting with the coach and me in his vanity van for half an hour at least to get everything right and refused to shoot till he was satisfied. He became my director and almost like a schoolmaster.”
    Abhay’s co-actor Emraan Hashmi was also cast against type. In high spirits, he goes on in a light-mixed-with-serious vein. “Dibakar’s biggest strength is that he hurls an actor out of his comfort zone. He wanted me to look repulsive and shady and get a paunch, so he stuffed me with pasta!” he recalls. “I become so weird-looking that my wife wanted to leave me!
    But getting the physicality right is half the battle won! I play a small-time journalist-cum-model coordinator, a euphemism for a porn filmmaker. ‘Ahh!’ I thought. ‘That sounds familiar as a zone! After the serial kisser that I am said to be, this was the next level! Now let’s see where I go further from here!” He goes on, “But I don’t get to kiss any girl! With my lips, I can only do one thing at a time – kiss a girl or chew paan. Here I am doing the latter!”
    Emraan gets serious when asked whether he has hiked his price to a rumored 11 crore after his recent string of successes (“Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai,” ”Dil To Bachcha Hai Ji”) and super-hits (“Murder 2,” “The Dirty Picture”).
    “My price is something that will not pull down the film or be detrimental to my career. If I am not over-pricing myself, neither will I doing the reverse!” he says as he adds the obvious with a grin, “I cannot reveal the actual figure!”
    Kalki Koechlin as a young, angry and passionate girl states that “The anger and passion came to be naturally!” but shudders at the memory of one sequence where she had to keep beating a man. “I had to hit him with what seemed to be golf swing-likes strokes. I don’t know whether the poor man is alive today because I practiced on him for what seemed to be through the night! The next morning my right arm was so painful that I could not move it and the pain extended to my back!” says the reticent actor, who prefers to smile and giggle as her heroes discussed the media perception of their spat.
    As Emraan put it, “Don't worry. This is just an act we are putting up for you. The moment you leave, we will be at each other's throats!” As Abhay mock-clenches his fists, a laughing Banerjee intervenes, “I think that all really sensible and good actors do not bother about either footage or what the other actors have to do, except in the paradoxical sense that they know that a film is teamwork.”
    While Kalki declares that the workshops held by the director helped them all a lot in getting into characters, Emraan recalls how he almost threw up while chewing tobacco as he had quit smoking years ago. But he braved it, raves Dibakar. He had to also have his hands and face browned, he teeth discolored and his ears pierced. He even got his under-eyes and his lips colored.
    The PVR Pictures' co-production with music by Vishal-Shekhar is clearly an interesting film to watch for in the weeks to come. With three dark films of diverse genres behind him and this fourth one coming up, Banerjee sure knows how to keep the anticipation quotient high.
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