Following comments and rants on various media, the matter being discussed about last week’s release Shanghai is about the excessive praise lavished on it by a section of critics. A radio jockey even went on to wonder if they had all been paid. (This is the commonest allegation and almost always untrue.) A columnist grumbled that he has stopped trusting critics. And various members of the audience who went to see the film after reading the rave reviews came out disgruntled.
After the first round of gush, some of the other critics also expressed mild disappointment with Shanghai. Usually, the first bunch of reviews sets the tone for others to follow, because nobody wants to be the odd one out when 4 and 5 stars are flying around. Nobody said it was a bad film, and Dibakar Banerjee is acknowledged as one of the exciting filmmaking voices of his generation. He has done bold and original work before this – Khosla Ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Love Sex Aur Dhoka—but Shanghai with all its merits is clearly not his best. The idea comes from a 1969 Greek novel Z by Vassilis Vassilikos turned into an award-winning and very powerful film by Costa Gavras, which is clearly an inspiration for Shanghai too.
The way Banerjee has Indianised it, there are clear references to what is going on the country today in the name of development, but there was hardly any need to seek help from a four-decade old Greek source—there are enough instances in India of anti-establishment or anti-MNC activists being harassed, terrorized or killed. Nobody denies the right of the filmmaker to pick his idea from anywhere and also express his political point of view; in fact, the more socially conscious cinema is, the more light it can throw in serious issues. Popular cinema has the kind of reach documentary films cannot. However, a filmmaker’s intention does not necessarily include awareness or understanding of the cause at hand. Bollywood is usually politically naïve if not downright indifferent.
The critical response to Shanghai again raised questions about the standards of criticism, on whether critics are meant to be serious analysts of cinema, crowd-pleasers, sycophants of big-ticket Bollywood or fanboys of the self-appointed rebels against mainstream cinema; whether it is even important for them to be clued into to history, social issues, literature, art and theatre, or it is enough to be fed on a diet of international cinema from which so many of today’s brat pack of directors derives sustenance. In short, do they know what they are talking about, can they place criticism of a few worthy films in a social, historical, moral (unpopular word today) context, can they stick their necks out and take an unpopular stand when need be? If yes, then they will have a reading public trusting their views. The others will be happy with ‘timepass’ films anyway, and the success of a bad film does not make it good, never mind how many celebratory parties the produces throws and how many self-congratulatory interviews stars and directors give.