Director Dibakar Banerjee tells us about his highs and lows while making ‘Shanghai’. Read about his journey
What was the starting point for ‘Shanghai’?
The starting point was when I was speaking to my co-writer Urmi Juvekar about a film called ‘Z’ and how it was a very nice film and I hadn't seen a political thriller like it in a long time. I also noted how most political thrillers in India ended up being a family drama or a propaganda film. She told me to read the book as it was based on an actual event that happened in Greece and the book conveyed the story very well. It was a rare book to find but Urmi had a copy of it and I got a photo copy done for myself and read it. I was very fascinated by it and realised that it was a story that could be easily adapted into the contemporary Indian scenario. So my producer traveled to Greece to meet the 80-year-old author who was fascinated to learn that someone was interested in a book he had written back in 1966. We got the rights of the book and decided to adapt the story to the Indian context. The book was based on an incident that happened in 1963 in Greece and at the time Greece was a country emerging from the ravages of war and suffered extreme poverty. I believe that even India is at a similar stage now as we’re at a crossroads of time and the glaring disparity of wealth is also a large concern for us. So what we tolerate now or don’t will decide where we would be in the years to come. It’s a very exciting time to live in.
Is your film specifically set in a certain small town in India? What can one draw from any small town in India?
It can be in any small town in India where a large amount of wealth has been disproportionately employed for public wellbeing. We shot in Latur but the story is identifiable for any small town in India. Latur has a swank airport and not a single airline connecting to it. The plane we shot in the film was one of the rare chartered flights that landed here. This was a fully functional airport costing crores without a single flight landing in it. While most political funds are employed in futile and empty projects, cities choke in traffic and an embarrassing lack of infrastructure. We picked this town for its look. When your aircraft is about to land on any small town of India, it is a similar sight. You will notice that there is a small pocket which has white-painted posh houses and streets where the rich choose to wall themselves behind, then there’s the market place which is invariably the old city and looks smoky and hazy from above and then along the highway is where there’s a glossy multiplex with a mall for the rich to access, the rest is where the poor confine themselves to.
What was the biggest challenge when you began this project?
The biggest challenge was to find a small town and we had decided to not build a single set for this film and to only shoot in real locations. My production designer Vandana Kataria wanted to take a small town as it is and built up from there. Since the film is based in a time when the city is gearing up for elections, we had to decorate it with symbols and pictures and the regalia of elections. We had to use that town as a canvas and populate that town with the signs and symbols that go with it. This included 100 feet hoardings to painting entire walls to represent the political story of the film. It was almost taking a city and putting makeup on it. Give it a beard and even a hairstyle. So the city was a good actor and we managed to transform it based on our needs. The production design team perfected techniques that could put up wall paintings, slogans, and other images on existing walls like a transfer tattoo and it ensured we could achieve the look we wanted in the limited time we had to set up.
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I think laws are broken equally in small towns and in cities and we are very democratic about that. The country forgets a small town so those who want to break the system and exploit it get away with it and have more impunity. In cities, perhaps, the business class ensures that there's a semblance of law and order and lull the media into thinking that all is well. The national media doesn't bother to get to the small towns to explore the cases too much because today what is in the spotlight and what the national media decides to cover is what entertains the most. This is a reason why Bollywood or more entertaining politics is what gets covered more often and the audience is manufactured for that. There is also a nexus between the media and business houses and the political machinery. You need to exercise normal logic to understand that mostly what you read and hear is what you're meant to read and hear. So the small towns escape the radar and at a local level lots would happen that won’t get reported. Small towns are in turn affected by Bollywood, big city glitz, television and advertising and aspire to become like big metros overnight. This wannabe syndrome hastens them to go for a brand of development symbolized by empty airports, futile vanity projects, malls, multiplexes and other big city luxuries to become a 'Shanghai' overnight.
Does anything get compromised when a small town or even a city aspires to become a ‘Shanghai’ overnight?
The first compromise is life and that value of life immediately decreases when you have unchecked and skewed development. We put up a manufactured image of development in front of the nation and people's life and the way they live is altered. Development becomes a showy picture postcard to impress a western country. Broad roads, glass-covered buildings, something to do with technology constitute this facade. Since it’s not very well thought out, it takes a toll over the way of living. Then the usual nightmare occurs- when you have a swanky building with choked roads, fumes and pollution at its very gate. It's the story of every Indian town.
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You’ve transformed Abhay from a rockstar to a geek. Didn’t you see any risks in this experiment?
Abhay was not at all appropriate for this role. He is a Punjabi-born in Mumbai and he’s playing a Tamilian Brahmin coming from a service-oriented traditional family. That I found very exciting and the fact that he didn't match the character at all was very challenging. Abhay has always been seen as a rebel from ‘Dev D’ or ‘Oye Lucky..’ But here, he plays a person who is establishment-oriented and a cold bureaucrat and it was a challenge for me to transform him into one, At the time when I approached him with this film, he had a few offers, including some international projects. But he took this up because he said that no one will expect him to do a role like this. I told him he will have to look older and speak in a Tamil accent and most of his character will be internal as he doesn't express much. His character is very reserved and repressed and shows little on his face. So all these things were completely against the grain of what Abay is and has been known for and that’s why he took it up.
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There's no formula to do anything. First thing is to understand politics, just like you have to understand sports to do sports films. And one needs to understand human beings and their condition. In the end of the day, a political film is about people doing politics, like a car salesman would sell cars or gangsters would kill. Then, the politics has to be a character in the film and it has to move the other characters in the film. Politics has to make them do what they're doing. Abhay’s character in the film believes that post liberalized development is the key to India’s progress. He believes in that dream and he is the dream.
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Do you have any favourites among films where someone who believes in the right-wing philosophy is exposed to the other side?
‘Lives of Others’ which is the story of communist East Germany is one favourite. Then among Indian films, I liked the 1982 film ‘Bazaar’ starring Naseeruddin Shah, Farooq Shaikh, Smita Patil and Supriya Pathak. Among recent Indian films, I liked ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ which is openly about politics.
As a filmmaker, have you learnt anything from working in ‘Shanghai’?
I learn from every project when I am writing or shooting and through every process of filmmaking. One of the things I learnt was that unless it’s a finely drawn balance between the backdrop and the characters and their human emotion and their condition and if you only concentrate on the politics, it becomes very dry. As a filmmaker, just like in any other film, I learnt that I can do extremely basic mistakes and screw up lots of things. Shooting outside Bombay allows you to focus more as Bombay never allows you to focus and that is a boon.
We’ve been told that you like micro-manage everything on the sets and take control and ownership of every aspect of the film. Is this is best way to achieve perfection?
The feeling that you're a director and in control of everything is the bigger illusion ever because you control nothing. You're merely trying to be a part of everything and allowing others to execute what you originally envisioned. It's a desire to make everyone else's labour work because they're trusting you with your vision. The only thing you’re supposed to do is collate their contributions. Actors will come and act because it is their job. If I was doing all the roles in the film then only 5 people would see the film. I didn't write this film, my writer did. My job is to conduct all these performances into a symphony. I have a team which comprises my writer, producer, cinematographer, production designer, costume designer etc. We have worked on many projects before and I know that each one of them understands their business much better than I do and are top racket professionals in their own field. They have a healthy intolerance of indecisions and when we make a film, I have to consider each one of them with their ideas and contributions which will improve and add to my vision. And frankly, when you work in my film, the pay isn't great and the locations aren't Phuket or Canada. You literally have to move mountains against deadlines and constraints. So it has to be enjoyable for them and they have to be enjoyable the process as much as I do. So we get off on winning over a vision. So unless I am there to point them precisely to what I want and draw from them to enrich my vision, it doesn't work. Hence I am there, where ever they are. My sound designer Pritam and I wake up in the middle of the night and record sounds and call up each other. I record sounds from the 20th floor of my house and then connect with him to discuss possibilities. Its team work between team members who are demanding things from each other.
If you were to go back and change anything in ‘Shanghai’ what would it be?
Nothing. For me as a creative person at the root, the final outcome is a result of all that happened in the process of making the film. The process has always shaped me for the next thing I would work on. So to change anything, I'll have to go back in the process and relive it. Every film will be full of things you will have to tinker around with. Films have to be abandoned as Mahesh Bhatt once famously said and you have to leave it after you’ve made.
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