In the opening scene of Shanghai, an older man tells his nephew he’s worried that the two of them may be in over their heads: the powers they’re dealing with are just too big. Such is the case for all of the main characters in Shanghai, a jaw-dropping thriller.
In India’s drive to become a world financial power, the low-income neighborhood of Bharat Nagar is designated as the future home of the International Business Park (IBP), a collection of high-rise office buildings. IBP has the blessings of a pair of local politicians. The residents who will be forcibly relocated have little say.
Author and activist Dr. Ahmedhi (Prosenjit Chatterjee) arrives in town with the hope of uniting the residents to oppose IBP. His former student, Shalini (Kalki Koechlin), gets a tip that the doctor’s life is threatened by goons affiliated with the local political party. Ahmedhi goes ahead with his planned rally and is promptly hit by a truck driven by the uncle and nephew — Jaggu (Anant Jog) and Bhaggu (Pitobash), respectively — from the opening scene.
The local government sets up what the audience knows is a sham inquiry into Ahmedhi’s “accident.” But the bureaucrat assigned to run the inquiry, Krishnan (Abhay Deol), takes the job seriously and uncovers discrepancies in the official accounts. Shalini demands the truth and confronts Krishnan with irrefutable evidence from an unsavory source: a slimy pornographer named Jogi (Emraan Hashmi).
Deol performs admirably as Krishnan, but the role is pretty straightforward. Krishnan is careful with his words, knowing that a promotion surely awaits if he does well in his investigation. It’s hard to become emotionally attached to the character.
Because of that, Shanghai belongs to Koechlin and Hashmi. Kalki Koechlin has one of the most expressive faces I’ve ever seen. She elevates staring to an art form. After stellar performances last year in That Girl in Yellow Boots and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, and now this star turn in Shanghai, I’m willing to put Koechlin alongside Vidya Balan as the two most talented actors working in India right now. She’s riveting.
Until now, I haven’t loved any of Emraan Hashmi’s performances. He’s been good, often playing handsome, lusty characters, but he hasn’t blown me away. Hashmi is spectacular in Shanghai. Jogi is gross, with his stained teeth, grimy clothes, and his slight beer belly. He’s still lusty, but by no means handsome. One of the best moments in Shanghai is when Jogi tilts his head back and grins at Krishnan while standing next to him at a urinal. It’s a smile that’s meant to be charming but comes off as repulsive, especially given the setting.
Jogi’s reptilian swagger fades when he realizes how much trouble he’s in. It’s replaced by a barely restrained panic, which Hashmi portrays perfectly. A scene in which Jogi and Shalini navigate Bharat Nagar at night under a police curfew is heart-stopping.
As wonderfully plotted as the film is, there were some moments near the end that didn’t work for me. Krishnan has an important conversation with someone in a position of authority, and I wasn’t sure who that person was. In fact, I wasn’t even clear who Krishnan ultimately worked for (thanks to commenter Dallas Dude for clearing things up). Also, the film ends with unnecessary epilogue notes, though the ending scenes had already done more than enough to wrap up the story.
Shanghai is something special. It’s a great thriller that doesn’t overstay its welcome, clocking in at under two hours long. That runtime includes two songs which fit smoothly into the story. It’s a nice way to keep uniquely Indian elements in a film with unquestionable international appeal.