Shanghai might just be the last straw that broke this camel’s back. It is a sad but well-known fact that we are perfectly ok with mediocrity in this country at every level. An ‘Andhon Mein Kaana Raja’ gets away with being brilliant and repeatedly drives people into raptures simply because everything else is so bad. Shanghai, to me, is a very average film and little else and I feel this even more so because I have watched Z, which, though made by Costa Gavras way back in 1969, is still miles ahead of Shanghai in terms of its cinematic craft and storytelling. Everything Dipakar Banerjee has tried here has been done better in the Costa Gavras film 43 years ago! For those who don’t know, both films are adaptations of the novel Z by Vassilis Vassilikos.
The point here is not how good or bad Shanghai really is. And I’ll say this. Many have loved it and have even justified why so in their take on the film. However, different people can have different opinions. I do not agree with them and there are many issues I have with the film but this piece is not my review of the film. And, let me clarify – I do not consider myself any sort of critic or reviewer. Circumstances and a perennial lack of funds force me to write for Upperstall myself and even now whenever I can, frankly, I get others from the review team to critique the new releases because it is not something that comes to me naturally or easily. I am much happier dealing with the site’s Hall of Fame putting together write-ups on our luminaries who have played an important hand in shaping our film industry as well as those on our classic films down the years.
What is more disturbing for me is the larger picture that emerges when these so-so films are lauded by our so called esteemed critics, many of whom take themselves mighty seriously. Though, I wonder sometimes if they actually realize just how seriously audiences take them. For if one was to go by their reviews, the Bodyguards, Readys and Rowdy Rathores should never have been watched by those audiences at all. And we know what big blockbusters these films became. The danger here is that even people who follow reviews might no longer bother with what the reviewers say especially when they feel more and more differently from the reviewers. Sure, Dibakar is a director to watch out for and is always trying to find new paths and go beyond stereotypical Bollywood, but to blindly support something just because it is outside the obvious mainstream or made by a particular filmmaker and make it an agenda is not correct either. Honestly, to me, there is nothing in Shanghai to keep audiences in their seats and even in the show I saw, they were bored beyond their wits – as was I – and some even walked out. If Shanghai does do well, thanks to the ‘reviews’ and word-of-mouth by the so called ‘different film’ watchers, good for it as it may give filmmakers like Dibakar far more creative freedom and clout to make their subsequent films but in this case – and the film has had a very poor first two days so far – if the film does not pick up and continues to do poor business, then one cannot blame audiences. The film itself is the culprit. No matter what type or genre of film, it must engage its viewers. To me, Shanghai fails here.
Also, what this does – and that is where truly good films could suffer – is that now when the reviewers rave about certain upcoming films, one tends to take them not just with a pinch of salt but a generous sprinkling of pepper as well. And today, I would seriously wonder if I should even bother seeing a Kshay (releasing on 15th June) and dare I say it, a Gangs of Wasseypur (June 22nd) and go through the déjà vu of Shanghai all over again, given that they would be raved about in the same manner by the same set of reviewers. Although, I have to say the trailer of the latter is mighty intriguing and if I do go for it, it would certainly not be due to the reviews.
What’s more, with films like Shanghai taken as the benchmark of excellence and by putting their filmmakers on a pedestal by treating them as gods, even our off-the-beaten-track films are not likely to improve as this is then deemed the standard to reach and is brilliant enough for all concerned. I always re-iterate to my students that treat no one like the Almighty in this line. You automatically then put yourself in a position that you can never ever reach that level. Sure, respect the filmmaker whose work you have liked and analyse why you might have liked or disliked certain films but most importantly, believe in yourself, your ability and work hard towards making yourself go even further.
All of this also finally raises a question about how good our film reviews actually are. Most are little more than story summations with a line or two thrown in about the performances. A few drop in the odd line about technicalities and that too little beyond the cinematography. Many are more about how many stars the reviewer has given the film rather than what he or she has actually written about it. Worse, a pathetic lack of knowledge of our own country’s cinematic history, particularly outside Hindi cinema, tells in many of their writings. When they cheer Shanghai as the first such effort, they seem to forget that films like Aakrosh and New Delhi Times, amongst others, did this sort of thing so much better and that too decades ago. And shockingly, a certain reviewer not only confidently described Z as a black and white film (it is in colour), but even proceeded to elaborate how well its dark shadows were used till it was pointed out that the film was anything but black and white and the correction then hastily made. Am I to take anything written by this reviewer seriously now or ever again? You tell me.