A Hindi political thriller called Shanghai hits cinemas on Friday, raising awkward questions about India’s development with a fictional town trying to emulate fellow giant China’s shiny financial capital. The film, a Hindi version of 1966 Greek novel Z, is set in a small unnamed town being pumped with funds to become a major economic hub, ‘the next Shanghai’ — a vision that is a common promise among politicians.
Director Dibakar Banerjee says the film looks at the gulf between the dream of Shanghai and the reality for hundreds of millions of people every day — and questions whether one model can fit every country. “Shanghai has become kind of a touchstone for much of the political debate around development that goes around in India,” he told online magazine BollySpice.
The film, unusually for a Bollywood plotline, delves into a murky world of crime and politics, the gaping rich-poor divide in India and the thorny issue of the less well-off being thrown off their land for urban development. Banerjee, known for small-budget hits such as the 2006 movie Khosla Ka Ghosla (Khosla’s Nest), is among a growing band of Hindi filmmakers whose works deviate from the popular but generic escapist blockbusters.
His latest offering has already raised hackles ahead of its release on Friday, with a Hindu nationalist group filing a court case seeking a ban over a song that refers to India as a land of diseases and cow dung. Indians are conflicted in their feelings about China, whom they compete with for investment from the West, say observers. There’s mistrust over a military defeat in 1962, contempt over its lack of freedom and democracy and, latterly, a great envy for its economic progress.
Former ambassador Neelam Deo, a director of Gateway House, an Indian foreign policy think-tank, says there is no doubt about the covetous glances cast towards the north by middle-class Indians and businessmen. “All the Indians who visit Shanghai are just blown over. They’re really impressed by the new construction, the shininess, as well as the efficiency,” Deo said.