To Live in Half-Measures

 | Essay |

  BY Anuj Malhotra

One may think it obvious that a film be discussed in terms of what is visible or what is manifest clearly within the film - as evidence, as living proof of an idea – not in terms of a wholly supposed agenda that a film must possess or even worse, since this provokes the most critical clichés, a thing (anything) a film should supposedly bebecause of a critic’s prior knowledge of the work of the director. Banerjee suffers now from a critical compartmentalization that is similar, and is as (if not more) restrictive than the fan-obsession with twist-guessing in the Shyamalan films of the early years in the last decade, or at a graver level, the discernment of what is serious and what is ironic in a Kubrick film – as such, everyone seems to watch a Banerjee film now for thedetails.But truth be said, details by themselves are nothing – they are minute puff-boxes that create a steady illusion of volume, but are infact empty. A case may even be made that the greatest detail exists in a film in events/objects that function entirely in the background (that of the narrative, not of the composition-plane): choreography of the extras, colour of the lamp-shade, an off-screen ambient noise or vehicle-models in a period film (the mainstay of the production design of the American period film is the vintage car).

A good detail (of the production design, or a character tic or the way a line is spoken) does not have an existence of and by itself – left alone, devoid of a larger universe of which it is merely a byproduct of, the detail is merely an annoyance – a contrived vehicle for the director to show-off his ‘eye’. In that, it is perhaps slightly tragic that people do detail-spotting with Banerjee’s films – because if anything, a detail exists only as an engine to propel larger ideas that permeate through the film, like the walls in Fuller’s Shock Corridor or the gun barrels in Aldrich’s World for Ransom. A detail for detail’s sake is never the marquee event in a film. If the discussion of a film, any film, remains restricted only to its most visible and exterior surface, i.e., the details or performances - as opposed to the embedded theme or a subdued subtext or centrally, softly-stated truths that dwell at a micro-level within the film – it is either the failure of the film or of the discussion.

The people Banerjee describes in his films are the children of the group of people who belonged to the final generation before massive globalization set in. They were the final residue of the Gandhian way of life, or of the socialist ambition that prevailed in a newly independent India – one that identified material ambition as a vice – and associated it with greed or general shadiness. For this group of people – like the conservative British society (colonial liquid seeped into the cracks into our society far deeper than we originally thought – money was associated with deviousness or at its worst, with pure evil) – materialism is terrible, but what’s even worse is the explicit admission of a desire to practice or harbor it. Theirs was therefore an ideological stance and not a moral dilemma, as it would be for their children, who grew up in the nineties and witnessed directly the advantages of possession, of ownership and of accumulation outside of their homes, and yet were being told by their parents inside the home of how money is ‘bad’ – and that anyone who is rich is involved in some or the other underhanded dealing (commercial cinema’s favourite villain-names all belonged to the upper-classes: Singhania, Oberoi or Seth; their professions: smuggling, export, pimping, weapon-trade). When these children grew up and became adults, this dilemma, instead of clearing up, manifest itself even more strongly, because both the tuggin’ sides of their moral war had been reinforced many times over. The generation of their parents had grown older, and as is the case with old-age, a person can become a walking ideologue – their distrust of money, materialism and general avariciousness grew even more deep-rooted. Simultaneously, outside the threshold of their home, people with money continued to live it up. Unable to decide, these recent adults ended up making awkward, neither-here-nor-there choices, thereby resigning themselves to lives lived in half-measures, balanced precariously between material accomplishment and the adherence to an ethic handed down to them by the generation that brought them up.

Khosla Ka Ghosla (2005)

As such, the figure of the elder in this particular type of Indian middle class home became the distinct moral core of the household; essentially a corrective moralizing authority that will exist as a constant anchor to the generation of his children if they were to stray, or drift. Such a quality is manifest most pertinently in the character of Kamal Kishore Khosla (Anupam Kher) in Banerjee’s first film, Khosla Ka Ghosla. He is less a father figure and more a symbol of a bygone age of genteel morality – he first reacts unpleasantly to the news of his son leaving for America, or as one may think of it, straying from Khosla’s larger dream of heading a joint family in a metropolitan suburb. Later in the film, he finds the enthusiastic participation of the members of his family in a scheme of connin’-the-conman despicable, inherently decadent and symptomatic of the times. In a critical scene of the film, when the scheme is on the verge of a success, and thereby, the film is on the verge of an end, a key member of the party bungles. The old theatre actor (Naveen Nischol), who is essentially fronting the scheme via-his disguise of a Dubai-based real estate agent, is offered a huge sum of money by Khurana, the main villain, in return for a piece of land that he is pretending is his. He is to accept the sum and pass it on to the Khosla clan, whose plot (a piece of land) Khurana has illegally occupied. However, having never had such a large amount of money presented to him before, the theatre actor becomes nervy and walks out of the meeting, thereby jeopardizing the whole scheme and the chances of its success. Once he returns home, all the younger members of the Khosla family deposit around him and chide him for goofing-up at such a critical stage as the theatre actor looks up at them apologetically. Suddenly, however, the disapproving father himself enters the room and offers the actor a glass of water – thereafter, he proceeds to correct the members of his family: what they look at as failure is, according to him, the admirable human quality of humility, one that does not permit the old actor to immediately accept what is not rightfully his, but more crucially, one that they seem to have abandoned conveniently[1].

Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye (2008)

Such argument between the younger members’ frustration at their last-moment inability to gain the large monetary sum and the elder’s relentless resistance to its temptation is consistent throughout Banerjee’s film and is one that will mutate throughout his filmography. While the commonly accepted notion about his sophomore effort Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) is that it is the story of a common thief whose life is marked by the absence of a father-figure, it is actually about the absence of any sort of moral authority – or a moral buoy – in his life. In that, because all the characters older than Lucky (Abhay Deol), and therefore, from the last generation, are themselves crooks, hustlers and cookie-cutters, he has no one to exemplify a practical (and convincing) antithesis to greed for himself, and thus, gratuitous hedonism seems entirely normal to him, and through him, in the arbitrary universe of the film, to us. The film is the point at which Banerjee seems to develop a steady cynicism that will now permeate through the rest of the films he has made – this depicts a point in history where the present generation will wholly abandon the burdensome guilt of the past and devote themselves entirely to the fulfillment of material desire. This is, for him (and perversely, according to the mainstream Bollywood film, where characters live in America, go on long vacations to Europe and travel all over the world, without a single shot of money changing hands) this is the point of no-return. Nothing will hold us back any longer from the lure of instant gratification. Lucky’s situation, wherein he only requires a sense of belonging and aspires, not so secretly, to climb up the social ladder, is one that would evoke incessant misery in the world of a decade ago – but in Banerjee’s worldview, a member of the present generation doesn’t let minor practical considerations like law or basic conscience hold him back.

This trend of characters in an immoral world (they aren’t immoral themselves, they are supposed to be sympathetic people in a flawed world) continues with his next film, Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010), which is bleak to the extent of not featuring a single moment of basic human virtue within a two-hour duration that is wholly compiled from simulated found-footage (the greater question with films of this type should be: who found the footage? And what was the response of the person who first played it unedited). One would think that in a film that has a specific ambition of feigning a verisimilitude or putting up an appearance of ‘real life’ as it is – humanity would give away, if only for a second. But it never does. Characters of the film engage in a variety of debauchery – they make sex-tapes to repay debts, behead their sisters, and implicate unsuspecting depraved popstars in sting operations – but there isn’t a single moment of private remorse or hesitation or conscience-blockage that we see. I can understand that there is certain sort of vulgarity inherent in the crude-digital image of a low-end camera – it is harsh and dirty and unclean (and therefore, entirely apt in its vast utilization to shoot pornography) – but Banerjee’s film is clearly not a discussion of the nature of the digital-image, it is a discussion of its accessibility, or its penetrability. It is a discussion not of how it looks, but of where it can reach. And in that, the penetrative quality of the cameras whose effect the film attempts to imitate – CCTVs, Consumer, Handicams, pen-cameras – should not merely be of a geographical reach, but also psychological nature.

Through their truthful omnipresence, these cameras should ideally have the inherent capability of shooting into recesses of the human soul that are deeper than just its scandalous ambition or as is the obsession of the recent Bollywood-funded smaller films, its ‘grittier’ facets. However, whether within the frame of the digital-image, or of the larger Banerjee film that simulates it, there is no room for a moment’s hesitation or indecision – each indecent scheme must be immediately executed (literally, in case of the murdered sister). Such unfailing location of outrage is effective, if limited, social commentary on the current generation and its modus operandi (whether in their personal lives or their professional), but if one were to think of filmmaking as an exercise that psychologists may advice their patients to use in the future to learn better about their mental states, and if we may think of it as an expression of a personal world-view, then it is also a revelation of how Banerjee thinks about the modern world, and indeed, about the generation he belongs to. Very interestingly, in Shanghai, his last film, he himself manages to resoundingly convey his belief on the nature of the digital-image: the camera that one of the central character uses to implicate a number of individuals involved in a grand criminal diagram is the same one that he employs to shoot cheap-porn in his off-time – thereby declaring the cruddy digital image as the ultimate vehicle for scandal conducted behind closed doors – mainly due to its penetrability of private social spaces that were, till now, inaccessible to the public eye and therefore, private. The most significant (if not relevant) contribution of digital media therefore is not merely the contraction of private space, or as is commonly understood, a gentle blurring between private spaces and public, but a complete annihilation of it – the truth of the modern world is that nothing is private anymore.

That said, a lot of writing that happens on Banerjee’s films pre-suppose an agenda – since his first two films were centrally about the grand drama inherent in the method of the middle-class aspiration (as opposed to ambition), we are to suppose that all his films must be populated by characters who exist only to fulfill a attain a higher aspired goal - that essentially, all of us exist to escape our current situation and locate another, better one. That is true of Shanghai too. Writing on the film has observed accurately that the mythical kingdomof Bharatnagar is populated by silent individuals who ‘aspire’ endlessly – they aspire to stature-elevations and social upliftment; they aspire also to role-reversals and opportunities to usurp power. They are characters whose existences are bypassed by the broader strokes of developmental and reform processes – individuals who are mere spectators to a game whose result will influence their lives, but one that they can’t play; that they are the wronged and the suppressed. But when we say that there are characters like these in Banerjee’s film, we aren’t saying anything new. That his film (or films) will have individuals perpetually frustrated by the yawning schisms between their real selves and their aspirational selves is a critical given, and like the late great Andrew Sarris said, ‘The problem with givens has never been resolved in cinema.’[2]

It has also been said about how the character of Jaggu (Anant Jog, who acts with the sweat around his eyes and forehead) is the core of the film. He is not. Or atleast, if one were to accept the film itself as the conclusive empirical evidence of its own agenda, he is not. Perhaps he is, if one took the film, pushed it against the wall, slapped it around for a while and forced it to have a central character who ‘aspires’ to break through class barriers and become a member of the upper middle-class, only so that this film ties in seamlessly with the rest of Banerjee’s filmography, but even more importantly, with our notion of what his films are supposed to be. A film, however, is how it is made, it isn’t automatically anything. Jaggu is at best a symbol, the only permanent resident of the town – the others are all tourists passing by a mysterious town, afflicting it with their own crises, vulnerabilities and weaknesses. He appears in the film sporadically, haunting it like an ancient specter, unceremoniously punctuating the narrative flow, which Banerjee himself seems to be conducting with great interest. Perhaps, the idea was to allow his sporadic appearances to create a dialectic between the larger criminal conspiracy at play and his own banal situation, but this is only speculation, because the film itself does not present him as a character we must reserve special focus for – if it is his situation we must think about, it is certainly not the film that encourages us to.

In the light of the image(s) of the film that forms on our retina – Shanghai is clearly the story of its three central characters and a couple of secondary characters. As such, Jaggu’s character is not unique in its conception – every character inShanghai is basically an aspirant: Krishnan is an IAS officer who wants to leave the country and go to Stockholm, Shalini is a faux-activist who wants to cause the erasure of the ill-repute wrought upon her by her father, Jogi Parmar wants to man-up, Mrs. Ahmedi wants to become a political leader, Kaul wants land. Some have moral dilemmas, others don’t; at any rate, the director had abandoned the idea of a moralizing-presence back in his second film (notice how there are hardly any elders in the film. Shalini has a father who is in jail and the only guy who commits an act of traditional ‘goodness’ in the film is Krishnan, and he has a mother.) It may even be said that it is this ensemble of various aspirations (as opposed to a singular aspiration that is a feature of his first three films) that means that Shanghai is ultimately a film about nobodies who are committed to nothing in a no-city. That indicates that this may be a political film then.

How do we know for sure, however? One must admit that Banerjee himself never claimed Shanghai is a political film – that is merely our wishful transgression; of the sort where one projects a secret grand ambition for one’s national cinema onto the work of one of its brightest exponents. You demand that your films engage and confront – and you plaster the responsibility of its fulfillment onto one of the local filmmakers – one may call this a convenient transfer of responsibility. Banerjee himself may not have made the choice – we made it for him. Perhaps, he merely had the limited ambition to make a simple-minded thriller: one that eventually turns into a whodunit with various layers of ‘who’ compounded upon one another like a great-mystery-onion that the duration of the film (it is amazing how sparsely effective the characters in Shanghai are – they are powerless and pathetic, each being carried forward by the slow but sustained current of the narrative, which resolves and entangles itself, through its own accidents or schemes) will peel, slowly, layer by layer, who-by-who, to reveal, eventually a tremendous scandal at play.

In such a scenario, one may therefore consider two distinct possibilities – the first that Shanghai is in fact a thriller which merely happens to have politicians-for-protagonists. The second? That it is in fact a political film – one that contemplates seriously and then extols on, the best that it can, on the nature of the engagement of the individual with the social, of the private with the public, and obviously, on the nature of hierarchy. One may then proceed to volunteer how the film fails on both counts.

Let us consider the film a thriller. Shanghai’s big-crime moment (which is repeated for-effect four times, with the last time being the most ‘arty’ – a subjective-camera that implicates the audience) is the mowing down of a well-meaning but hokum professor who seems to exist within the film only to trigger the events of its narrative – throughout his conscious stay in the film, he is merely a representation (as opposed to an expression) of activism. He has been declared as another example of how Banerjee makes his characters layered. The main support of this declaration? Apart from his earnest activism, he is also a womanizer. This is a very problematic notion. Is womanizing, meant to be, prima-facie, a vice strong enough to counter-act against or contradict his activism and thereby, create a ‘layer’ in his character? If so, Madhur Bhandarkar’s activists are more authentic fakes[3]– their hypocrisy is more strident in its appearance and more resolutely manifest. This again, is an instance of a critical tendency that causes itself to rely on givens.

The professor-cum-activist wears khadi, sports a beard to make himself look distinguished, goes onto the stage despite being hit on the head (with the eventual knowledge of who got him murdered, you may wonder why they would hit him on the head at all) and eventually, conveniently, to plan, walks in the middle of the road to be mowed down. Thereafter, an enquiry commission is setup to investigate the murder and its discoveries are wholly of the cruddy-synthetic sort: Krishnan’s (the chief inquiry officer) seniors want the commission to be wrapped up quickly (there is also the typical scene of the senior indulging in non-vegetarian excesses – he tears his leg-pieces. In Indian movies with politicians, this is to suggest villainy of the vilest sort), the police was engaged in another function across the town and well, there is a larger hand at play, a deeper conspiracy than Krishnan could have ever imagined.

These revelations are accompanied by the contribution of Jogi Parmar, the local videographer/pornographer who happened to be at the scene-of-crime and saw some men there. Later, at a political rally for a local leader, he notices the same men – thereby deducing that the audience of the activist-rally was entirely composed of political goons; which points again, to a larger conspiracy which is headed, needless to say, by the local leader who is the head of the said party. Suddenly, as we near the denouement, quick insert-cuts remind Parmar of a certain hard disk that his boss (before being killed by an ‘unknown force’) had mentioned – revelation strikes and his conscience fires up. He goes back to his under-siege house to retrieve the hard disk; recorded on it is a shocker – the conspiracy is even deeper than Krishnan had imagined upon the first revision of the imagined depth – this state of absolute and abrupt astonishment is conveyed through a slo-mo profile shot of Krishnan set to atmospheric background music as he collapses on his bed.

This is what happens within the film – this is how the film shows it to us. It is presented (like an earlier event in the film) like a narrative-twist; the directorial choice clearly indicating that we as an audience are to collectively gasp at what we have just discovered. In the face of the evidence of this shot, then, how is the film devoid of a ‘story’ or a ‘plot’? And yet, its failure as a whodunit is because the method of revelation (the hard disk, like Bob Biswas’s telephone in Kahaani) is a wholly convenient inclusion, conjured out of thin-air to resolve a complex murder-plot; because such a concrete disclosure (the identity of the mastermind) is prompted by an abstract feeling (conscience suddenly flares up inside Parmar) and because as in bad whodunit, the killer hasn’t really been inside the film at all – mentioned only sporadically – thereby not even giving the audience a chance at guessing. This is a bit like the dampening ending of Khiladi by Abbas-Mustan, which sets up a glorious premise, but unable to resolve it, points at a wholly arbitrary character within the large limitless universe that the film has created without the consent of the audience. As a thriller-transforming-into-whodunit, therefore, it is rather mild, and I am afraid, not very focused on building suspense as it is in trying to build characters.

At this point, one could perhaps pursue the other possibility about Shanghai – that it is a genuine political film, one that attempts to engage (since a thorough summarization is not possible) with the times we live in and our present situation. Such an ambition is manifest in Banerjee’s decision to set the story in a mythical non-existent city with a generic name. The residents of the city are mostly faceless and invisible, their existence visible only in a collective, or a crowd – as such, there is a definite volume, but no personalities. The political party is generic too, with leaders who mimic the acts of actual real-life politicians (there is satire sprinkled throughout the film, but as it is about to work, Banerjee aborts it). The name of the party, as well as the special-economic-zone project that they have embarked on are meant mainly as recognizable symbols of an everyday life that news media helps the citizens of this country domesticate every night through television. As such, Banerjee depicts the setting accurately for a political film – any city with any sort of people faced with any sort of a problem; the intention to arrive at a specific discussion through a generalized representation.

This initial success (if one could consider the setting as being only an initial detail of the script) is however negated, at first, by Banerjee’s insistence on adopting a ridiculous method that, for some strange reason, is associated with bravura and innovation: casting against type. This means that in the role of Jogi Parmar, an average everyman who could be anyone, he casts Emraan Hashmi; who by attempting to conceal his real self through copious make-up, fake teeth, darkened skin and a paunch, reveals it even more – thereby destroying the character entirely. However, this is only the first stage of destruction of the wholly generic super-structure of the setting that Banerjee begins with – gradually, as the film chugs along, the larger atmosphere of the city is subsumed entirely by private miseries and individual quandaries. Again, this focus on the individual: wherein the audience should project themselves entirely onto a character and be made, essentially, to relate to his situation or be ‘in his shoes’ is a quality of narrative-cinema of the sort that actively destroys (or atleast, limits) the emotional distance that is imperative to create an authentic discourse on the situation presented within the film.[4

(left) While the City Sleeps (1956), (right) Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983)

However, because Banerjee is also interested simultaneously in the thriller/suspense possibilities of his story, he asks us, especially in the last half an hour or so, to invest emotionally in the film. This is achieved by purposefully obfuscating crucial narrative-details, which are then revealed strategically to evoke astonishment at yet another revelation – while this in itself is a noble aim, I do not think it is particularly difficult for a director of Banerjee’s capability to attain. Manipulation, after all, is an easy enough ambition with cinema. Such portion-by-portion supply of plot-points is typical of any self-respecting fictional film, but it is against the fundamental nature of a political film, because the latter must lay all its cards on the table so as to then facilitate a proper commentary on the situation at hand – but if the situation itself hasn’t revealed itself to us till the final reel, how are we to even initiate commentary? In that, a true political film which has a crime at its center, will reveal more about the investigating agencies than the perpetrator of the crime: this absence of ambivalence is prevalent in both Aakrosh[5] (1980) and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron[6(1983), wholly superior political films which do not reduce their crimes to trivial parlor games of guess-who’s. Both these films are similar structurally to Shanghai in that they both feature an honest yet flawed protagonist at the center (played in both cases by Naseeruddin Shah), as he investigates a mysterious crime (mysterious because of how it was discovered, not because of who committed it – that is clear from the beginning) and the process of investigation will eventually reveal to him a large, almost cosmic and insurmountable rallying force that he is up against, one that will completely dwarf the crime that he initially believed was a big deal. Such a trend is visible also in two Lang films – the identity of the criminal is revealed in the second scene in (1931) and in the first in While the City Sleeps[7] (1956). Having gotten the formality of the revelation out of the way, the directors of these films have already declared their disinterest in simple-minded whodunits, allowing themselves to engage then in the pursuit of much more significant ideas about the very world inside which the murderous-force functions. These films exist, therefore, as inherently complete statements, while Shanghai, unable to decide whether to exist as a thriller or as a political statement (this decision is manifest in how the immediate perpetrator of the crime is disclosed early on, but the Grand Vampire is ‘kept’ from us till the end), exists merely as a proposition.


1. Of course, Khosla Ka Ghosla is a plot-based film, as all Banerjee films are, and the plot must resolve itself, so only in the next moment, the scheme gets a resuscitation: Khurana is under the impression that the theatre actor (real-estate agent for him) walked off because he was offended by the small sum he offered and therefore, he is ready to increase the price. But he must see the plot once again, which means that the members of the family will have to pretend once again (they have once before, already) to be labourers on the plot. Short of personnel to aide them in the execution of this sub-scheme within the grander scheme; they will have to enlist the services of the father as well, who will, for some reason, agree to it for the ‘greater good.’ The clever ruse of this film (and indeed, all of Jaideep Sahni’s writing, and Banerjee does miss him) is the endorsement (or integration) of the moral authority for (or into) the grand scheme through the steady illusion of the scheme being performed for a ‘greater good’ – and thereby, seeming justifiable. It is a dangerous technique, but one that Sahni pulled off in the other films he wrote. Examples include, Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009) where the employees of a company organize a professional mutiny – their organization is illegal but is justifiable because it espouses middle-class virtuous qualities such as ‘honesty, sincerity and commitment.’ (Author)

2. Andrew Sarris in Issue 6 (1977) of the Bright Lights Film Journal.

3. Madhur Bhandarkar, an Indian film director, who works in Bollywood, is known to make social dramas which largely seek to ridicule the inhabitants of the social milieu which they describe. Since a lot of films, including Page 3 (2005), Fashion (2006), Corporate (2008) etc are seemingly critiques of the high-society, high-profile worlds of the eponymous stratas of society, they invariably feature social gatherings – funerals, evening soirees, dinners, fashion shows – that are attended by, among others, characters who are social activists. Since most of Bhandarkar’s work is in the tradition of the hyper-reality of Bollywood films, these activists come across as emotive parodies or exaggerated versions of the real-life counterparts their characters are based on – and yet, since the production and costume design itself is rooted in the real-world social milieu, they all ‘look’ and ‘seem’ authentic.

4. This aesthetic strategy is detailed in the Brechtian notion of Verfremdungseffekt or the distantiation effect where a performance avoids emotionally engaging its audience fully so as to allow them to cerebrally analyse the situation presented within the performance. The strategy is also employed by Marxist theatre, where the audience is called upon to decide the fate of the characters in the play through collective and cumulative jurisdiction.

5. A film by Govind Nihalani, starring Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Amrish Puri.

6. A film by Kundan Shah, starring Ravi Baswani, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapoor, Satish Shah and Satish Kaushik.

7. M is a 1931 film by Fritz Lang starring Peter Lorre. While the City Sleeps is a 1956 Hollywood film by Fritz Lang starring Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, Vincent Price and George Sanders – its central premise, that of a serial-killer on the loose (who is played by John Barrymore Jr, father of the actress Drew Barrymore) within a city obsessed with the mania left in his wake, is very similar to M. Important to note also is that both these films are based on real-life murderers; while Shanghai is not.