The second adaptation of Greek novel Z, Dibakar Banerjee’s latest project follows three characters from different backgrounds who become embroiled in the messy politics of a small Indian town.

Synopsis: A civil servant, a photo-journalist and an ex-pat social worker are caught up in the politics of a small Indian town which is gearing up for an election and a multi-million dollar investment.

Director: Dibakar Banerjee

Writer: Dibakar Banerjee, Urmi Juvekar

Producers: Ajay Bijli, Sanjeev Kumar, Priya Sreedharan

Co-producers: Kamal Gianchandani, Kuldeep Singh Rathore

Executive producer: Wasim Khan

DoP: Nikos Andritsakis

Cast: Abhay Deol, Emran Hashmi, Kalki Koechlin

Budget: $2.7m (Rs120m)

Financing: PVR Pictures

Language: Hindi

Countries of Production: India

Status: Production

After directing two mainstream but unconventional Hindi films, followed by low-budget sleeper hit Love, Sex Aur Dhoka, Dibakar Banerjee has earned his stripes as a filmmaker who is both original and knows how to connect with audiences.

His latest project Shanghai, currently shooting in India, also promises to pack a punch at the same time as being entertaining. Based on the novel Z by Greek author Vassilis Vassilikos, the film follows three characters from wildly different backgrounds who become embroiled in the messy politics of a small Indian town that is gearing up to become a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). 

The cast is headed by three actors who are recognisable names in India but also have indie cred – Abhay Deol (Road, Movie), who plays a civil servant; Emran Hashmi (Once Upon A Time In Mumbai), who plays a porn filmmaker working by day as a photo-journalist, and Kalki Koechlin (Dev D), who plays an expatriate social worker.

The novel was also the source material for Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969), starring Yves Montand, although Banerjee has based his project on the book and not the film. As in the novel, the story begins with an assassination attempt on a local politician.

“I saw the Costa-Gavras film when it was shown on Indian state television when I was 14 and it left a big mark on me,” Banerjee explains. “Later when I grew up, I realised it was based on a book, and when I read the book I realised in some ways it was very close to India.”

Banerjee optioned the book from Vassilikos and penned the script with his regular writing partner Urmi Juvekar. In the story, the three characters are all looking for ways to benefit from the changing fortunes of the small town, but face a moral dilemma when they realise how local people are being exploited in the name of rampant development. The title of the film refers to India’s desire to ape China’s economic success.

“What’s important to me is to portray the anger, the desperation and feeling of being left out that a lot of Indians are feeling, and also paint the other side of India – pro-development, middle class and English-speaking – and what they really want,” Banerjee says.

“We don’t really have left and right politics in India, but do we have class, and the book is all about class and how democracy in a country where a large section of the people are under-privileged and under-educated can sometimes become the power of the mob, and not really the power of the people,” he continues.

“It’s about how a group of people can be influenced to harm their own interests willingly by leading them into something that promises a false heaven but doesn’t deliver.”

Despite the meaty subject matter, usually a turn-off for Indian investors, the film has several commercial elements – a strong cast; a few songs, that work in the context of the story, and the track record of Banerjee and his producer Priya Sreedharan who are renowned for a no-frills style of filmmaking that is low-cost and therefore low-risk.

With these elements working to their advantage, Banerjee and Sreedharan managed to secure 100% of the $2.7m budget from PVR Pictures, the production arm of Indian exhibitor PVR, which has also financed films such as Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par.

“Priya and I make our films very cheap – they don’t look cheap, but we work hard and plan hard, and try to get a good cast around what we do,” Banerjee explains. “Now an audience is growing around our kind of films, so if have one or two good songs and promote the film well, it should make some money.”

Although he’s more outward-looking than most Indian filmmakers, Banerjee says he’s making the film for an Indian audience rather than European sensibilities. There may be elements that are interesting to a global audience – for one thing it’s more rooted in reality than many Bollywood movies – but he wants it to also work with the domestic audience for whom it’s most relevant.

Nevertheless, as Banerjee’s production outfit, Dibakar Banerjee Productions, is co-producing with PVR, he will have some influence as to how the film is released and plans to take it to film festivals and sales agents when it’s completed in the third quarter of this year.

“This country really needs good sales agents and distributors who see Indian films for what they really are,” Banerjee observes. “There have been some people over the last ten years who have shown interest in Indian cinema but got their hands burnt. And some new people are trying so perhaps we shouldn’t complain.”

Usually Indian filmmakers find it difficult to appeal to both domestic and international markets as local audiences prefer films that are escapist entertainment rather than gritty and realistic. However Banerjee says Shanghai should appeal to Indian cinema-goers, with its pithy dialogue, black humour and songs, whilst also having a dark side.

“It’s fairly gritty and exposes a raw, violent side of India,” Banerjee explains. “It also shows how India is not really the exotic land of elephants and snake-charmers that many Westerners take it to be.

“It’s actually a place where history is being made, where people are fighting for ascendancy, classes are clashing and people are fighting to survive. And that is a tremendous thing to watch.”