A Hindi political thriller called “Shanghai” hits cinemas Friday, raising awkward questions about India’s development with a fictional town trying to emulate fellow giant China’s shiny financial capital.
The film, an Indian 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 Indian politicians.
Director Dibakar Banerjee says the film looks at the gulf between the dream of “Shanghai” and the reality for hundreds of millions of Indians 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 Indian 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 businesspeople.
“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 told AFP.
“It seems to me a kind of mixture: a bit of envy, a bit of resentment that they’re that much ahead, quite a lot of frustration that nothing moves here,” she said.
The most obvious comparisons are drawn with India’s own seaside financial capital, Mumbai, with its poor roads, creaking infrastructure and sprawling slums where half of its population lives.
Mustansir Dalvi, a professor of architecture in Mumbai, said it would require “a great deal of organisation” for Mumbai to be more like Shanghai, pointing to the lack of coordination on transport infrastructure projects.
He spoke of the divergent histories of the two cities, with Shanghai developed from the top down as opposed to Mumbai’s development by local entrepreneurs.
In Mumbai, “the state has handed all of the development work to private parties,” he said. “It’s all about profit-making rather than providing for the end user.”
While Indo-Chinese diplomatic relations remain prickly – a legacy of the 1962 war, border disputes and competing interests around the world – in public leaders stress that trade is booming and the world is big enough for both nations.
“We should not fear competition from China. There is no reason to envy China. If at all, we should try to emulate China,” India’s Home minister P. Chidambaram told a business summit earlier this year.
But while Indians closely watch advances in their more developed authoritarian neighbour, the subject of regular hostile news reports in the Indian media, the interest is often not reciprocated.
A dismissive editorial in China’s Global Times last month said most Chinese people’s knowledge of India came only from “a few movies, some news reporting and backpackers’ anecdotes”.
“These bits and pieces are not enough to promote India to China’s mainstream society, let alone the notion of a competition,” it said.
In any case, some say India’s admiration is misplaced.
In a column entitled “No need to envy China” in the Indian Express in February, Minxin Pei, a professor of government based in the United States, said China was paying a diplomatic and economic price for its one-party regime.
“As for India, the beneficiaries of the democratic bonus are also its people, even though most of them may not feel the effects,” he wrote.-By Rachel O’Brien