Shanghai scores on a lot of fronts - in technical aspects, acting, and it's neatly packed inside two hours!
My pick of the cast was Abhay Deol, as Krishnan - the fussy, elite bureaucrat, whose brush with reality ends up in a collision with disturbing truths and ultimately confronting him with a life altering decision.
The reason I liked Deol's character in the film, is because he exudes subtlety, much to the point of annoyance, as his silence is too overpowering. However, he does find his resolution, albeit, surprisingly so. But, the defining moment of 'transformation' is missing, unlike in other Hindi movies. Here, of course, he is gradually inching towards change, from being fussy over mosquito coils, and tolerating intimidating cops, he quietly undergoes a change, which at first instance might seem 'surprising.' The director's craft is such, that too much is left to imagination, a daring act. I won't boast that I am aligned with his perspective, but to me, I am sure Krishnan's character was the most complex.
Krishnan opens the investigation with much skepticism from the viewer, as it is already known that his past experience with the almost-dead professor wasn't quite profitable. Idealism meets system, and thereafter begins a journey where very little is said, yet much is conveyed. Krishnan begins unfolding, what looks initially to be a knotted case, and as he tries to do his 'best', he is confronted with difficult choices. Who or what guides these choices isn't explicitly shown, but the closest reference point looks to the professor himself, who lying immobile, is perhaps able to do what a perfectly healthy and powerful man can't do. Now, at the risk of confusing you, I should elaborate. Emran Hashmi and Kalki Koechlin are the physical catalysts, who intrude, and make themselves loud and clear. Now, why should a man with his eyes on a plush job, who's at the helm of a hollow committee, listen to two very odd crusaders of justice? He doesn't even know them that closely. But, he knows the cause. He knows that the professor is on his death bed for the cause that somewhere begins to slowly cause disruption and dilemma in the bureaucrat's mind. To me, that was the key takeaway that beneath the veneer of power, lies vulnerability and the moments of change are those that silently creep in, and lead to something bigger.
He knows he's being bullied by the cops and cajoled by the politicians to 'give up' the investigations, he knows that he too is the lone crusader against the machine, and the trigger to revolt comes from a dying man's words. To use his cause, to stand up and prevent justice from getting into comatose, while he can still help it. Of course, this wouldn't have been possible without the help of the two (Koechlin and Hashmi), who find themselves back at the fringes towards the end.
The movie, of course, resonates long after you've stepped out. No perfect solutions are offered, the three characters are not shown uniting in their efforts for justice, it is only the time for mourning, and ironically, a new face of power, a new complexity at hand is taking over, a sense of Orwellian world is taking shape yet again.