Deepa Deosthalee of Film Impressions has been writing on films for 15 years.
One walked into Hansal Mehta’s new film Shahid at The Mumbai International Film Festival with hesitation. Mehta’s track record was hardly reassuring––his best work before this was the uneven and only mildly amusing Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar with Tabu and Manoj Bajpayee, and that too was over a decade ago. Besides, there were four other films one could have chosen from.
Then again, there was the enigmatic Shahid Azmi, a 32-year-old criminal lawyer and human rights activist, killed in his Kurla office nearly three years ago, after he’d made a successful career of defending those he believed were wrongly accused and imprisoned for alleged terrorist activities without much evidence to justify their seemingly endless incarceration. In newspaper reports one often read of his ‘controversial’ past, involving a prison sentence, among other things. In short, Shahid was a fascinating character, although Mehta’s film comes with a disclaimer that the narrative is a mix of fact and fiction.
Shahid opens with a horrific sequence during the riots of early 1993 when a youth walks out of his cubbyhole tenement after hearing commotion and witnesses the barbarity of human bodies being set ablaze and people being chased by mobs. One wondered if this loud, if disturbing, scene had set the tone for the rest of the film. Fortunately, it hadn’t––although disturbing it certainly is.
Shahid (Raj Kumar Yadav) is so scarred by the events of the night and of subsequent weeks, he finds his way to a training camp in POK where a menacing leader is delivering the usual promise of virgins waiting in heaven for brave warriors who sacrifice themselves for jihad. Shahid stands in the back row with a skeptical expression and is often seen brooding into the picturesque mountainscapes. One day, overwhelmed by the brutality of the leader, he runs away and finds his way back home.
Not long after, he realises that a choice once made, can hardly be reversed without consequences. And thus the young man winds up in Tihar Jail amidst hardened murderers and religious fanatics. The point Mehta drives home is that this boy is equally lost in both settings. He can’t reconcile to the conflicting forces pulling him apart even as the police tries to beat a confession out of him. Ironically, it’s in prison that Shahid also finds a mentor and a direction as he pursues his education and becomes a graduate––these scenes are reminiscent of The Shawshank Redemption where young Tommy Williams gets himself an education because of Andy Dufresne’s encouragement.
But it is after he returns to Mumbai and takes up law practice that the film really takes off. Because now, the protagonist has found his groove. Shooting in authentic law offices, courtrooms, crummy flats, congested neighbourhoods and Irani cafes and often using handheld cameras and brisk editing, Mehta reconstructs the drama of Shahid’s life. His romance with one of his clients, Mariam (Prabhleen Sandhu), breaks the heaviness. She is a refreshing heroine too. Unafraid to speak her mind, but ultimately defeated by her husband’s obsession with his mission.
One of Shahid’s cases is played out in great detail. The client has been rotting in jail for years because he lent his laptop to a friend and was picked up as a suspect in the Ghatkopar blast case. Shahid skilfully argues that there is no evidence to link the man to the conspiracy, that he’s being persecuted for being a poor Muslim with no means to defend himself. This becomes a refrain as various terror activities in the city bring more and more such men to his doorstep and he rigorously builds cases for them.
His own past too comes back to haunt him in the taunts of prosecution lawyers and this only serves to fuel his anger against the system even more, yet he refuses to let go of his dignity. The courtroom scenes (and there are several of these) are particularly tense, the opposing lawyers cutting into each other’s words, the judge struggling to keep the peace, the accused looking at the proceedings with helpless eyes.
Shahid’s story throws at us many unanswered questions about the nature of investigations into terror plots, the victimisation of the poor, the corruption and brutality of the system and the popular perception that ties terrorism to the poorest section of Muslims, while the masterminds of these conspiracies are never caught or punished. But it’s an equally interesting character study, built around Yadav’s emotionally charged but controlled performance as the idealistic young man who becomes a fearless champion of justice against all odds and ultimately pays for it with his life.
A moving, passionate document of our times, Shahid needs an urgent, widespread release––Mehta’s film pulls us out of our complacence and put us on the witness stand. This is the city/world we live in and can no longer afford to look away from it, it says with feeling.