Oct 19, 2013
Towards the end of Shahid squats a trenchant, little scene. In-camera proceedings are on for the trial of Faheem Ansari, an accused in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks case. Shahid Azmi (Raj Kumar Yadav), his defence counsel, is presenting arguments to prove Ansari’s innocence. Azmi is efficient, articulate and decent. He’s also smarter than his opponents. So when he presents clinching evidence in defence of his client, the prosecution gets antsy at the prospect of losing the case and immediately gets personal.
The lady prosecutor (played astutely by Shalini Vatsa) brings up Shahid’s past — a deluded outing to a training camp in PoK — and attacks him, casting aspersions on his motives in general, but also, specifically, in defending an accused in the 26/11 case.
Shahid, shocked and shaken, asks the judge and his honourable colleague, “Am I on trial?”
The judge looks embarrassed, but the opposing counsel continues to badger him.
Again Shahid asks, “Am I on trial?”
Hansal Mehta’s Shahid had answered that question in its very first scene: “Haan, miyan. Always.”
How serious a comment you think Mehta’s Shahid is on India depends entirely on how personally you take the life and death of Shahid Azmi, the 32-year-old Mumbai lawyer who was shot dead in his office in Taxi Men Colony, Kurla, on February 11, 2010, when Shahid was defending Ansari, who was acquitted three months later. The state made quick arrests but hasn’t taken Azmi’s murder very seriously, hence this appeal from an activist-director to us, to make us angry.
Though Shahid is more a hagiography than a biography, facts bear out its one-sidedness. And the facts here don’t just pertain to Shahid Azmi; they lay bare a system that, even on auto-pilot, victimises and marginalises members of a particular minority community, Muslims.
For a system that is incredibly inefficient and is mostly found snoozing in crumbling buildings, rag-tag labyrinths of red tape and inertia, it works astonishingly efficiently and in unison against Muslims. The US may have crafted and created a database for racial profiling, we didn’t have to because racial profiling is hard-wired into our DNA. We do it seamlessly.
Shahid tells this story, and the story of an India whose majority population has always fallen short of the ideals and morals embedded in its Constitution. This is a story of what secularism has whittled down to in India — a few grand gestures, some Supreme Court verdicts, but on the ground, in narrow gallis and thanas, bigotry is institutionalised and our police leads the charge. This is a daily riot that claims its victims carefully and prejudicially.
Shahid is a sharp slap across the face of anyone who says India is secular. And that includes me. It showed me that Narendra Modi is only pandering to and puffing up our inner mini Modis. But, it really depends on you, how you see Shahid.
Shahid Azmi is one of the five sons of a constantly worried mother (Baljinder Kaur), the sort who asks whenever one gets up to leave, “Kahan ja rahe ho?” She also snaps and slaps easy. It’s frustration rising out of deep fear, the sort that’s packed with love and doesn’t leave any scars.
We begin in 1993, Mumbai riots. Shahid, a teenager, is on the streets, flinching from a human torch when he gets picked up by the cops. Next we see him training for jihad. He ran away from one kind of violence to train for another, but when he comes face to face with it, in PoK, he realises he doesn’t have the stomach for it and returns home. He’s picked up by the cops again, is stripped, abused, tortured, called “desh ka dushman” and sent to Tihar, for seven years.
His brother Arif (played by the brilliant Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub), is always around, tugging at the system to set his brother free.
In jail Shahid meets Sheikh Ahmed Omar Sheikh, prime suspect in the abduction of Daniel Pearl, who was released in exchange for the hostages of IC 814. Omar Sheikh is young, speaks a strange mix of Hindi and English, mostly to prey on other inmates’ victimhood. Shahid is not ready to play the victim, so he finds less clamorous company, a history professor and a Kashmiri, Beg (played by K.K. Menon), and starts studying history and law. The film, which was rather realistic till now, slips into Bollywood zone thanks to KK’s affected and painfully predictable mannerism. It is saved marginally by what looks like a budding romance. Azmi and Beg have crackling chemistry and seem to be dithering on the brink of an affair.
Alas! Beg leaves and helps set Shahid free. In 2000, Shahid returns to Mumbai and goes to work for a lawyer, Memon (Tigmanshu Dhulia). But the cases Memon assigns Shahid present him with a moral dilemma — he won’t defend a car thief, but is keen to help a girl, Mariam (Prableen Sandhu), fighting for her property, pro bono. So he sets up his independent practice and gets Mariam as his first client.
Even as this romance begins, Shahid takes on cases of alleged terrorists.
Though in real life Shahid fought several cases, the film focuses on two — the Mumbai train blasts of 2006 and the November 26, 2008, attacks. Anonymous threatening calls begin and there’s name-calling – “jihadiyon ka Gandhi”, “gaddar”, etc.
Shahid is small, thin, ded-pasli really, and yet packed in his tiny frame is the physical courage of a full battalion, and this we see in a scene where goons blacken his face. This scene, according to reports, is a “re-enactment of an incident” from director Mehta’s life. He was attacked by a Shiv Sena mob protesting against a line in his film Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar.
Despite the threats and attacks, Shahid is undeterred. He has a strong sense of what’s right and wrong, and a dogged determination to fight for men he believes are innocent. He’ll fight the system, but only in court.
The film comes to life when it’s arguing cases in the courts. These scenes, tense and ridiculous, are presented with all the quirks of a judiciary that’s built on hierarchical bonhomie, that allows technicalities to trump common sense, and make us wonder how it can ever deliver justice.
In Shahid’s case justice got done 17 times in seven years.
Though the camera here is mostly hand-held and often trails Shahid, moving really close when he is writing his diary, as if trying to listen in on the conversation in his head, Mehta’s Shahid is a greater film for what it doesn’t show and say.
It doesn’t hint at the political leaning or identity of the men after Shahid. It doesn’t rant, and it doesn’t preach. Above all, it lets Shahid remain a problematic character, never once offering an explanation or justification for the choices he made, personal and political.
To present this discomforting greyness on screen, to show greatness walking tall on tricky stilts, required an actor who can slip into a character completely, mentally and physically. Every muscle of Raj Kumar Yadav’s body is in nuanced character and that’s why what we remember is not how great Yadav was, but how exceptional that boy Shahid Azmi was.
Director-writer Mehta has extracted pin-sharp, precise performances from all his actors here. He had to. Shahid Azmi probably wouldn’t have settled for anything less.