Burning issues, social, political or both, have often been reflected in the cracked mirror of Indian cinema. But not many of them have the envious quality of unsettling the audience to such extent that they might wonder how on earth they were unaware of it. True, there’s not much that we, people outside Mumbai and outside the judiciary circuit, know about the human rights activist and lawyer named Shahid Azmi, and after watching the film, I felt an uncontrollable urge to know more about this man. In his brief and controversial career, Shahid Azmi defended those who were wrongly arrested under the presumption of having links with terrorist activities and left to rot in jail for years together with no one to speak for them. In 7 years, Azmi had acquitted 17 such victims before he was shot dead in his office in 2010. He was 32.
Shahid’s life was eventful, to say the least. When he was 15, his father was killed and cousin sister raped in the 1992 Bombay Riots. Suffering with miserable fury, he fled from his home and joined a terrorist training camp, only to be repulsed by the manipulation and blatant act of killing. Thereafter, he was arrested under TADA (Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act), tortured in custody, lodged in jail where he pursued studies and ended up being an advocate after he was released.
All this constitutes Hansal Mehta’s film, which is almost meticulously true to the sequence of events happening in the life of the man on whom the biopic is based. Interestingly, the narrative doesn’t take the option of sensationalism and stereotype. Instead, it meanders through unceremoniously following the journey of a man who chose to protest against the system. Simple emotion and humor enriches the story remarkably. One scene worth mentioning is the one in which Shahid is preparing for his law examination in their single-room house at night, and quarrels with his siblings over the light that disturbs their sleep and then finally Shahid’s mother settles the quarrel.
This scene easily relates to what is quite commonplace in our households and sets the tone for a spontaneous screenplay touching upon simple emotion. The film oscillates through uncertainties, complexity of family relationships, persistence and breakthroughs. But it is not just a celebration of guts and sincerity. It also questions the hypocrisy of our legal system, and eggs us on to tackle our own prejudices.
Mehta succeeds in presenting us with a absorbing hero, and develops an appealing story around him. Performances, so delicately nuanced, end up being the greatest asset of the film. Mohammad Zeeshan Ayub is so subtle as Shahid’s brother. Prabhleen Sandhu as the likable Mariam is deep and sensitive. Shalini Vatsa also deserves special mention as the degraded ‘public prosecutor’, Curiously, Kay Kay Menon looks a trifle stagy, but it does not dampen the intensity of his role.
But this film certainly belongs to Rajkumar Yadav who is just brilliant as Shahid. Right from the scene of humiliation that he has to undergo in jail, naked, stripped of his dignity, Yadav takes the role in his stride. His intense stare, welling up of rage, deep sense of suffering etches out more marks than the beating itself. Thereafter, he effortlessly gets into the next layer of Shahid’s psyche – the inspiring one, who overcomes torture and leaves behind the shadow of his dark past. Here too, Yadav relies on the instinctive minimalist expression denoting courage and determination through a body language that is so confident and original.
Few issues that might go against Hansal Mehta, would surely begin with the screenplay taking too many shortcuts in the process of telling Shahid Azmi’s life story.
Besides, Shahid is somewhat largely empowered. He ends up being quite a legal wizard who makes the prosecution cases come crashing like pile of cards. And the courtroom sequences, though brilliantly raw and un-filmy, do appear to be a bit too brief to leave a wrong impression of being over-simplified. Also, the character of Shahid’s wife Mariam does not contribute much except functioning as the woman torn between concerns of her own son’s safety and standing by her husband’s quest for justice. She could have been a more poignant character if the story did not run out of time giving space to other issues.
Of course it must be remembered that making a biopic demands quite a balancing act on the part of the director. He has to alternate between the compelling need of popular story-telling and the “pick-and-choose” act of true facts. What Mehta has finally done is quite admirable. Yet, a deeper intrusion into the heart and soul of Shahid might have added on to the conviction of his character.
But all said and done, the film itself is bold and resolute, and leaves a lasting impression of honesty and sincerity that makes it one of the strongest films made in the current year. And a big round of applause should go to the actors who make the film a viewer’s delight in terms of performance.
Shahid | Official Trailer | In Cinemas 18th October (You Tube)
Review by Noted Bengali Film Maker Atanu Ghosh
Atanu Ghosh is one of the most celebrated directors in the Bengali film fraternity and has given the Bengali film audience masterpieces like Takhan Teish, Angshumaner Chobi and the recent blockbuster Rupkatha Noy