In this part of the world, organised attacks on civilians and the reactive policing that follows often get played out in the media but never make their way into films. Indian filmmaker Hansal Mehta
treads where Bollywood refuses to glance in Shahid
, a biopic about lawyer Shahid Azmi
who was shot dead in 2010 for fighting pro-bono cases on behalf of those wrongly accused of terrorism.
The film starts with the young Shahid (Raj Kumar Yadav) narrowly escaping death in 1992/93’s Bombay Riots and then training as an insurgent in the mountains of Kashmir. Unable to handle the physical and ideological teaching, Shahid escapes back to Bombay but is imprisoned on arrival for purported links to terrorist groups. In Delhi’s Tihar Jail, the impressionable youngster has to seek a careful balance between ideologues who want to recruit him and others who want to reform him. Ultimately, the latters’ efforts prevail and Shahid gets acquitted.
Once outside and leading a free life, Shahid chooses to study and practice law. He starts his own firm and fights on behalf of the underdogs for nominal fees. This is how he meets Maryam, a divorcee mother who becomes his wife. The new husband is also married to his work, mostly fighting for bystanders who get scapegoated after terrorist attacks. Case after case, we see Shahid get the innocents out of jail. Soon, both the media and unseen enemies want him stopped for their own reasons.
The real-life Azmi was renowned for getting 17 acquittals in seven years, and director Mehta spends most of the film enacting his brilliant career. Shahid’s early journey to Kashmir and his time in jail are shown rather briefly. These ‘formative years’, when Shahid goes from innocent witness to wannabe rebel and his latter transformation from a traumatised prisoner to a lawyer for the misjudged, should have been crucial in a character study like Shahid . We are told our hero wants to fight for the voiceless but we aren’t convinced why.
However, the film is worth the trouble of finding a DVD just for Raj Kumar Yadav’s performance. Recently awarded the Best Actor award at India’s National Film Awards (NFA) for “portrayal of the journey of a Muslim young man who is persecuted, who rebels and ultimately comes back to fight injustice as a committed law abiding lawyer”, Yadav drives Shahid from start to finish.
From 2010 to 2013, Mehta was on a self-imposed break, tired of making cheesy and formulaic Bollywood films. His comeback has been vindicated somewhat with his reception of the Best Direction award at the NFA for Shahid, “a story that is an inspiring testament to the human spirit”. The next film featuring both actor and director is CityLights, based on the BAFTA nominated Metro Manila, which is all set to release on 30 May.