Keeping it real
All through the muchacclaimed film, Shahid, based on the life of slain criminal lawyer Shahid Azmi, one can sense director Hansal Mehta aching to root his reel Shahid (played by Raj Kumar Yadav) in Azmi’s reality.
And when the two worlds meet, we get to see some very moving cinema. Mehta’s choice of shooting in the apartment above Azmi’s modest ground floor residence in Kurla’s Taximen’s Colony — Azmi was killed at point blank range in front of his office, one block away, in 2010 — literally lets the audience into the life of the human rights activist who fought for those accused wrongly in terror cases.
“I wanted to capture the sense of claustrophobia and unkemptness of his home, to familiarise the viewer,” says Mehta. Kumar, who is convincing in his portrayal of Azmi, even “felt” the worlds meet, Mehta shares. “In the scene where Shahid returns after getting a terror accused discharged, a horde of elderly men hug and congratulate him.
This scene was shot in a Pydhonie chawl, where they all knew Shahid. Raj Kumar later told me it felt surreal, because just for that moment, they wanted to believe he was Shahid.”
Sensing the director’s passion, it isn’t hard to understand why he felt drawn to tell Azmi’s story.
After the disastrous Woodstock Villa (2008), Mehta retreated to Lonavala. “I was upset with myself. It was a turbulent time, both professionally and financially,” he says. In February 2010, days after he had moved back to the city, he was shaken out of his trance by a newspaper headline that screamed murder. “I was taken in by how Shahid was just 32, and had had such a fascinating life. I began reading all I could about him,” he says. Mehta then put his 18-year-old son Jai and writer Sameer Gautam Singh on the task of meeting Azmi’s family – his four brothers Tarique, Rashid, Arif, and Khalid, and mother Rehana, who insists that her son looks like Fardeen Khan – to glean as much information as they could.
Mehta concedes that his lifelong obsession to depict the common man as a hero found its apogee in Azmi. Undoubtedly, Azmi’s story makes for a compelling narrative. After surviving the 1992-93 riots as a teenager in Govandi, he underwent arms training in Kashmir but returned home disillusioned. He was arrested a year later for conspiring to kill top politicians, and endured police torture. He was sentenced to five years in prison under the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act on the basis of a questionable confession. Lodged in Tihar jail, Azmi completed class 12 and a bachelor’s degree. Other inmates in the jail included Omar Sheikh and Masood Azhar who were released during the Kandahar IC-814 hijacking episode.
What is most heartening, and this is the idea that forms the core of Shahid, is that when Azmi was freed in 2001, he studied journalism and law and chose to fight cases for those wrongly accused of terrorism, pro bono.
Though Mehta admits the film isn’t a classic biopic, he still faced the challenges of making one. However, the director isn’t worried that he has made a hero out of Azmi. It’s not that he was oblivious to the sinister chatter around his protagonist – the laziest accusing Azmi of being an ISI agent.
“Some said Dawood Ibrahim funded him. I found these accusations ridiculous. How can a lawyer blessed by the underworld live in a house that, even today, is in desperate need of a coat of paint? His brothers still live in a 1-BHK,” says Mehta. Thus, when some advised Mehta to paint Azmi’s character grey, he saw no point in it. “What would I achieve by doing that? The film would leave you with nothing.”
The largely favourable response the movie has garnered reassures Mehta. “My motive was to make the audience question their prejudices and the society we live in. I wanted to limit my story to Shahid as a beacon of hope.” This perhaps explains why the lawyer is never referred to by his full name even once in the film. “Shahid could be any one of us,” Mehta points out.
Shooting digitally with natural or minimal light and a unit the size of a cricket team, Mehta restricted the budget to Rs 85 lakh and lent the film a life-like feel.
Of the 17 acquittals Azmi secured in his seven-year-long career, the film touches on only two, and neither includes the 2006 Malegaon blasts or 7/11 train blasts cases.
“We had even shot the courtroom scene in which the Bombay High Court held the Arthur Road Jail superintendent responsible after many 7/11 accused claimed to have been thrashed in prison. But we realised the film was becoming too technical. So, we focused on his first and last cases, both of which he won. I took my decisions as a filmmaker, not as a chronicler,” he says.
In reality, Azmi was a cracker in court. Without breaking into a discourse on victimisation of Muslims (the reel Shahid, however, offers a rather ’emotional’ defense) Azmi, like a battering ram, would ask his questions with muted aggression, until the most elusive of witnesses would give in. What Mehta gets pat down is how Azmi was consumed by the idea of justice.
That said, the film gives no insight into how Azmi chalked out his defense strategies. Mehta has the good grace to admit that he had to dumb down the legal complexities to ensure that the audience doesn’t get put off. “When art is making a statement, it has to be accessible,” he smiles, “We had a lot of material that we didn’t use, because not all of it could translate into a scene. Also, for access to Azmi’s thoughts, I went through a lot of case papers he had drafted in simple English, not legalese.”
As for exploring Azmi’s love track with Mariam in the film (they got divorced before he was killed), Mehta says he didn’t want to delve much into his personal affairs. “A little brush of it seemed enough.”
While the first courtroom scene is closer to reality, the insides of the special sessions court in the second one seems like a grim imagination gone too far. Far from the brightly-lit, surprisingly pleasant venue of the 26/11 trial, the accused in Shahid sit locked in cages. The light is depressingly dim and the witness has no box to stand in; an oppressive image that borders on satire. “But that’s the point,” Mehta lights up. “This courtroom set-up was metaphorical – the crooks are out and the innocents are locked in a cage.” Mehta then takes a deep breath, and says, “Shahid set me free. I lived through him for these two-and-a-half years, and now, he lives inside my head. Somehow, I don’t find my obstacles insurmountable anymore.”