In February 2010, a 32 year old lawyer and human rights activist was shot down in his Mumbai office. The story made headlines because Shahid Azmi fought for the underdog; he often represented defendants pro bono.
His killing was linked to the people he defended and his impressive track record in obtaining acquittals. But this is not the only thing that makes his story worthy of a film.
Director Hansal Mehta and writer Sameer Gautam Singh researched Azmi’s life and have crafted a film that leads you to question notions of justice, violence, prejudice, inequality, family values and deep effect of events such as riots and terror attacks and polarization in society today.
The story of ‘Shahid’ begins one night during the 1993 Mumbai riots followed by the journey of a misled teenager to the terrorist training camps of Kashmir.
On his return, he is wrongly jailed and acquitted five years later. By this time Shahid has found resolve and optimism through education and mentoring. He does not let the system defeat him. Instead he finds solace in the fact that justice is best achieved by working from within the system. Shahid now has a purpose in life.
However might often gets the better of right.
Mehta’s respect for Azmi is omnipresent yet the film does not judge. It’s hard to piece together a story that has communal undertones without treading on thin ice but ‘Shahid’ manages to skate to the other side unscathed. This is in no small measure thanks to a crisp edit and unique structure by editor (and co-writer) Apurva Asrani. The courtroom scenes deserve special mention for being electric, blending humanity with humour, chaos with control.
The narrative structure enhances the director’s realist rendering, bookended by lawyer Roy Black’s words that served as Azmi’s inspiration:
“By showing me injustice, he taught me to love justice. By teaching me what pain and humiliation were all about, he awakened my heart to mercy. Through these hardships I learned hard lessons…”
If one were to find a point of contention it’s the skimming past Shahid’s decision to train as a terrorist, but this is minor criticism.
Mostly, ‘Shahid’ is brave and important for its content and message. And it seems to be a truly collaborative effort, credit for which this goes in spades to Mehta.
Lead actor Raj Kumar is a tour de force as Shahid. He embraces the character and gives it soul, in spite of never having met the subject of this biopic. He conveys vulnerability, bashfulness, victory and defeat with minute inflexions.
Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub as his older brother Arif and Baljinder Kaur as their mother deserve special mention. Kay Kay Menon, Vipin Sharma, Tigmanshu Dhulia and Shalini Vatsa deliver crackling cameos. Adding another dimension to Shahid’s story is his romance with client-turned-wife Miriam (Prabhleen Sandhu), which serves as a measure of the pressures of his family life and the dangerous fallout of his professional stand.
‘Shahid’ is moving, entertaining and provocative. With this story, not only has Mehta taken risk in his stride, he has also shown us that real heroes live amongst us.