Cast: Raj Kumar, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Kay Kay Menon and others
Director: Hansal Mehta
Rating: 3.5 stars
Shahid is the kind of film that you walk out of the cinemas raving about. Later, as you mull over it, you wonder whether you were simply being politically correct in liking it, because of the story it seeks to tell. The film is based on the real-life story of terror-suspect-turned-criminal-lawyer Shahid Azmi. Azmi mostly defended Muslims charged with terrorism, often pro bono, and was eventually killed, for taking on the case of Fahim Ansari, one of the accused in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
Azmi’s story is an important one. He was detained on suspicion of violence during the Bombay riots of 1993. This prompted him to cross over into the territory known in Pakistan as ‘Azad Kashmir’ and in India as ‘Pakistan-occupied Kashmir’, and undergo training with militants. Disillusioned with what he saw in the camp, he returned to India, and was arrested for being involved in anti-national activity. He would be acquitted of this charge belatedly. He began to study in jail, and qualified as a lawyer.
[quote]Although he’s ‘broad-minded’ enough to (secretly) marry a divorcee with a child, he cajoles her into wearing a burqa to meet his mother [/quote]
Though Azmi never tried to hide his past, the film glosses over parts of it. It ensures our empathy and sympathy are constantly with Shahid by opening with his death. We don’t know whether the real Azmi did take part in the 1993 riots. In Shahid, he doesn’t; he witnesses people being set on fire in the mohalla and makes it to safety in the nick of time. This drives Shahid (Raj Kumar) to a jihadi camp, and the violence there makes him return, only to be promptly – and unfairly – apprehended.
This is where the narrative begins to falter. We’re told Shahid’s story in glimpses of life in jail, often accompanied by a song in montage. There’s the token bad Muslim Omar Sheikh (Prabal Panjabi), who tries to lure him into jihad over games of chess and boasts that his men will even hijack planes to get him out. There’s the token good Muslim Ghulam Nabi (Kay Kay Menon), who takes Shahid under his wing and delivers him to Dr Saxena, another inmate who is, usefully, a professor. Cue cloying music. Cue statements as trite as, “If you want to change the system, be a part of it.”
What holds the film up is the solid performance of each actor, and a stellar one by Raj Kumar. He gets under the skin of the character; he doesn’t play the role, he lives it. Fear, anger, shame, guilt, determination, disillusionment, defiance, self-righteousness and good humour play across his features. The film doesn’t make him flawless. Although he’s ‘broad-minded’ enough to (secretly) marry a divorcee with a child, he cajoles her into wearing a burqa to meet his mother.
There are some quite brilliant directorial touches. One of my favourite scenes is the awkward meeting between Shahid’s wife Mariam (Prabhleen Sandhu) and his family. There’s another in which Shahid discreetly glances at his watch even as Mariam cuddles up to him. To Hansal Mehta’s credit, he manages to bring in some hilarious dark humour. When Shahid’s brother Arif (the dependable Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) tells the officious inspector, “Sir, he’s not a terrorist!”, the inspector takes offence at being spoken to in English and retaliates by thundering that he too can speak angrezi. Mehta gives his actors room to interpret their characters – Raj Kumar is especially brilliant in two scenes in which he’s attacked for his past, where his quick gulps of water and his silence say far more than the dialogues.
But the film skirts certain grey areas it would have done well to explore. Shahid walks out on his boss, Maqbool Memon (Tigmanshu Dhulia), because the latter doesn’t hesitate to defend anyone for money, even the guilty. It seems rather strange that all of Shahid’s clients are innocent. Though Shahid does throw in a sentence along the lines of, “Not everyone accused of terrorism is innocent, but not everyone is guilty”, only the scapegoats seem to approach him. It would have been interesting to see whether he found out later than someone he had got out of jail was in fact guilty. Was he ever unsure? Was he approached by powerful men who expected to be defended because they shared his religion? Was he under fire from both sides for his principles?
In one particular case, Shahid appears to weaken the prosecution’s case on technicalities, offering no evidence of his own. Did he ever worry that his client may be guilty? While the personal tumult in his life is portrayed with nuance, he doesn’t seem to struggle with any professional dilemma. One wishes the film had been brave enough to make him confront that.
good points – in real life shahid azmi disappointingly believed n conspiracy theories stating that Indian intelligence officers perpetrated acts of terror to tighten terrorism related laws – laughable but this theory is widely believed among the so called analysts in pakistan