There are certain films which stay with you throughout your lifetime. The impact they leave on your soul is something that is, often, difficult to summarize in words. Hansal Mehta’s ‘Shahid’ was one such film. The film, after making rounds of several film festivals across the globe and releasing in Toronto in mid-2012, finally made it to Indian theatres on 18 October, 2013. I was living in Bhubaneswar, Odisha at that time. The city had just one multiplex and a few single-screen theatres at that time and the film could not secure a release for itself in any of those theatres. Thus, I ended up watching it a couple of months later when it came out on DVD. The film changed something within me.
After a slew of unsuccessful films, Hansal Mehta had almost given up on filmmaking and was living a life of solitude with his wife in a village in Maharashtra. One fine day, he got to read about Shahid Azmi, a lawyer from Mumbai who was murdered at the age of 32 by a group of assailants. “I would have continued living in that village if I hadn’t come across the news report about Shahid Azmi”, said Mehta in an interview. When Mehta read about the rather fascinating journey Shahid had – from being a part of a militant training camp and spending seven years in jail to being the voice of the oppressed as a lawyer – he decided to make a film on him. But, getting back to an industry which he had taken a sabbatical from was not easy. Hansal sent writer Sameer Gautam Singh and his son Jai, who was then interning with Anurag Kashyap, to meet Shahid’s family and gather research material for the film. Sameer had earlier met Mehta to pitch some of his scripts. Mehta asked him to work with him on this film and he happily joined in. Later, Apurva Asrani, who was the editor on the film, was also given a writing credit as Mehta felt he contributed immensely towards shaping the narrative of the film on the editing table. Hansal faced a lot of difficulties at every stage – finding actors, getting financers on board and making people see beyond the failure of his earlier films. He did get some support from a few friends like Anurag Kashyap and Shaailesh R Singh and finally, with whatever limited resources he had, he decided to make the film. With a shoestring budget in place, the team started shooting the film with a 5D camera and later with whatever camera was available on a particular day or schedule. Most of the days, Mehta was not sure whether they had enough money to shoot the next day. There were long breaks in between. Though the film was shot in just 39 days, the shooting period spanned across 11 months!
At around 3:11 minutes into the film, we see Shahid (Rajkummar Rao) clipping a piece of paper to the wall of his office. The paper has the text of a part of a speech delivered by Roy Black, an American civil and criminal defense trial attorney. The first line of the text reads “By showing me injustice he taught me to love justice”. This one line sums up the theme of the film, in a way. Shahid was wrongfully imprisoned for seven years. Instead of getting embittered over it, he started studying law while in jail. After languishing in the prison for seven years, he was finally declared not to be guilty of the crimes he was accused of and was allowed to walk out of the jail as a free man. As soon as he was out of the prison walls, Shahid decided to start working as a lawyer. After working with a senior lawyer (Tigmanshu Dhulia), he realised compromising on his ethics and his principles is the last thing he would like to do and thus, he started practicing as an independent lawyer. He started gaining recognition as a lawyer who defended those accused in acts of terrorism. It also drew him some flak from a section of the media which labelled him as someone who was protecting dreadful criminals. Shahid remained unaffected by the criticism and untowardly comments coming his way as his conscience was clear and his focus was on making sure that an innocent person should not suffer at the hands of the law.
The very first scene of the film, where you hear gunshots and then, realise that Shahid has been shot dead, sets the tone for the film. Then, as the opening credits roll, you see glimpses of Shahid’s journey. A wonderfully immersive song called ‘Beparwah’ (music: Karan Kulkarni, singer: Arijit Singh) plays in the background as we see the visuals. The film, which is a little over two hours, has an intense tone to it throughout its duration which is wonderfully accentuated by Anuj Dhawan’s camerawork. There are traces of humour too. When Shahid meets Maryam for the first time, he tells there is a law in their code of ethics which states that they can claim ownership to the client’s property after setting it free from those who are trying to wrongfully usurp it. Maryam gets a little worried on hearing this. Seeing her reaction, Shahid breaks into a chuckle and tells her he was joking. Scenes like these also show that despite all the hardship and humiliation Shahid has gone through, his resolve to lead a normal life and being the best version of himself remains firm. The relationship between Shahid and Maryam has been portrayed with a lot of sensitivity. Even the kind of equation he shares with his family has been depicted very nicely. There is ten-minute worth of footage depicting Shahid’s journey at the militant boot camp which was edited out of the film but is a part of the DVD which makes for compelling viewing too.
The poster of the film, which shows Shahid’s face being blackened with ink, was inspired from a rather unfortunate incident Mehta had to go through in 2000. A political party had raised objection to a scene/dialogue in ‘Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar’; the members of the party ransacked Mehta’s office, manhandled him and smeared his face with black ink. In an interview, he had stated he was young and scared then. Now, if a similar situation arises, he will never bow down to such people again. Perhaps, Shahid Azmi’s story instilled a sense of courage in him too.
Rajkummar Rao left a very strong mark with his very first film ‘Love Sex Aur Dhokha’ (2010) and followed it up with effective performances in films like ‘Ragini MMS’ (2011) and ‘Kai Po Che’ (2013). ‘Shahid’, however, would always remain that film through which he truly came into his own. Even several years down the line, this would be remembered as one of the best performances of his career. Prabhleen Sandhu plays Maryam with utmost sensitivity. She remains a strong support to Shahid and yet, want her family to be safe and away from all the danger Shahid’s role as a lawyer brings in. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub is wonderful as Shahid’s caring elder brother Arif who, after a point, starts feeling over-burdened with familial responsibilities and confides the same in Shahid. From what one knows Arif was most affected by Shahid’s death and when you see the film, you realise why. Here was a man who was willing to sacrifice all his happiness for his younger brother. Kay Kay Menon leaves a strong impact in a brief role as the man in prison who ensures that Shahid’s experiences do not lead him towards a path full of darkness. Tigmanshu Dhulia, too, leaves a mark as the senior lawyer who advises Shahid to have a more practical approach in life as a lawyer. The conversation which Shahid has with him makes one realise that he (Shahid) is someone who has resolved to stick to his own sense of right conduct.
‘Shahid’, according to me, is one of the most important films made in the history of Indian cinema. Before this film, I knew Hansal Mehta as the man who directed the popular cookery show ‘Khana Khazana’ (used to watch it with my mother) and the brilliantly crafted feature-length film ‘Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar’ (2000). ‘Shahid’ is a film which taught me to walk on the path less trodden – the path of justice and courage. And for that, I will remain eternally grateful to Hansal Mehta and his team.