When a crusader’s life is distilled to its bullet-point core – owing to the inevitable considerations of running time in cinema – we are often left with insufferable idealists. It’s almost always too much one-note saintliness to take over the course of a couple of hours. We want to hang a halo on these noble souls, but we don’t want to sit through movies about them, their every good deed underlined by stirring violins. Hansal Mehta’s Shahid – note how the name, by sheer coincidence, sounds like shaheed, martyr – gets around this problem with a terrific piece of casting. Raj Kumar Yadav has the bearing of an enthusiastic schoolboy, and when he smiles, his face contorts with unbounded glee, as if he just got a gold star from a teacher. And this boy-scout earnestness livens up the character of Shahid Azim, the lawyer and human rights activist who was assassinated in 2010. We’re not seeing, as we usually do, a film about a man who has dedicated his life to fighting injustice, but one about a kid who’s just begun to dedicate his life to fighting injustice. This clears the cobwebs from the saga-of-a-great-man clichés and makes all the difference.
And Shahid is really just a kid when the film begins. He’s studying hard for his second-year college exams, when he is arrested and thrown into jail because he spent some time – post the 1992-93 Mumbai riots – training to be a militant in Kashmir. (This part of his life isn’t explained very clearly.) And behind bars, Shahid undergoes a different kind of schooling. Most crucially, he learns that if you want to change the system, you have to be a part of it. And so he studies to become a lawyer, a part of the legal system, and after being released, he sets up a small practice devoted wholly to helping people like him, ordinary citizens who were plucked off the streets and locked up simply because – as he puts it – their names happened to be Zahir or Faheem and not Matthew or Donald or Suresh. He wants to help those who cannot help themselves, and those who cannot help belonging to a minority community that, as a fellow-prisoner observes, “no one gives a shit about in this country.” He begins to defend the accused in a series of terror attacks in Mumbai, courting the derisive nickname “jihaadiyon ka Gandhi.”
Are his clients really innocent? Mehta, daringly, puts this question into the mouth of a prisoner, who asks Shahid, “Do you think I’m a terrorist?” But the film doesn’t attempt an answer. And it doesn’t need to. We see things from Shahid’s point of view, and because he sees these men as innocents, we do too. A journalist asks him why he’s doing what he’s doing, and instead of having Shahid respond, the film cuts to a scene where Shahid is orchestrating the meeting of one of his clients with his little girl. At another point, Shahid goes to the house of another client and spends time with his aged father and newborn son. One may argue that, with the exception of characters like Ramanathan (Shahid’s friend and colleague), the Hindus here are mainly uncouth cops or unreliable witnesses or unfeeling prosecution lawyers or else part of a lynch mob setting Muslims on fire, while the Muslims – mostly – are loving family men. But Mehta doesn’t seem to be after political correctness so much as emotional affect. Shahid isn’t a polemic but – in the tradition of our cinema – a deeply humanistic drama. The film makes us think, but more often, it makes us feel.
We feel for Shahid’s brother Arif (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), who’s sick of being the go-to guy for his family, when he wants to branch off and lead his own life. We feel for Shahid’s wife Mariam (Prabhleen Sandhu), who wants a husband who’ll be at home in time for dinner and who will notice that their son has been running a fever for a week. In one of the film’s best exchanges, after she asks him to give up a case, he reminds her that she advised him, once, to soldier on. She replies that he wasn’t her husband then. The simplicity of this admission strips away any hint of selfishness. And we feel for Shahid, who sets about the impossible task of doing right by everyone. He wants to free his clients, whom he appears to treat like family. And he wants to prove to his mother (Baljinder Kaur) that the woman he’s married is a burqa-wearing conservative. (Mariam isn’t – and another way the Muslims in this film differ from the stereotypes we usually see is that they don’t speak as if auditioning for bit parts in Pakeezah; they slip casually into a mix of Hindi, Urdu and English.)
The casting is excellent – a special nod to Kay Kay Menon, who does wonders with a cameo role – and the actors are aided by a screenplay that does something near-miraculous. Mehta loads his narrative with hoary staples from the Bollywood Screenwriter’s Manual – a shy romance, comic interludes, threats over the phone, courtroom theatrics, saas-bahu friction, motherly love, marital tensions – and, one by one, he makes these tropes seem newly minted. The scenes in court, in our films, are usually presented as high-powered games of tennis, the ball being whacked back and forth – in turn – between grunting opponents, but here, it’s like kabaddi. Everything seems to be happening at once. The judge asks the accused questions of his own and walks out while the prosecution and defense lawyers are still bickering, with overlapping dialogue that makes it impossible to follow any argument completely.
This, we feel, is what it must really be like, and this impression is furthered by the film’s unobtrusive technique (save a few fussy fade-outs at the end) – the hand-held camera, the natural lighting, and the reliance on ambient sound instead of a background score (which is mostly minimal). Shahid feels real, and Mehta, to his credit, doesn’t force-fit Azmi’s story into the arc of an all-encompassing biopic, which might have made the film look dramatic and too obviously shaped. It settles for being an impressionistic portrait of a man trying to find himself and his place in the world. And we see that he never quite did. When Shahid works for someone else, he wears a tie (no one else in the firm seems to be wearing one), but when he establishes his own law practice, he loses the tie. We think he finally knows who he is. We think he’s learnt to be his own person. And then we get the scene where the prosecution lawyer all but accuses him of being a terrorist. Shahid loses his composure and exposes himself to the extent that he seems as shocked as we are at discovering how much it still hurts, how much easier it would be if he were Matthew or Donald or Suresh.
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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