Language : Hindi | Running Time : 123 Minutes | Director : Hansal Mehta
In an all too poignant scene as justice is served, War saab(Kay Kay Menon) claims “waqt lagta hai par ho jaata hai. It works.” Our treatment of real life people in movies is something similar. We have taken a lot of time coming to terms with zeitgeist biographies but when one does get made, it gets made very well. Hansal Mehta‘s Shahid is the story of human rights activist lawyer Shahid Azmi who died in 2010. The movie veers into the dangerous territory of becoming a social commentary of our recent past without much meat but it holds its own and also raises some very pertinent questions and manages to create sympathy and respect for Shahid Azmi’s activities.
We are invited into the life of Shahid Azmi(Raj Kumar Yadav) with sounds of gun shots taking away his life in 2010. Hansal Mehta doesn’t waste time in letting people know that this is a story of a dead person. We immediately shift to 1993, Mumbai during the time of the riots post the demolition of Babri Masjid. The riots are the first time Shahid comes in contact with fire-brand communalism or to be more clear, fundamentalism. The events incite so much insecurity in him that he decides to become a militant and we next see him disillusioned and running away from the militant group. For the first 15 minutes, there is too much information to process as to why Shahid Azmi becomes the man he became. It isn’t a comfortable 15 minutes but they play in your head a lot as the movie unfolds. Unless you experience something first hand, it is very difficult to be passionate about something, it is very difficult to fight against something when you haven’t faced the injustice yourself. Hansal Mehta establishes this in the first 45 minutes of the movie and the first 15 minutes are very crucial to understanding Shahid’s actions later on. It is these 15 minutes that make you connect with Shahid as he fights for the innocent Muslims arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act after the many blasts that the city of Mumbai is subjected to.
The first 15 minutes of film are one of the weakest portions of the film, though highly pivotal to the movie. Even though they do to justify Shahid’s activism, they are very sparingly sketched sequences with very little drama in them. I believe that some more detailing would have served the film well for such momentous information. All we come across in those 15 minutes is innocence and naivety and it is hard to accept it as all we find is Shahid joins militant group because he feels Muslims are targeted and returns when he sees them kill a person. It have been so much better had more time been spent understanding the conditions and consequences of Shahid’s decision. It would have made the information to follow and Shahid’s activism even more hard-hitting and goosebumps inducing.
Hansal Mehta places Shahid on a pedestal and then tries to tell us a story. He attempts to tell a story and also to create a wave of sympathy for Shahid. Placing someone on a pedestal and then telling a story usually means that there is very little chance of us getting a man with all his flaws and good characteristics and it is a style which is largely not something that yields the desired effect but Raj Kumar Yadav’s brilliant portrayal makes you believe in Shahid Azmi’s zeal and innocence and little by little you start feeling the lightness in your heart go away as you realise that the man was killed.
Arif(Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), Shahid’s elder brother, on realising that Shahid will be moving away and living with Miriam(Prabhleen Sandhu) tells him that he has grown tired living for the family. He still hasn’t had tome to think for himself and even now, he wasn’t going to get a chance. Hitherto, Arif had supported Shahid, providing him with everything he wanted, even when others in his family were not completely in support. Like any man who has borne trouble for too long, he feels betrayed and is hurt that his brother wouldn’t be doing anything for the family after settling down, he was going to leave them and live his life. There’s no resentment but a feeling of having been betrayed. Hansal Mehta understands the impact that these familial bonds have on a man and Shahid was a man to whom his family meant a great deal. He was an activist by chance, because of the people he met while in jail but he wanted approval and support and this was largely his family, primarily his mother(Baljinder Kaur) and Arif and alter on Miriam,his wife. Hansal Mehta brings Shahid’s character to light using his family and small episodes from his life when he started out to be a lawyer. Tigmanshu Dhalia plays Mr.Memon, a senior lawyer under whom Shahid worked for a brief period. his character is around to underscore the credibility of Shahid and his activism.
Episodes of Shahid’s life that lead to him becoming an activist lawyer forms the first hour of the film. The second hour constitutes on Shahid’s life as a lawyer. It is here that the tension rises. The atmosphere of a courtroom drama is palpable tension and initially, the tension is well created but as events transpire, the tension makes way for shock, dread and largely a shout against the system. The movie tackles the sociopolitical issues well but as a courtroom drama where it is trying to establish Shahid Azmi’s high acquittal rate, it largely becomes an exercise in futility with very little spice. In his first pro-bono case related to POTA, we rarely get to see any intelligent argument but we are reduced to observing the slow system at work and Shahid pleading emotionally. I understand that there is very little spice in the system but the same could have been shown with more tautness. When the tension and dread is not maintained throughout, the focus is lost and things become less interesting. The second courtroom sequence on the other hand is beautifully handled. it acts as a finale of sorts and the sequence before the curtain closer is extremely uplifting and perfectly toned. I felt that with a bit more spice in the middle, Shahid would have had a superb tone throughout. Apurva Asrani,editor and also one of the screenwriters,has done a credible job editing the film.
The biggest triumph of the movie is that it manages to capture things that are wrong with the system, being judgemental but never becoming a moral lesson. It justifies its actions reasonably and it is a pleasure to find a movie with conviction and acceptable justification. It humanizes Shahid Azmi even though we are looking at him after he has been placed on a pedestal and that humanization justifies the sociopolitical criticism it provides. It brings the terror of being subjected to torture for being a Muslim in the wake of these trying times of terrorism, especially during the days of acts like POTA which gave the authorities extreme powers in the name of national security. Shahid justifies the need for an act but also highlights its faults. It is honest in its opinion, an opinion that is justified by events that can send a shiver down your spine. We witness cases of planted evidence, name tarnishing in the need for publicity, to look strong when your insides are actually weak with fear, doing the right thing even if it means that your wife leaves you because she wants an uncomplicated life. It captures the emotions of the people and the surroundings at different stages of life, in different scenarios and becomes a moving tale of a man who was made by circumstances.
Shahid Azmi is a person who can be an inspiration if people get to know him and he has received a wonderful film from Hansal Mehta. It is far from perfect but it has its heart in the right place. The sensitive material which is very well handled by the director and we have a wonderfully crafted socio-political biopic for a change. Movies like Shahid are a rarity in our country and it is a pleasure to watch a movie with so many good things in it. Yes, it could have been better, deeper and more engaging in the middle but it gave us a man to look up to and also succeeds in being a social commentary of our times. Like Shahid Azmi required approval from his dear ones, Hansal Mehta’s Shahid could do with some of our approval. It’d do us some good if we watched this one.