Hansal Mehta’s biopic Shahid released last week, two and a half years after the still-unsolved death of the 33-year-old criminal defense lawyer who earned a reputation representing people accused in terror cases. It’s just about clinging on to the cinemas this week, despite having been released at the same time as Akshay Kumar’s Boss and losing its core audience in Mumbai to the Mumbai Film Festival which also kicked off last Friday. The fact that it’s still around for audiences to see is perhaps a fitting real life parallel to the story of a classic underdog. In a mere seven years of practice, Shahid Azmi secured 17 acquittals in matters that included the Ghatkopar bus bombing case of 2002, the Malegaon blast case of 2006, the Aurangabad arms haul case of 2006, the Mumbai train blasts of 2006, and most famously, the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008.
To those whom he saved from being sacrificed at the altar of an inept but bloodthirsty state, Azmi was certainly something of a hero. But Mehta’s film is scrupulously unheroic, choosing the messiness of real life over the clean arc of drama. Mehta’s directorial style echoes Azmi’s own commitment to a truth in which thoughtless actions produce victims, rather than villainy producing heroes. Azmi’s unglamorous courtroom victories repeatedly make the evidentiary triumph over the rhetorical. In the words of Rajkumar Yadav’s superbly convincing Shahid, “I’m as opposed as you are to terrorism, but that doesn’t mean that we can put innocent people in jail without any evidence.”
But perhaps what really made Azmi’s story compelling was his triumph over himself. Shahid’s impressiveness lay in the distance he had come from his own beginnings – and in never forgetting what that journey had been like. At the age of 14, deeply affected by the Bombay riots of 1992, he had briefly joined a militant training camp in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. At 16, Azmi was arrested under TADA, or the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. Later, he was charged with conspiring against the state, specifically with plotting the assassinations of Farooq Abdullah and Bal Thackeray, and placed in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. He was acquitted of all charges in 2001, but by then he had spent over seven years in jail.
The film does not turn Azmi into a saint. His fallibility is shown in the depiction of his early years, including his time in jail with Omar Shaikh, who was serving time for the 1994 kidnappings of foreign tourists in Kashmir. But somehow, knowing that he could just as easily have been swayed by the sword as by the pen, gives Azmi’s eventual choice greater impact. It is clear that Azmi’s work was not simply a career for him. It was a vocation.
The poor Muslim men whose cases he took up mirrored his own experience. Mehta’s film makes the connections without underlining them too heavily. While Azmi had been arrested under TADA, which became defunct in 1998, his clients were frequently arrested under POTA (the Prevention of Terrorism Act) or MCOCA (the Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act) – all of these legislations allowed confessions in police custody (notoriously extracted through torture or deceit) to be made admissible in court. Unlike regular criminal lawyers whose professional ethics require them to defend clients regardless of their guilt or innocence, the film suggests that Azmi worked on a personal ethic: he only took on clients he believed to be innocent.
Mehta’s depiction of Azmi’s life derives much of its power from economy. Apurva Asrani’s editing (he also has partial writing credits) produces a narrative full of sharp cuts, where we must often fill in the blanks. In one of the best examples of this, we see Shahid propose marriage to his client Mariam, a divorcee with a child. She expresses utter shock, picks up her stuff and leave. In the next scene we see them together, very much a couple — leaving us to make up our own version of the interim period. Yet the film doesn’t feel choppy. The quality Mehta strives for — and achieves — is gritty documentary made up of snapshots, rather than orchestrated epic. In one of the film’s earliest scenes, we see a young Shahid run out of his house in Govandi. He emerges into the smoky dimly, tubelit street only to almost collide with the terrible figure of a man ablaze. It is a shocking moment and a cinematic one; the burning man sets the screen aflame. But instead of trying to chill us with the power of choreographed communal violence as so many films do (Earth, Kai Po Che to name two of many), it jolts us. Much like Shahid himself, we find ourselves very suddenly in a militant training camp. Again, the Kashmiri locale might have felt epic if Anuj Dhawan’s camera didn’t focus on the snow: it’s not pure white, but a dirty brown.
Later, Mehta shears the judicial process of all the grandeur that Hindi films have traditionally accorded it. Even the recent Jolly LLB did not cut itself off completely from the dramatic confrontation of the big fish and the small fish, though it sought to undercut the court’s aura of justice with biting satire. What makes Shahid unique is its deliberate curtailment of both drama and humour. Instead we get a courtroom where life-and-death decisions are taken while lawyers squabble, cutting into each others’ dialogue to create inaudible moments. The police produce blatantly manufactured evidence; witnesses lie baldly, but seemingly without real malice.
Shahid Azmi’s legal practice was devoted to defending people who he believed had been put into jail as scapegoats. The perpetrators of despicable acts of terror were still at large, “drinking in an AC room, plotting their next move”, while these ordinary people had been flung behind bars, as he says at one point, only because their names were not “Mathew, Donald, Suresh or More”.
Names do have a strange power. The root of the word Shahid comes from Arabic and in Urdu, it has split into two pronunciations: shaahid meaning ‘witness’ and ‘shaheed’ meaning ‘martyr’. Shahid Azmi was both.
This review was first published on Firstpost.