Hansal Mehta’s film on the real-life slain lawyer Shahid Azmi is fearless work
Stop right here. Shahid is the sort of rare raw unnerving journey into a socio-political reality that our cinema needs to undertake regularly but seldom does. Our filmmakers largely veer away from doing films whose redolent realism could ruffle political feathers. Fearless and unfettered, Hansal Mehta wastes no time in establishing the monstrous marginalisation of the Muslim community in a society where terrorism has blurred the majority community’s sense of propriety to the extent of unmitigated bigotry.
Shahid is an exposition on abject isolation. There is a harrowing sequence of police brutality in the film where the film’s Muslim lawyer-hero sits on the hard floor of a police station stark naked shivering as the cop repeatedly accuses Shahid of terror activities. The protagonist’s absolute humiliation at that point in the narration hits us where it hurts the most. Predominantly Shahid is about an impatient society anxieties to find scapegoats for the growing violence all around us. In a language that embraces the complexities pertaining to the issue of Islamic isolation, Mehta’s film cracks open the code of that unexplored genre of cinema known as the drama of persecution.
In Shahid, Mehta chronicles the life of lawyer Shahid Azmi with the kind of deft clenched directness that one encounters in the docu-dramas of Costa-Gavras or nearer home, the searching searing cinema of the uprooted and isolated individual that Adoor Gopalkrishnan specialises in. The silence of the night is punctured by the shrill sound of the phone. Slurred threats are hurled. Taking the abuse on his chin, the crusading lawyer, played with scintillating austerity by Rajkumar Yadav, sits stoically at the centre of the debris of destruction of distrust as he undertakes a jehad to prove the innocence of the arbitrarily accused.
There are some highly poignant electrifying courtroom sequences shot with the languorous devastating dinginess of courtrooms that have killed off all chances of justice for the damned. What would those wretched TADA undertrials, locked up and left to languish for life, have done without Shahid Azmi to fight for their lives? Now I ask you, what would Shahid Azmi’s character have been like if was not portrayed by the very gifted Rajkumar Yadav? This brilliant actor, whose forte is underplaying, imbues Shahid’s role with the kind of tightly-reined tumult and an unspoken anguish that actors in our cinema seldom get a chance to put forward in the characters they play. Here is a performance that deserves a standing ovation, primarily because it doesn’t scream for attention.
In comparison, the other performances appear pale and distant, albeit authentic and thoughtful. Tigmanshu Dhulia is notably powerful in a brief cameo as an eminent lawyer. Shahid’s relationship with the divorcee mother is never satisfactorily rounded up nor assimilated into this courageous man’s fight for justice for those who are condemned not only by law but by social stigmatisation. What comes across with forceful impact is the protagonist’s yen for justice. This man who has suffered the worst humiliation and suffering in custody won’t allow the same shame and pain for those who are wrongfully confined. This man means business. We must hear his story.
Of course, he pays with his life. Whether it’s Romeo or Shahid, all heroes must come to a suitably sticky end. That’s what you get for trying to be a hero. Sometimes while you try to be larger than life, life creeps up on you to make its own outrageous claims. Shahid is a crucial document of our troubled times. It builds an incredibly gripping case-study of persecution and vindication. The treatment of the topical subject is never ponderous or polemical. Mehta has set out to convert the slain lawyer’s valorous tale into an authentic exposition on the residue of retribution.
But what to do, if the end-result is so darned gripping? Shahid is a must-see film with an absolutely impeccable sub text that can be read as an urgent warning against the politics of isolation practiced by many political parties. Be warned. You might be voting for violence.
Reviewed by IANS
**** Very good