Saturday, October 19, 2013


Release date:
October 18, 2013
Hansal Mehta


Raj Kumar, Prabhleen Sandhu, Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Kay Kay Menon, Vipin Sharma, Baljinder Kaur

Shahid is an uncommon film that downplays the high drama intrinsic to its story. We’re talking about a young man who fled a terrorist-training camp, was falsely accused under an anti-terror law and jailed, then rebuilt his life and became a messiah of others similarly held under trumped-up charges. We’re talking about a man who faced threats throughout his career as a human-rights lawyer. We’re talking about a true story, tragic but steeped in optimism. Despite all these elements, director Hansal Mehta has resisted the temptation to make a high-decibel potboiler, delivering instead a disconcertingly real and highly effective film.

Shahid begins with the end of Shahid Azmi’s life, before rewinding to where it all began: a boy horrified by the brutality he witnesses at a terrorist-training camp. The story is precisely what I’ve told you in the preceding paragraph. It’s the quietly overwhelming detailing that makes this film what it is. There is extreme poignancy in Shahid’s interactions with his clients who are terror accused, there is humour in his decidedly un-subtle courtship of a pretty client. What’s most attractive about the writing of this film (by Hansal Mehta, Sameer Gautam Singh and Apurva Asrani) is that it doesn’t gloss over the protagonist’s flaws as an individual: he was selfless towards his clients and the wider cause of innocent Muslims being placed under the scanner every time terror strikes, but he also unthinkingly took his own brother for granted; he was an ultra-liberal towards women, he also bravely soldiered on with his work in the face of threats, but he was a coward about introducing his liberal wife to his conservative family.

That blend of contradictions is not easy to take on, but actor Raj Kumar (a.k.a. Raj Kumar Yadav) does so with seeming effortlessness. Despite a couple of leads, Kumar's filmography has been dominated by supporting roles so far. In Shahid, at last he gets a character and screen time into which he can sink his teeth and he does so with the ravenousness every good actor must feel when deprived of substantial roles. The rest of the talented cast includes Prabhleen Sandhu who drew attention in the unheralded Sixteen earlier this year and attracts the spotlight once again as Shahid’s bemused client; and the wonderful Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub as Shahid’s generous brother Arif. After an array of tiny film roles, Ayyub played Dhanush’s best friend in Ranjhanaa this year. Now, dear Bollywood, give him the leading role he so deserves!

This is a disturbing film yet it does not lead us to despair. Earlier this year in Shootout At Wadala starring John Abraham we met real-life gangster Manya Surve, a promising young student whose false incarceration led to a life of crime and a tragic end. It does not matter how Shahid Azmi’s story culminates. His life would have been worthless if we don’t see in it the positivity that shines through. True, young Muslim men falsely charged with crimes become vulnerable to crime-recruitment agents (as do poor African Americans and any other marginalised group anywhere in the world), but not everyone makes adversity their excuse for wrongdoing. Shahid did not, and that’s the great takeaway from this film.

This, however, brings me to my only grouse with the film. Shahid Azmi is in a terror training camp at the start of the film and the screenplay feels no need whatsoever to acknowledge that he had no business being there. These are not places that you and I might casually wander into by mistake. Yes, he did not use that training; yes, later he was kept in jail for too long though he’d committed no crime; but is it the contention of the writers that it is unreasonable for the police to even suspect the integrity and intentions of a person who decided to join such a camp? Fighting for minority rights should not mean glossing over minority wrongs. Those who do so end up preaching to the converted. In this aspect of the screenplay, the film plays into the hands of Sangh Parivar acolytes who are forever accusing secular liberals of refusing to ever acknowledge any wrongdoing by anyone in India’s Muslim community. I’m not saying we must bow to saffron fundamentalists, but that being apologists for any community is unwise. In the strange, suspicion-filled country that India has become, of course it takes courage to speak up for Muslims, but it takes as much courage to ask questions to Muslims. Onir’s I Am (2011) showed that rare courage, risked accusations of being anti-/pro-Muslim and anti-/pro-Hindu, and presented a more well-rounded picture of the Hindu-Muslim equation as a result.

Let this not for a moment take away from Shahid’s many triumphs. It’s most entertaining and simultaneously upsetting scenes are in the courtroom. Like Jolly LLB early this year, this film too gives us real courtrooms with real lawyers; not the gloss and glitz that mainstream cinema usually presents. Anyone who’s had the misfortune of getting stuck in judicial processes in India will recognise those cheap plastic chairs, the laughable, loophole-ridden arguments put forward by lawyers and the lackadaisical “tareekh pe tareekh” trauma of litigants expressed so melodramatically – but with such a deep understanding of reality – by Sunny Deol in Damini. Kudos to the partnership between the writers and art director Rabiul Sarkar in these scenes. Here and elsewhere, DoP Anuj Dhawan brings to us a forever-grey-and-brown Mumbai and Delhi, his restless camera adding to the constantly disquieting air of the film. Shahid does not spoonfeed us every element of the story; it assumes a certain intelligence in the audience as a result of which we’re expected to assume a lot that goes on – here, editor Apurva Asrani skillfully complements Hansal Mehta’s narrative style with his smooth, seamless work.

Shahid is an uncomfortable film, holding up a mirror to us and showing us what we’ve reduced our world to. This cautionary tale is a tale of hope though – and that’s what makes it lovely.

Rating (out of five): ****

CBFC Rating (India):
A (So this film gets an A certificate I assume because of a sliver of a human bum – not even the entire bottom – showing in one scene, but Boss gets a U/A despite extremely violent scenes of men breaking necks, arms and legs with bare hands?! Hypocrisy!)
Running time:
2 hours 9 minutes
Photograph courtesy: Effective Communication


  1. Nie movie, watch it people watch it when you can watch MONKEY ( SRK) act in C.E. watch this SHAHID act too..!

  2. Ultimate powerful film.. Rajkumar was brilliant