Film remembers Indian lawyer Shahid Azmi as symbol of hope

Court scene with actor Raj Kumar Yadav playing Shahid Azmi (r) Actor Raj Kumar Yadav (right) plays Shahid Azmi in the film

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A film about a murdered Indian human rights lawyer has been creating waves on the international film circuit. Film critic Saibal Chatterjee talks to director Hansal Mehta about the film.

Shahid - the eponymous film about Shahid Azmi, the defence lawyer for one of three men accused of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks - had its world premiere at the recent Toronto Film Festival.

Mr Azmi represented Indian national Fahim Ansari who was subsequently acquitted of charges of involvement.

The November 2008 attacks, which targeted luxury hotels, Mumbai's main railway station and a Jewish cultural centre, claimed 166 lives. Nine of the attackers were also killed.

Shahid Azmi Lawyer Shahid Azmi secured 17 acquittals in a seven-year career

Mr Azmi, who was himself once detained under India's anti-terror laws, and then became a lawyer and defended those who were wrongly accused in cases of terrorism, was shot dead in his Mumbai office in February 2010. He was only 32.

'Humble origins'

"The incredible story of this man simply had to be told," says Mehta who came out of a long self-imposed break to make the film.

"Shahid Azmi rose from humble origins to become a symbol of hope for all those who were at the receiving end of potential miscarriages of justice," adds Mehta.

"His life was tragically cut short by killers hired by forces opposed to the young lawyer's spirited defence of Mumbai terror attack accused Fahim Ansari," says Mehta, the co-writer and director of Shahid.

Mehta points out that Mr Ansari has since been acquitted by the Supreme Court, vindicating Shahid Azmi's conviction.

Start Quote

Hansal Mehta

He was not alive to tell his side of the story when aspersions were being cast on him. I decided to stand up for him”

End Quote Hansal Mehta Film director

One of the film's end titles reveals that the human rights lawyer secured as many as 17 acquittals in an outstanding seven-year career.

The film focuses on two principal cases - the Mumbai train attacks of 11 July 2006 and the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

"I went through all the petitions filed by Shahid Azmi and decided to combine several of them into a single case for the purpose of clarity and dramatic impact," Mehta explains.

After Shahid Azmi was shot dead, some media reports and political activists alleged that he had paid with his life for links with the underworld.

"That was utterly baseless and sad. He was not alive to tell his side of the story when aspersions were being cast on him. I decided to stand up for him," Mehta says.

Shahid has a scene in which actor Raj Kumar Yadav, who plays the protagonist, has his face blackened by assailants outside a courtroom.

"It is a re-enactment of an incident from my own life," says Mehta.

He was attacked in his office in 2000 by a mob led by the Hindu hardline Shiv Sena party, which was protesting against a line in his film Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar (Don't take it to heart). The film dealt with the plight of migrants in Mumbai.

Despite receiving threats from within and outside the Mumbai film industry since he wrapped up Shahid, Mehta is confident that the film, co-produced by top director Anurag Kashyap, will eventually reach the public.

Mehta debuted in 1997 with Jayate and his other directorial credits include films like Chhal and Woodstock Villa.

Provocation

"I took a four-year break from film making because I wasn't making the films I wanted to."

Shahid Azmi's killing was provocation enough for the disillusioned director to return to the thick of the action.

Shahid, a low-budget film shot in complete secrecy, articulates Mehta's anger at the state of affairs that the late lawyer fought against, but the director presents the details of his subject's life in a low-key, matter-of-fact manner.

Shahid Azmi never sought to hide his past, which included a short-lived stint in a militant training camp in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and seven years in Delhi's Tihar Jail, on charges of plotting against the state.

The allegations could never be proved and Shahid Azmi walked free and went on to touch many lives as an activist lawyer.

The film takes forward the principal burden of Mr Azmi's defining argument against the law enforcement and judicial system's callous tendency to brand every single accused as a terrorist solely on the basis of mere charges.

But, it does so without having recourse to any kind of emotional manipulation.

The film is anchored by a steady lead performance by Raj Kumar Yadav, who has played character roles in films such as Love Sex Aur Dhoka, Ragini MMS, Shaitan and Gangs of Wasseypur 2.

"When you see Raj Kumar, you do not remember him, you remember the character. That is precisely the kind of actor that I needed to play Shahid Azmi," says Mehta.

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