A Real Life Portrait in Courage

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shahid-filmAFTER DECADES OF FLUFFY, ROMANTIC FANTASIES, BOLLYWOOD COMES UP WITH A RAW, SEARING PORTRAIT OF A REAL-LIFE HERO WHO DIED DEFENDING VULNERABLE INDIVIDUALS LIKE HIMSELF

By Mubasshir Mushtaq

MUMBAI, Oct 26 — New Bollywood movie “Shahid” is a fictionalized biopic, the true story of gritty Mumbai lawyer Shahid Azmi, who rose to prominence defending young Muslims wrongly-accused of terrorism.

The film depicts his struggles, achievements, triumphs and humiliations during his short, 32-year life before he was gunned down by unknown assailants on February 11, 2010 in his small office in Kurla, a Mumbai suburb.

Directed by Hansal Mehta, the film is a plain and realistic look at a legal system that often makes mistakes, arresting poor and helpless youngsters and throwing them in jail for years without any shred of evidence.

The movie opens in Govandi, a narrow and dingy suburban Mumbai ghetto, amid the raging communal riots of 1993 that followed the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in northern India.

The 15-year-old Azmi witnesses one of the worst bouts of communal rioting between Hindus and Muslims in India’s post-independence history.

Outraged by the excesses of the State and the communalism of the majority-Hindu community, he crosses into Pakistan-held Kashmir to become a “jihadi” who can answer State injustice with his Kalashnikov rifle.

Disillusioned by the violent streak that characterized most self-styled “jihadis”, Azmi flees the training camp only to be arrested by Indian authorities and charged under draconian anti-terror legislation.

Azmi meets two sets of people during his seven-year under-trial detention in Delhi’s Tihar Prison, where he shuffles smoothly between militant fundamentalists and secular moderates.

A Kashmiri Muslim businessman and a Hindu professor eventually gain influence over Azmi, persuading him to educate himself.

Thus a non-compromising lawyer with a steely resolve is born inside India’s largest jail, destined to eventually take on the State itself.

The movie gets off to a slow start but takes a quick turn when Azmi is acquitted on the basis of “natural justice”.

Azmi, the victim, now becomes the hero, launching a formidable defense in a series of terrorism cases.

As he begins taking on high-profile terror-related cases, Azmi starts receiving death threats on his mobile phone.

The movie features only two such high-profile cases: the 2006 Mumbai train blast and the 26/11 terror attack in 2008.

In the train blast case, the accused – one Zaheer Shaikh – is denied bail ten times in the span of two and half years, even though prosecutors have failed to produce any substantive evidence implicating him.

A prosecution lawyer employs delay tactics, stalling the case without any apparent remorse or guilt. The judiciary, meanwhile, swallows the lies – couched in terms such as “terrorism” and “national security” – fed to it by prosecutors.

It is only after Azmi’s insistence on seeing tangible evidence that Zaheer is finally acquitted.

Azmi, the truth-seeker, comes to life in a scene in which he tells Shaikh: “Tell me everything truthfully. If I later come to know something you hid from me or lied, then I will leave this case.”

In the 2008 attacks case, a suspect named Fahim Ansari is accused of passing “hand-drawn” maps to “Pakistani terrorists” who went on to kill 164 civilians in Mumbai.

A deliberate attempt by a lady prosecution lawyer to produce “tutored” witnesses falls flat when an aggressive Azmi asks who – in this age of Google Maps – still needs to rely on “hand-drawn” maps?

Azmi’s cross-examination of the witness eventually exposes the prosecution’s lies.

The movie delivers a message against community-profiling when Azmi says, “If this man’s name was Donald or Suresh or Matthew, would he have been standing here? He is in jail just because of his name.”

He goes on to argue that being in jail does not automatically mean that someone is a criminal or – worse still – a “terrorist”.

“Hindu King Shivaji was jailed. Does that make him a terrorist?” Azmi asks rhetorically.

When he emerges from the courthouse, his face is blackened by members of the Shiv Sena, a Mumbai-based right-wing political party.

Here Mehta, the movie director, is revisiting his past, when his own face was blackened in 2000 by Shiv Sena members for “insulting” Hindu King Shivaji.

Mehta subtly hints at the rise of right-wing Hindu intolerance and the recent arrest of right-wing Hindus in a number of terror cases. But he stops there.

As the movie enters its last leg, the paradox of Azmi’s life is marvelously depicted.

On one hand, there is his solidarity with his wrongly-accused clients. On the other, there is intense maternal pressure on Azmi to rejoin his family and abandon his separate residence.

Azmi’s wife feels neglected, calling on him to leave his risky and “life-threatening profession.”

Azmi, however, remains unperturbed by his familial obligations and remains committed to his cause, even when his wife finally walks out on him.

Three months before Ansari’s acquittal, Azmi is shot dead by unknown assailants who, posing as clients, barge into his office in the middle of the night.

Actor Raj Kumar Yadav worked extremely hard to get into the skin of the celebrated lawyer.

There is an interrogation scene in the film in which Azmi is humiliated and forced to stand naked before his inquisitors.

To understand and portray the pain and embarrassment of physical and mental torture, Yadav insisted on performing the scene naked himself.

He reportedly cried for three hours after shooting the scene, which left him emotionally drained.

Yadav has left an indelible mark with his fine acting in the movie.

The perfectly-chiseled Urdu dialogue, meanwhile, has come in for praise by moviegoers.

Unlike other Bollywood films – in which courtrooms are always clean and polished and legal arguments sound like a drama – “Shahid” departs from such unrealistic flourishes.

It depicts the courtroom as it really is: dilapidated with cracking walls, plastic chairs and a rickety fan. Arguments between lawyers are well-crafted and don’t feel staged.

Renowned critic and filmmaker Khalid Mohamed, for one, was deeply moved by the film’s human aspect.

“That rare quality – humanism – is its calling card,” he told the Anadolu Agency.

“Whatever its political ramifications or accuracy to reality may be, here’s a re-enactment which makes the viewer’s heart bleed over the abrupt end of a man’s life,” he said.

“Hansal Mehta makes sure that he [Azmi] will be missed and admired,” the critic added. “They don’t make crusaders like Shahid anymore, and the eponymously-titled film does complete justice to the man driven by a cause.”

The film is currently playing before packed theaters.

One trade-analyst told the AA that, despite its low budget, “Shahid” was doing better than other big-banner films with star-studded casts.

“Shahid has redefined the very idea of a film’s success. A true story sells better than a film writer’s imagination,” he said.

Lawyer Khalid Azmi, Shahid Azmi’s real-life brother, said the family had become very emotional when watching the film.

“It was quite emotional to see him on screen,” Khalid told the AA.

“We as family members are with Hansal Mehta,” he said. “We are happy with the fact that there is someone who is telling the story of my brother through the medium of film.”

Khalid went on to say that the family was pleased with the depiction of Shahid, vouching for the film’s authenticity.

“Almost 95 percent of the film is accurate,” he asserted.

“We wanted people to know him and his story,” the late lawyer’s brother explained. “People should be aware of the work he did.”

“His spirit to help the poor and the needy who [are] falsely implicated on the wrong side of the law must be known.”

*Mubasshir Mushtaq is India correspondent of Turkish news agency, Anadolu Agency

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