DAY OF THE UN­DER­DOG

Hansal Me­hta’s biopic on lawyer Shahid Azmi res­ur­rects the life of a man who over­came a dark past to be­come de­fender of the framed

India Today - - CINEMA - By Suhani Singh

The world is go­ing crazy about money. But I did not be­come a lawyer for money,” says Shahid Azmi, es­sayed by Raj Ku­mar in Hansal Me­hta’s film Shahid. There is no ev­i­dence if Azmi said th­ese words for real, but his seven- year- long le­gal ca­reer was all about se­cur­ing jus­tice for the poor and the wrongly ac­cused. Best known as lawyer to Arif Paan­wala, ac­quit­ted in the 2006 Ghatkopar bus blast case, and Fa­heem An­sari, ac­quit­ted in the 26/ 11 Mum­bai ter­ror at­tack case, Azmi’s in­trepid life is now on 70 mm. Shahid re­leases on Oc­to­ber 18, on the back of rave re­views at fes­ti­vals rang­ing from Toronto to Dubai.

The film’s sweep is panoramic, de­pict­ing Azmi’s bounce­back from a trou­bled past— en­list­ing for a mil­i­tant train­ing camp in Pak­istan- oc­cu­pied Kash­mir ( PoK) for six months, seven years in Ti­har Jail af­ter be­ing mis­led into sign­ing a con­fes­sion about plot­ting to kill top politi­cians such as Bal Thackeray— to fight­ing for the framed af­ter be­ing set free in 2001. Azmi rep­re­sented over 50 peo­ple, mostly Mus­lims ac­cused in ter­ror cases such as the 2005 Gate­way and Zaveri Bazaar blasts and the 7/ 11 Mum­bai lo­cal train blasts, be­fore he was shot dead in his Kurla of­fice on Fe­bru­ary 11, 2010, at the age of 32. The Mum­bai Po­lice al­leged that gang­ster Bharat Nepali had or­dered his as­sas­si­na­tion. The po­lice charged four of Nepali’s as­so­ci­ates, Deven­dra Babu Jag­tap alias JD, Pin­too De­o­ram Da­gale, Vinod Yash­want Vichare and Has­mukh Solanki, with Azmi’s mur­der. The trial is on.

With lit­tle ma­te­rial on Azmi’s life to work with, di­rec­tor Me­hta, 45, who had ear­lier di­rected films such as Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar ( 2000) and Wood­stock Villa ( 2008), had to reach out to the lawyer’s fam­ily. His mother Re­hana and four brothers, Arif, Rashid, Tariq and Khalid, who stay at Taxi­men’s Colony in Mum­bai’s Kurla East, had one con­di­tion: No song- and- dance rou­tines. Me­hta was happy to oblige. “Shahid was the de­fender of those who have no other means to pro­tect them­selves. Gandhi as a con­cept is not out­dated. For me, Shahid is Gandhi. He is proof that the power to bring about change is within us,” says Me­hta.

Azmi’s brothers had to con­vince their mother to meet the di­rec­tor. Re­hana slowly opened up, telling Me­hta

AZMI’S FAM­ILY AGREED TO HELP­WITH THE FILM AS LONG AS THERE WERE NO SONGS AND DANCES.

that her son looked like ac­tors Fardeen Khan and Aamir Khan. Khalid, the youngest brother, shared minute de­tails from Azmi’s life. He also al­lowed Me­hta and his crew of 17 mem­bers to shoot the riv­et­ing cli­max in Azmi’s of­fice. Khalid, him­self a lawyer, now sits on the very chair on which his brother’s life was cut short. Shahid shows piv­otal episodes from Azmi’s life, in­clud­ing his es­cape from near- death dur­ing the 1993 Bom­bay ri­ots to his failed mar­riage to a di­vorcee named Mariam.

It was Azmi’s fight­ing spirit, of a man who en­dured phys­i­cal tor­ture and soli­tary con­fine­ment but didn’t lose hope and had faith in the very ju­di­ciary that had long de­nied him jus­tice, that drew Raj Ku­mar, 29, to the char­ac­ter. “He faced a lot in life,” says Ku­mar of LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhokha ( 2010) and Kai Po Che ( 2013) fame, whose tour de force per­for­mance will make him a lead­ing con­tender for awards in 2014. “He could have had so much of angst. You’d think he’d want re­venge. But he took the right path, went deep into the sys­tem to rec­tify it.” Ku­mar stud­ied the Qu­ran to get into Azmi’s skin, lost weight to es­say his younger avatar and grew his hair long just like the lawyer sported in the lat­ter days of his life. The ac­tor also spent hours ob­serv­ing court­room pro­ceed­ings. “What­ever I had known of lawyers ear­lier was through Hindi films. Too filmi.”

Shahid, a Rs 1- crore bud­get film, found few back­ers un­til Me­hta’s old friend Su­nil Bohra stepped in. It was shot on lo­ca­tion in Go­vandi, Kurla, Py­d­honie, where Mariam, whom Azmi later di­vorced, stays. Azmi’s PoK stint was shot in Rakcham, Hi­machal Pradesh. Of­ten the crew would be de­nied per­mis­sion to shoot in Mum­bai, says Me­hta, but sud­denly things would get sorted out. “I told peo­ple that I think Shahid is watch­ing ( us from above). His spirit was a guid­ing force.”

Even as Me­hta re­mains hope­ful that the film’s lin­ear nar­ra­tive and fast pace will draw view­ers to the the­atres, of the Azmi clan, only Khalid has watched Shahid so far. “They have brought a dead man alive,” he says. But for Re­hana and the rest, there is only one Shahid Azmi. The one whose favourite films were those on Bha­gat Singh and Lion of the Desert, the 1981 biopic on Libyan rev­o­lu­tion­ary Omar Mukhtar. The one who worked as late as 2 a. m. The one whose death saw 200,000 mourn­ers throng the streets of Kurla. That Shahid Azmi was their true hero.

Fol­low the writer on Twit­ter @ suhani84

SHAHID AZMI

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