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
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 Gandhi as a concept is not outdated.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.
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