As “Shahid” opens in theatres, director Hansal Mehta says we should not look for simple solutions to complex problems.
In a week when “Boss” is making noise, there is a film that is quietly telling us to look within and listen to the soul. Hansal Mehta’s much applauded “Shahid” is releasing in theatres after doing a round of film festivals. A biopic on Shahid Azmi, the film captures the life and times of the human rights lawyer who took cases of youngsters charged with terrorism activities without concrete evidence and secured many acquittals. He was killed in 2010 allegedly for defending 26/11 accused Fahim Ansari in a court of law. Ansari was eventually acquitted but by that time most of us had forgotten the 32-year-old intrepid lawyer.
Mehta says it is his anger at the state of affairs that has taken shape in the form of “Shahid.” “We look for simple solutions for complex problems. A bomb blast happens, some youth are arrested and we feel that the system is doing its work. It is convenient for us. 154 people lost their lives in the blasts. Haan to arrest ho gaye na, this is our usual response. It is not as simple as that. We have to understand that complex problems have complex solutions. There is a line which Shahid speaks in the film. It is very telling. Waqt lagta hai par ho jaata hai (it takes time but it happens). I mean it takes time for justice. It is not like arrest them and hang them.”
The posters show Shahid with a blackened face. “It was a marketing team’s decision. They felt it will generate interest, says Mehta adding the industry is slowly coming out of taboos like a film with the name of a Muslim character won’t work. “There are preconceived ideas about what works and what doesn’t. It is one of them. There was a time when Muslim actors had to change their names but today the Khans are ruling the imagination of the public.” Also, he says it depends on the background of the filmmaker and the environment he lived in. “There are filmmakers who have grown up among Kapoors and Khannas. So they create characters who have Kapoor or Khanna as the surname. Shahid is a creation of my environment. He was my neighbour whom I didn’t know till he was murdered. I am telling his story. As more filmmakers emerge from diverse backgrounds we will get diversity in characterisation,” says Mehta who spent a long time with the family and friends of Shahid as part of his research.
Radicalised after the Mumbai riots in 1992, Shahid reportedly crossed over to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir for training in militancy. Disgruntled, he returned but was arrested under TADA for plotting against the State. He was given a five-year sentence but was acquitted by the Supreme Court. During his stay in jail, he studied journalism and law and when he was released he started practising as a lawyer. A section feels that the film is telling the story from the other side. Mehta says the other side is us. “There is no Right wing or Left wing. There are only closed minds and open minds. ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ are just words used by politicians to further their agenda,” says Mehta in reference to Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde’s recent statement. “The innocent people have no religion,” he emphasises.
The police could say that Shahid got many terror-accused acquitted but that was because of lack of evidence rather than anything else. “I have told the story from the side of Shahid but that doesn’t mean I have been judgmental. It is not the time to point fingers. It is time to look within. And to stand for the right doesn’t mean you belong to the Right wing,” says Mehta, who, himself faced the Right wing’s backlash after his “Dil Par Mat Le Yaar”, which talked about migrants in Mumbai.
After emerging as a filmmaker with an independent voice with films like Jayate and Dil Par Mat Le Yaar, Mehta faded away after he delivered a dud called Woodstock Villa. “Shahid” is a sort of comebackfor him. “I had these ideas in mind for a long time but ideas don’t make a film. You need an engaging story to tell and I learnt it the hard way. Unfortunately, it was Shahid’s death that compelled me to return from a self-imposed hiatus,” says Mehta adding sometimes you need a vacuum to create. “I needed emptiness to come back to something.”
On opting for Raj Kumar Yadav for the title role, Mehta says he needed somebody to become the character and Raj has this ability. “You need a good actor who can portray not only the face but also the inner architecture of the character. You can just feel that he is the guy and feeling has no quantity.” There is a strong emotional track between Shahid and his mother played by Baljinder Kaur. Mehta gives credit to his casting director Mukesh Chhabra for picking Kaur. “I had doubts but he was adamant and he was right.”
Mehta holds that he made “Shahid” for theatrical release. “It is not just a biography, it is a romantic tragedy, a courtroom drama and at the end an inspiring story for the youth. Shahid proved that the solutions lie within the system. That our system has checks and balances.”
It is another matter that its journey started from film festivals. “It was my first experience with film festivals. And I can say festivals are also watched by human beings,” he quips. “People are hungry for a variety of subjects. It is just that till some time back the market was not too keen to pursue different subjects. And still there is scope for more.”
He understands the need for the film to percolate to people who are on the edge of being manipulated by elements with selfish interests. “I hope with time the film will reach out to those people and become part of mainstream discourse.