Hansal Mehta's multiple award-winning biopic Shahid has brought him long-deserved recognition, of the kind that his contemporary Anurag Kashyap received for Black Friday

For at least a decade now, my inquisitive subconscious has been enamored of the dark, brooding and, at times, surreal cinematic visions of Anurag Kashyap. His fecund imagination has resulted in cinema of the neo-noir kind, mise en scene that, while impressing you, mocks and challenges your sensibilities as a cinephile. Having seen shades of Kashyap’s style in Hansal Mehta’s films, my subconscious has associated the two with the same school of filmmaking. In terms of their approach, characterisation, even the cast they have chosen, they seem on par. The subjects they have chosen — underworld thrillers, gangster flicks, real incident-based dramas — are of the same league. Only that, after a brief spell of disillusionment, Kashyap has earned himself more space to explore his areas of interest.

Shahid, Hansal Mehta’s multiple national award-winning quasi-biopic, which won him the ‘Best Director’ award, could do for him what Black Friday did for Anurag Kashyap. Having gained widespread recognition, it could open plethora of opportunities for Mehta to conjure his own niche under the sun.

Writing on his blog about his tryst with cynicism and the fear of fading into oblivion, Mehta says:

Shahid emerged out of [a certain] comfort with my own aspirations and my own inner self. I now inhabit an independent universe that is driven by me, my own benchmarks for growth and my own levels of satisfaction.

Shahid Azmi — the eponymous protagonist in Mehta’s film — who, in his brief spell as a lawyer, emerged as a crusader for civil rights of the dispossessed, belongs to this independent universe. I believe that, had Badshah Khan (Aditya Srivastava) from Black Friday — a terror suspect-turned-police informer — got an opportunity to reform himself, he would have turned out to be someone like Shahid Azmi (Raj Kumar) of Shahid, someone who stands up for the defenceless.

Having been at the receiving end of a similar kind of antipathy, Shahid is in perfect position to empathise with the ‘innocent’ whose cause he champions. I put innocent in quotes because we see them through Shahid’s eyes, as those in a similar position to that of Shahid when he was ill-treated.

Shahid’s clients are usually outcasts, those whom the law has chosen, first to first ignore, then convict and sentence. What gives him the determination to fight is not starry-eyed idealism but his battle-scarred conscience, which, having once rescued him from the clutches of terror, wants to see to it that others in a similar position get an opportunity to redeem themselves.

Tryst with radicalism and law

In 1992-93, Shahid Azmi, a college student at that time, gets incensed on witnessing anti-Muslim violence in Mumbai. This rage takes him closer to the jaws of terror — he starts training to become a jihadi. However, his angst is unable to find an expression in the abyss of radicalism. He gets arrested, locked up and tortured, eventually landing up in Tihar jail on what look like trumped up charges. His rage does not find much comfort in the fiery rhetoric of a fellow English-speaking Muslim Omar Sheikh (Prabal Panjabi) in Tihar, who is looking to break free and, perhaps, become a jihadi himself.

However, his cynicism gets moulded into a fine, affable temperament when it finds an empathetic mentor, War saheb (KK Menon). War saheb is another falsely-accused prisoner who, though wronged by law, has not lost faith in it. Once Shahid gets acquitted, he derives inspiration from War Saab’s life. His rage gets sublimated into advocacy for those accused and imprisoned on false terror charges.

Shahid's tryst with law begins and just when we feel Mehta would resort to cinematic liberty by making a Shahenshah out of Shahid, we are reassured that the cousel would remain rooted. He believes in presenting facts rather than delivering histrionics. On observing the court scenes where we witness the acrimony between the defence and the prosecution, I take two points home.

The first: To defend a falsely-accused, you have to be frank in presenting cold facts, never getting carried away by emotions, unlike say, Govind (Sunny Deol) of Damini. The second point: Once you establish the simplicity behind the prosecution’s complex arguments, you turn them in your favour.

Shahid lives for seven years as a lawyer, always on the edge, defending many suspects, giving voice to many accused and misled prisoners.

Breaking points

Like any crusader, he experiences breaking points. The first comes when he witnesses anti-Muslim violence as a college student, giving him cynicism.

On becoming qualified to practise law, his inclination being toward criminal law, he apprentices under an established attorney, Majeed Memon (Tigmanshu Dhulia). Here, he experiences his second breaking point, when his conscience refuses to defend those he finds clearly guilty. This gives him idealism.

What would have happened had he reached a third breaking point? One where he would fail to defend a falsely-accused and feel let down by law? Where his client would get incarcerated for life, or perhaps gets a death penalty? His third breaking point could have come then. This would have tested his grit further, brought some existential angst in him, of the kind see in characters like those of Govind (Sunny Deol) in Damini or Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) in … And justice for all. Then it might have taken the form of vengeance. It would have been interesting to see how he would have handled it.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t live long enough to enter that phase. It is for this reason that the vignettes from his life presented don’t lend themselves to or achieve a visceral climax. They are just some episodes, watched, absorbed and remembered. We don’t get any opportunity to get roused by them.

Subdued disgruntlement

From what we see in the film, Shahid’s disgruntlement with the system, just like the confusion and the rage earlier, remains subdued.

The story reveals itself from the point of view of the innocent but wrongly convicted. Hence, when Shahid is incarcerated for being a terror suspect and his elder brother Arif visits him, we see the focus on Arif, the visitor, not on Shahid, the prisoner. Here, Shahid is conscious of being guilty, of having undergone terror training, however perfunctory it was.

However, when Shahid comes to the right side of law and the situation involves the suspects he is defending, the focus is on the individual prisoner rather than on the visitor. Shahid truly believes the prisoner to be innocent, of being falsely convicted, which gets reflected on the screen. This belief has been instilled in him by his mentor in jail; also, by the awakening that has taken place in his conscience toward the system when he gets acquitted.

His scientific temperament is put to test in court when, accused by the prosecutor of having been a terrorist, he repeatedly tries bringing the court’s focus back to the case in hand, reminding her, not without pain, that she is getting personal and that they need to concentrate on facts of the present situation. His refrain remains, “I can sue you but I won’t”. This scene needed a newcomer’s un-heroic charm, which Rajkumar Rao, who went on to win a National Award for best actor, was in the perfect position to provide.

In a book on Gangs of Wasseypur, writers Jigna Kothari and Supriya Madangarli mention that its idea was also explained to Hansal Mehta before Anurag Kashyap completely took over. Hope now that Shahid has done for Mehta, what Black Friday did for Kashyap, Mehta gets his own Wasseypur-like blockbuster soon.