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Updated: November 2, 2013 20:46 IST
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Defending his faith...

Harsh Mander
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A still from Shahid.
Special Arrangement A still from Shahid.

Hansal Mehta’s Shahid — based on the life of human rights lawyer Shahid Azmi — is honest and free of bitterness and despair.

A film of outstanding ethical and political courage and humanity, Hansal Mehta’s Shahid is a riveting account of the true story of human rights lawyer, Shahid Azmi, who was shot dead for his beliefs in 2010. He was just 32.

Briefly radicalised as a young teenager by the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, he crossed the border to join a terrorist formation, but was quickly disillusioned and returned home. However, the police detained and tortured him and charged him with terror crimes, for which he spent seven years in Delhi’s Tihar Jail until he was ultimately acquitted of all charges by the Supreme Court.

Refusing either to lose hope or become embittered, he persisted with his college education during his years in prison, and emerged with a post-graduate degree. Despite his family’s strained means, he resolved after his discharge to study law. He worked for a short time with a senior lawyer, but left soon, unable to brook compromises with justice and truth that a large commercial legal firm entails, and instead established his own practice.

His legal practice was mainly devoted to defending Muslim youth unjustly charged with terror crimes, subjected — just as he had been — to torture and long hopeless years of incarceration. Paid little or nothing, he won many extraordinary acquittals for many innocent young men in several terror cases, bitterly contested by the State. He bravely persisted with his defence of those young men charged with terror crimes who he believed were innocent, despite many death threats. Ultimately he was gunned down by three assailants in his office room.

Shahid’s courage and optimism shine through the film. Mehta’s portrayal of his heroism — and Ram Yadav’s empathetic performance — are unusually low-key and therefore much more affecting, as are Shahid’s commitment to justice and the innocent accused. Shahid firmly rejects radicalism and is instead driven by conviction that India’s democratic institutions may delay justice but if you fight hard and doggedly, one day justice will indeed come your way.

For a man who spent seven years unjustly in prison, it is extraordinary that such faith in the creaky, flawed and ponderous institutions of criminal justice in India endured, and that he persisted with fighting through these institutions even though it cost him his life.

The film compels us to introspect if India’s democracy deserves the fierce belief and allegiance of valiant warriors for justice like Shahid, whom it so profoundly lets down.

The institutional prejudice of the legal system in fighting terror is depicted unflinchingly. There is harrowing portrayal of torture that Shahid undergoes in Delhi’s Lodi Road Police Station. The film disturbingly recreates — reportedly from several of the cases fought by Shahid — the creation of false evidence and witnesses to bolster the terror charges, and the open hostility of the public prosecutor towards the terror accused, which spills over sometimes to the lawyer fighting on their behalf. But there are also judges — faceless people in the huge judicial machine — who struggle to be humane and fair.

This is a film about justice, but also about love. Shahid’s bonds with his family are recreated with affection. In their cramped single-room slum home perched in an attic above a bakery, you encounter his mother, an imposing matriarch raising her three sons with an iron hand, and his elder brother who quietly sacrifices his own dreams and aspirations for his mother and siblings. It is his steady support that sustains Shahid through his turbulent life and trials, and he who enables him to realise his dreams. As with Shahid’s heroism, the love and support of his family and its sacrifices — again the staple of so much of Hindi cinema — are depicted with understatement and authenticity.

Over the years, I have met and worked with young men — in Godhra and Hyderabad — who like Shahid were charged falsely with terror crimes, incarcerated for long years, crushed by protracted opaque trials, not knowing if they will ever walk free. When they are finally acquitted, nothing can return or recompense their lost years, or erase memories of torture, wasted years behind prison walls, families battling stigma, penury and loneliness, interrupted studies, stolen youth, children forgetting the faces of their fathers, and broken lost dreams. Mehta’s film reminds us of all of this but, like its protagonist, while it is uncompromisingly honest it is remarkably free of bitterness and despair. In the luminous closing sequence of the film — which will stay etched long and deep in my memory — after Shahid’s murder, his college mate Ram stands before the same court, defending the same terror suspect for whose defence Shahid was felled.

Shahid reminds me of the words of another man in another continent who was felled for his beliefs, Martin Luther King Jr. “Never, never be afraid to do what is right,” he said, “Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our souls when we look away.”

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