conversation Hansal Mehta holds forth on his film ‘Shahid’ through which he brings to life the troubled, turbulent times of slain human rights activist and lawyer Shahid Azmi

In a few days from now, Hansal Mehta’s labour of love, Shahid will be screened at the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) film festival. After the premiere at Toronto International Film Festival in September, it’s a homecoming that Hansal Mehta is looking forward to. “There will be at least three shows at MAMI and I am waiting to show the film to people in my own city,” he says.

Shahid’s theatrical release will happen in early 2013 and Mehta is willing to wait. He has waited for the last few years to make this film he truly believed in. Mehta had taken a sabbatical prior to Shahid , unhappy with a few films that he had made. His previous film was Woodstock Villa . Shahid is the turbulent story of human rights activist and lawyer Shahid Azmi, who was murdered in 2010 when he was only 32.Mehta’s interpretation of Shahid Azmi’s life will be a biopic that adheres to facts, even while taking cinematic liberties to dramatise the proceedings to make an engaging film.

Interestingly, Mehta didn’t set out to narrate the story of Shahid Azmi when he began the film. “The initial story was a different one and the character modelled after Shahid Azmi had a small part in it. But whatever I wanted to tell through that story wasn’t coming through. I wasn’t convinced. It was after Shahid Azmi’s death and learning more about him I felt Shahid’s story is the one that needed to be told,” says Mehta.

After Shahid Azmi’s murder, Mehta and team began researching Shahid Azmi’s life, separating fact from speculative reports in sections of the media. “The pitfall of living in times of information overload is that people are quick jump to conspiracy theories. My writer Sameer and I researched extensively, met Azmi’s family and friends. Shahid is the story of his life as we interpreted it,” says Mehta.

Writing the film was only part of the job. Financing was hard to come by and stars didn’t want to be part of the project. “Most corporate houses look for stars, not stories. They fail to understand that each film has its own needs,” laments Mehta.

In due course, Mehta himself met a few well known actors but felt casting someone with a set ‘image’ would dilute the subject. With the help of casting director Mukesh Chabra, actors were chosen. “I wanted to cast actors who looked authentic to the roles. It was a long process,” shares Mehta. Rajkumar was chosen to play the title role.

Meanwhile, Sunil Bohra and Anurag Kashyap stepped in to produce the film.

At every stage of making the film, there were hurdles to be crossed. Shooting in real locations in and around Mumbai had its own set of woes. “When people came to know we were making a film on Shahid Azmi, some people encouraged us while others would refuse permission,” recalls Mehta.

It’s more than a film for Hansal Mehta and his team. It’s also an effort to unravel the story of a man who was at first against the system and then turned around to fight for people.

Above all, Shahid Azmi’s brother Khalid got to see the film prior to the premiere in Toronto. “I was happy when he said the film was 95 per cent accurate,” says Mehta.

sangeetha devi dundoo

The pitfall of living in times of information overload is that people are quick jump to conspiracy theories.

Hansal Mehta