Cinema As “Shahid” and “Ship of Theseus” gather encomiums at film festivals, we speak to their helmsmen, Hansal Mehta nd Anand Gandhi. ANUJ KUMAR

Sometimes in the rush to cover what is running at the box office we miss out on what is catching eyeballs at the film festivals. Like weekly releases, now we have monthly film festivals in different parts of the world. And two Hindi films which are gathering applause at these refined gatherings of cinema connoisseurs are Hansal Mehta’s “Shahid” and Anand Gandhi’s “Ship of Theseus”. Both tackle the issue of identity in different ways and despite being shining examples of art are highly accessible, and that’s why both Mehta and Gandhi are eager to bring their works to a theatre near you. It is a marked change from the days when festivals meant free access to art and the cinema hall meant paid entry to entertainment.

“Shahid” is a biopic on the life of lawyer Shahid Azmi who 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.

For Mehta, Azmi was a “noble character” whose eventful life epitomised the fight for social justice within the system. If you look back at the life of Shahid Azmi you will realise what Mehta is referring to. Radicalised after the Mumbai riots in 1992, Azmi 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. He took cases of youngsters charged with terrorism activities without concrete evidence and secured around 17 acquittals. It reminds of the recent acquittal of Mohammad Aamir Khan who was released after 14 years. Mehta says the film has a contemporary appeal and is relevant in times when we are “increasingly becoming a polarised state.” “You can’t brand a youngster as a terrorist on the basis of charges. The media is also not playing its role. It had forgotten Shahid after he was killed. It required a film to bring him and what he stood for back to the mainstream discourse.”

Interestingly, Azmi was one of the lawyers who stood up for Anurag Kashyap’s “Black Friday”, when the film was banned for using real names involved in the Mumbai blasts. “Anurag met him two-three times. I came to know about him only through newspapers, but as I got hooked to his story I came know about the odds he fought against. By the end of the film I felt like as if he was my younger brother.”

He could relate to him because Mehta had himself faced odds. At the turn of the millennium he was considered one of the independent voices emerging on the scene but somehow he could not put his act together and after a promising “Jayate” and “Dil Par Mat Le Yaar”, Mehta could not hold his own. “I kept making films but I lost my voice. So in that sense it is a comeback film for me.”

The police could say that “Shahid” got many terror accused acquitted but that was because of lack of evidence rather than anything else. “See, 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.

Saying he wants to take the film to everybody, Mehta adds, “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. Our system has checks and balances. I know it is abused by those in power but there are ways through which an underdog can have his say.”

The film was shot in a low key fashion as Mehta didn’t want to create any controversy. “Controversy is created by producers in sync with some media houses when the film doesn’t have a glamour quotient. I have no such plans. I have shot in real locations and I could see the love people had for Azmi.” However, Mehta didn’t get much support from the industry. The producers didn’t see merit in the subject and ultimately it was Anurag who backed him but this meant cutting down on the budget. “See, producers still work according to whims of the stars and because of my box office record, stars no longer believed in me. Also, I needed an actor who could blindly follow my vision. Raj Kumar Yadav showed this commitment.” Appreciated for his performances in films like “Love Sex Aur Dhoka”, “Shaitan” and “Ragini MMS”, Mehta says Yadav has tremendous ability to become the character. “That’s what I wanted.” And that’s how Shahid lives on.

Ship of salvation

You could call him unconventional, but Anand Gandhi is questioning the very word that you want to bracket him in. The young filmmaker is dabbling with the idea of identity in his first feature film, “Ship of Theseus”. The title comes from a philosophical paradox based on the story of the Greek god Theseus, who built a huge ship. “As its parts got replaced over the years, there came a time where it became difficult to identify the original piece of work,” says Gandhi. The film dissects the idea in the context of the human body through four narratives questioning our notions about change, free will and violence and non-violence “One is about a blind photographer who loses her talent once she gets her vision back. Is the change good for her?” he asks. Another story is about a monk suffering from cancer. “Now he refuses to take medicine because as a matter of principle he could not take anything tested on animals but as he is about to die his idea of violence and non violence gets tested. Don’t suicide bombers give themselves pain for an idea? Is there a difference here? And when according to science our body cells are constantly being replaced, which identity are we really protecting?” He is quick to add that it is not rhetoric. “I am telling an engaging story and not making some bumper sticker statements.” Calling the film a “celebration of complexity”, Gandhi doesn’t want to work within the Bollywood domain. For someone who started as a dialogue writer for “Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi” and “Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki”, it is a big leap, but then as one said, Gandhi defies most brackets.