In director Hansal Mehta and screenwriters Sameer Gautam Singh, Apurva Asrani and Mr. Mehta's adaptation of "Shahid", a significant portion of Shahid Azmi's life is squeezed into a two hour slot. The constraint means there's little room for the traditional expansion we get from biopics, and if at times "Shahid" feels like an expanded best-of of Mr. Azmi's life, it’s because it is.
At times it is astonishing just how much can fit in fifteen minutes. Shot like a reality-television docu-drama, with a lingering shoulder-mounted camera by cinematographer Anuj Dhawan, we open at 1992's communal riots in Mumbai. Shahid – played to perfection by Rajkumar – is a youngster who, like Hrithik Roshan's Amaan from "Fiza", has his consciousness hard-pressed into becoming a terrorist.
Unlike Amaan, Shahid doesn't cut it. He neither has the guts, the physical strength, or the blind optimism to pull of local acts of terror. Shahid runs home, gets nabbed by the government on TADA charges, studies in prison thanks to the kindness of strangers (K.K. Menon in a small shining role) and becomes justice’s defender for people who can't afford legal fees. In Shahid's seven years as a legal eagle his resume has 17 acquittals, mostly from serious cases of racial bias and terrorism, only to be killed by assailants in 2010.
There's a lot of life to condense in this very independently produced film. From the sets (most of the scenes are shot indoors, with ambient or against the light setups), to the unflinching straight-forward script, to the performances, "Shahid" has the looks of a pre-cooked (read: diligently researched) motion picture. The swift narrative gets a powerhouse turn by Mr. Rajumar, who distills layers of change into an actual person. Shahid is hot-blooded, he is mature, and yet immature (he marries a woman, Mariam played by Prabhleen Sandhu, and doesn't tell his family out of fear); his resolve to be a good guy in a world of hurt, sounds too good to be true.
In a way it is. There is a scene where a reporter asks Shahid why he's doing this – and even though we've seen his motivation, and he gives a charged up explanation – his expression, a close up of just about three seconds, makes room for doubt. I doubt this is intentional, but if it is, it shows Mr. Mehta's (and to an extent Mr. Rajkumar’s) insight on human fragility and hesitation.
Shahid's family, especially his brother played by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, provide first-rate, if at times restrained support as the story side-steps any personal perils they may have had parallel to Mr. Azmi’s life (Mr. Ayyub lashes out at Shahid in one scene, and the film disregards the severity of their dilemma). Even Ms. Sandhu's Mariam, a single mother who is also one of Shahid's first clients, feels second fiddle because of the constrictions the narrative puts on itself.
Sometimes the events appear more real than they should; the brief court cases in particular, where arguments are both loud, overlapping and at times shabby, are prime specimens of how real "Shahid’s" texture is.
Even with all its pro's there's a certain limit to "Shahid's" grandness.
There are multiple ways to frame Mr. Azmi's story, I wonder if Mr. Mehta would be able to tell "Shahid" in a better way than what it is right now; it may not be "Best Picture" worthy – but I doubt if many of the films in every year's nomination are.
Directed by Hansal Mehta; Produced by Anurag Kashyap, Sunil Bohra, Ronnie Screwvala, Siddharth Roy Kapur, Shailesh R. Singh; Written by Sameer Gautam Singh, Apurva Asrani, Hansal Mehta; Cinematography by Anuj Dhawan; Editing by Apurva Asrani; Music by Karan Kulkarni.
Starring: Rajkumar Yadav, Tigmanshu Dhulia, K K Menon, Prabal Panjabi,Vivek Ghamande, Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub.
Distributed by UTV Motion Pictures, "Shahid" is rated "A" for partial male nudity and emotional trauma.
Shahid – in Real Life
Well crafted, real-life inspired independent movies are a hard find. “Shahid”, a bio-pic based on Shahid Azmi, a lawyer and human rights activist who shot dead by unidentified assailants in 2010, is one of those rare opportunities, that’s often seen running in limited release across the world, including Pakistan.
Was it difficult getting into the head of real person like Shahid?
Yes, of course, you are absolutely right. It was a little difficult, but we had already done quite a lot of research, and had support from the family. I wanted to catch him internally, rather than just get the physical aspect. Once I got that through his family, I moved on to the lawyers, on how they behaved, and what is the functionality and technicalities of courts, and then I studied the basic aspects of Islam.
How fictionalised is Shahid for the screen?
Actually, I interpreted him in my own way, keeping his personality in mind. Because I couldn’t meet him, I have tried to make him a character (on to its own). But luckily, fortunately, when I met the family, they were really happy with (my interpretation of him), as it came close to what he actually was.
Earlier you said that you studied the Quran and the Prayers, does that extra insight help you out as an actor in any way to connect to that character?
Absolutely. Whatever you can gather (of and) for your character, it always helps. The way we shot Shahid was in an organic manner, so I was mentally very prepared, but there are a lot of moments which would just come on set. It was like magic. There were a lot of moments like that.
By moments you mean something impromptu that would take you away from the scene or something that would add to one?
For the majority of our film, Hansal, our director, would just let us be, (saying that) this is your stage, this is your family, and this is the situation. Of course he was there to guide us, and yes, there was a bound script, there were dialogues, but a lot of things came on the spot.
Raj, you strike me as someone who thoroughly researches his role. So is it something that you take home with you, or is it a garb that you take off as soon as the director says ‘pack-up’? How long were you Shahid?
My mental process was like Shahid, my heart was Shahid’s. It’s not that I would go and stay at Shahid’s place; of course I would go back to mine. We shot this film in almost 8-9 months, with some gaps in between, in three schedules, so in those moments I tried to be in the phase.
I believe that you insisted on doing a nude scene, so what was that about?
It’s a remand scene, where Shahid is tortured. The feeling was missing in that scene when we were shooting it, so I asked Hansal about being naked because I just couldn’t get his mental pain. He said if you feel like it, then do it, so I did. The scene actually came alive after that.
Wouldn’t that scene put you at odds with the censors? As it happens, small independent films like Shahid that have a controversial subject would often find itself at odds with the audience or various political parties?
No, we didn’t get any difficulty with the censors, or anybody else. The censor people were very happy with the film, and we were able (to release the movie) as it is, but they would give the film an ‘A’ certificate, which we were okay with (given the film’s subject).
Ok, now that leads me to something else. So far a bulk of your career is made up of very independent minded movies, from “Kai Po Che”, to “Talaash” to “Ragini MMS”, to “Love Sex Dhoka” and “Gangs of Wassaypur”, so do you think that the industry still keeps actors confined to a specific genre or types of movies, rather than just let them break into mainstream cinema?
As an actor I want to do all kinds of films. I want to explore myself as an actor. Whatever characters I’ve done till date are very different from each other. I try to be very cautious of that, that I don’t repeat myself again and again. There are, like you said, these so-called entertaining and commercial films. I’ve got some scripts like them, but I was not very excited with them. It’s not like I have been offered only serious or “different” films. I just keep in mind the film; I just keep in mind the story. I don’t see that a certain film will result to this, or do hundred crores at the box-office. If I feel connected to a story, I’ll do it.
Is it still important to alter or drop a part of your name to change a person’s perspective in the industry (Rajkumar Yadav has been called both Raj and Rajkumar in certain credits)?
Not at all. I’ve always been Rajkumar. If you go on imdb or other websites, you’ll see that I am credited as Rajkumar. In all of my films I’ve always been credited as Rajkumar. I’ve always thought that this has been too candid a thought, and that Rajkumar Yadav has been too long a name. I think Rajkumar is something that can be easily remembered. There’s no numerology or anything.
I believe Shahid has been completed since last year, and since then has been making rounds in international festivals. How hard is the wait for an actor to know that he has a completed film that is yet to be released to the masses?
Actually, I got busy shooting “Kai Po Che”, and UTV got involved quite a while back; (Also) there were legalities involved. (But) I was sure that we going in the right direction (so, no worries).
“Shahid” came out with Akshay Kumar’s “Boss”, but in comparison to that film there is a lack of publicity for the movie. Do you think this will hamper the release in any way?
We have been travelling for the last ten days, giving interviews for the film. Of course, (the publicity) isn’t comparable to that film’s level, because we do not have that big a budget (to spend), but it is happening. We’re not in competition with any one. We know we have made a very honest and beautiful film.
When an actor gets a script like ‘Shahid’, does he sign it in aspirations of making it in award circles or critical acclaim?
No, no, no, I didn’t choose the film with anything in mind, apart from the story. For me when I am shooting or living the part is that precious ‘moment’ for which I have signed the project.
So, after ‘Shahid’ what are your plans?
After ‘Shahid’, there is director Vikas Behl’s ‘Queen’ with Kangana Renaut, coming in February. Then there is a film with Mahesh Bhatt, and then there are a couple of ideas Hansal and I are working on.
Interview courtesy of UTV Motion Pictures and KJP.