Shahid Azmi was not just any legal wizard who made the prosecution’s cases come crashing like a house of cards. Nor was he a mere crusader for the rights of those facing the malevolent, violence prejudice of the mighty State and its legal and judicial systems, and were too hapless to do so.
Rather, he was the archetypal civil-liberties and cause-justice Advocate (yes, “Advocate” and not “advocate” because his “advocacy” was not limited to shouting slogans or trenchant criticism through Op-ed columns; he battled the State on its own territory – the courtroom, and secured remarkable victories. And, he did not shy away from defending those condemned as odious – “terrorists” merely because of their faith.
Azmi’s life and the cause he lived, and died for were both personal, as well as political. As a 15 year old in Govandi he had seen and experienced the worst of communalism- his cousin sister being raped and his father being slaughtered in the 1992 Bombay Riots. Burning with hapless indignation, he joined a terrorist training camp in Kashmir, only to be repulsed by the manipulation and brazen slaughter of those gullible enough to play into the hands of terror-mongers. Arrested under the Draconian TADA (Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act), tortured in custody, beguiled into giving a “confession”, lodged in Tihar Jail for six years, he was acquitted of all the trumped up charges levelled against him. Then onwards, he made it his life’s mission to defend, pro bono, the victims of the State’s “War on Terror”, and tasted unprecedented success- 17 acquittals in seven years, all of them in cases proclaimed by the prosecution as open and shut. He would have continued waging the war for justice if not felled by assassins ‘bullets on 11 February 2011.
Therefore, making a biopic on Azmi would have demanded a lot- the director would have to surmount the hurdles of the compelling need of popular story-telling, and the blandishments of a hagiography. It would also have required going into the heart and soul of what made Azmi who he came to be feted as. And of course, the conviction to take a stand on certain issues. Only then would complete justice have been done.
It is here that Hanslal Mehta’s Shahid falls short on certain parameters, although the work must be praised for gifting the viewers certain gems rarely seen in Bollywood.
This is not the first time Mehta is portraying a crusading lawyer. In fact, way back in 1997, in Jayate his protagonist Mohan Agashe (an “outstanding“ lawyer- Agashe never practised in court, he was one of the many who solicit clients outside the court’s premises and prepare affidavits ) who overcame his personal limitations and despondency to get justice for a victim of medical negligence. Hence, one would have expected Mehta to be more incisive in Shahid and deal with the broader canvas with relatively more aplomb, but he is found wanting.
Raj Kumar Yadav plays Shahid, and quite looks the part and the person, were it not for some filmi dialogues like tension mat lijiye”, which no lawyer worth his salt would ever say to a client. The empathy with which Yadav speaks to his tearful clients, the calm unruffled confident demeanour he presents in court- are praiseworthy.
The best takeaways from the film are the two cases portrayed- those of Zaheer Sheikh and Fahim Ansari. Both are case-studies in malicious, vituperative prosecution, based on no “evidence” except vicious communalism and a bagfull of lies.
Sidestepping the hilarious typical Bollywoodish portrayal of lawyers and courtroom “dramas”- full of bluster and rhetoric, and of course, emblems of avarice, without any care for ethics, Mehta brings out the raw, hard, truth. In Zaheer Sheikh’s cases, the cruelly dilatory tactics adopted by the prosecution in so many terrorism-related cases, aided in no small measure of by the credulous judiciary’s swallowing the “national security” and “terrorism” tropes, stand exposed, and vanquished. In Fahim Ansari’s trial, the venal Public Prosecutor (Shalini Vatsa) alleges that Azmi is making “simplistic” arguments and has no compunctions in hurling personal slurs which have no bearing on the case at hand. It is a delight seeing Yadav cross-examining the coached prosecution witness and proves that all one requires is “simple” common sense to nail the lies.
In the scene where Azmi is accosted outside the court and has his face blackened by Shiv Sainiks for “insulting” Shivaji, Mehta draws upon his own personal experience of facing the Sena mobsters’ ire in 2000, when he was paraded through the Khar Danda area and made to “apologise” to the residents. He could have gone more into bringing out the Hindutva brigade’s reign of terror, but desists from doing so.
Kay Kay Menon’s cameo is superlative as well as educative. Menon plays Ghulam Nabi Wad- a Kashmiri caught in the crossfire between the State and insurgents, and implicated by the latter when he could no longer pay them protection money. He mentors and encourages Shahid during his Tihar days- never failing to make him study and persevere for justice, constantly warning him about the likes of Omar Sheikh who brainwash gullible youth for their own nefarious purposes. Mehta’s use of Menon the subtle exposure of the poignant reality, without glorifying hate-mongers or mavens of “nationalism” is brilliant and hits hard.
Prabhleen Sandhu as Mariam does not contribute much except essaying the role of the wife torn between concerns of the family’s safety and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her husband in his quest for justice. Sandhu could have portrayed the ambivalence in a much more convincing manner, but the scriptwriters do not provide her with that opportunity.
The biggest failings of the film- loopholes as glaring as the ones which Azmi exposed in the prosecution’s cases, are two. First, Mehta, in Ansari’s trial, portrays the judiciary as the lone sheet-anchor against the State’s violence and violation. This completely elides the bitter truth- those cases where the judges have been no less complicit than the State in depriving innocent citizens of their most fundamental rights. Take Afzal Guru’s case, for example- sentenced to the gallows to “satisfy the collective conscience” of society.
Second, Mehta brings the film to an abrupt, grinding hault. How Khalid Azmi, Shahid’s younger brother who stepped into his shoes, and finally got Fahim Ansari acquitted on 29 August 2012, exactly two years, six months and eighteen days after Shahid’s “shahaadat”, is conspicuously absent.
It would be too early to hail Mehta as that beacon and voice for justice in Bollywood 2013 and elsewhere. If he takes some leaves out of Deepa Dhanraj’s book and makes something on the lines of The Advocate (documentary on KG Kannabiran- the doyen of civil liberties litigation in India), maybe then justice would be completely done.