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A legacy of hope
A film based on the remarkable story of slain lawyer Shahid Azmi was widely acclaimed at the Toronto Film Festival. TOI-Crest talks to Hansal Mehta, the 'liberal' Gujarati behind it:
When 9/11 happened, Hansal Mehta was a relatively new director immersed in the commercial Bollywood routine, what he now describes as 'all-in-a-day's-work kind of moviemaking'. He made films like Chhal, Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai? and Woodstock Villa but his voice was missing. He wanted to get out of the rut and do something that he "believed in". Then, one day, while surfing the channels, he was struck by a piece of news: 'Shahid Azmi shot dead'. He knew he had found his story, "the voice that would be finally my own".
That was his earliest impulse to make Shahid, a fictionalised account of the slain lawyer and human rights activist. Azmi who was arrested as a teenager during the 1992-93 Mumbai riots for an alleged conspiracy to assassinate Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray and was later acquitted of the charges, had decided to dedicate his life to protecting Muslim youth wrongly accused of terrorism activities. He was defending the 26/11 accused Faheem Ansari when he was shot at in his Kurla office in 2010. Mehta says Shahid projects him as a saviour, and not as a victim. The film, starring the little-known actor Rajkumar Yadav in the title role, has clocked in positive word-of-mouth at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where it was premiered in September.
"After 9/11, I was disturbed, " says Mehta. "Ever since I have been trying to get into this process, of what happens to suspects who are often arrested on charges of terrorism. Muslims being arrested or killed for no reason is all around us, it is a reality we cannot run away from. Most of them are uneducated and economically backward. They are defenceless. The idea for making Shahid was partly to give them a voice. "
Shahid Azmi, who the Muslim community has since anointed a martyr, crusaded for the weaker section of his community. His is a remarkable story, "a journey somebody had to document someday". After the 1992-93 Mumbai riots, a young Azmi fled home to a Jihadi camp in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and was consequently arrested and charged under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA). In prison, he educated himself and resolved to study law after his release. Before long, he established his own legal practice. Mehta says while making the biopic, he saw himself living his life.
"I couldn't switch myself off from the Shahid mode. It changed my life in ways I wouldn't imagine. " In his view, Azmi was an inspiring figure, a complex young man who would have emerged as a harbinger of social change if only he had lived a few years longer. "Mahatma Gandhi urged us to be the change we would like to see. Shahid was a living example of that. Unknowingly, he has left behind a legacy, which I would say is a legacy of hope and optimism. "
Mehta claims to have learned a great deal during the process of making this film. "For some reason I feel I am above adversities now. I don't think about smaller problems because there are larger issues out there that bothers me. I have become more positive, like Shahid was. He saw hope where others saw despair. Forget about anything else, in a city like Mumbai, people become cynical and selfish. But Shahid did not allow himself to become that. Despite such a chequered and difficult life, he believed in the good things that life has to offer. That's an inspiring message coming from someone who could have so easily turned cynical and harsh. "
Compared to Azmi's life, Mehta's personal struggle to get this film started seems like a child's play. Though admittedly, it was frustrating for the director to face rejections on numerous occasions. For one, no producer was interested in backing his dream film. "Everybody I went to was more concerned about who the hero was than the script. Many felt it was a risky film to fund. A few producers were kind enough to arrange a meeting with stars. But you know how it is with stars - they want you to tweak the script to their preferences. " On one occasion, a star who Mehta did not wish to name, expressed a keen interest and promptly called him back after two days with a rewritten script. "He had done his own cheesy version of Deewaar. It beats me, how can Shahid become Deewaar? I think he wanted to enact a role similar to one that Amitabh Bachchan played.
Worse, there were some who insisted Mehta drop the film because it was 'pro-Muslim'. "These were precisely the same prejudices that I am fighting against in Shahid, " he states. Finally, he had to fall back on his friendship with producer Sunil Bohra who once made a promise to him that if ever he came to him with a film he truly believed in, he would back him without thinking twice. As it turned out, it took exactly five minutes to get Bohra on board. "It is the ultimate human interest story, " says Bohra, "It's about peace and harmony. It moved me. I have never been so emotional about a film before. "
After Bohra, Anurag Kashyap got into the act. It became an old friends' club. Mehta has known Kashyap since his days as a writer. In 1997, the Gangs of Wasseypur director wrote Mehta's debut film titled Jayate, which incidentally, was based on a lawyer. "Anurag is actually one of the few honest friends who have been telling me to follow my heart. He told me, 'Hansal, you have sold out. What has happened to your conscience?' It was a wake-up call. "
Shot in the teeming, Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods of Govandi, Pydhonie and Kurla, Shahid captures the 'zeitgeist of a generation'. Relying largely on the accounts provided by the Azmi family, Mehta received his best compliment when his brother, Khalid Azmi commented after seeing the film: 'It is 95 per cent accurate'.
But, that is just one person's opinion, for the most important test for any film, as he puts it, is if it manages to touch and transform people's attitudes and thinking. Mehta says many people may think it odd for a Gujarati like him to make a film sympathising with the same minority that were the worst sufferers during the 2002 riots. The Gujarati prejudice against Muslims is an old story. Mehta, however, assures that his is a liberal voice.
"It's a reality that there is a leader like Narendra Modi who wants to polarise his people for political gains but there is also another reality where there are Gujaratis like me who believe in humanity and the plurality of India. In this country, if there is Modi, there is also Hansal Mehta, " says the director who once ran an IT firm but gave up for cinema.
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