The index of a biopic’s success is the biographer’s eye and judgement. A writer or director can be variously inspired to immerse in a life—the dangerous impulses of the obscure drove Truman Capote to Holcomb, Kansas, when he wrote In Cold Blood; Gus Van Sant’s portrait of Harvey Milk in his film Milk has the unmistakable tone of awe and inspiration. Both are random examples of portraits in which the maker is interested not just in chronicling an extraordinary life through facts, thereby making it emotionally and politically correct, but also has his or her own position and creative and intellectual stake in its making.
In Shahid, a biopic of the murdered criminal lawyer Shahid Azmi, director Hansal Mehta’s admiration of his subject and his subject’s activist zeal, is evident. Azmi was killed in his Mumbai office in 2010 after having famously represented lower middle-class Muslim men indiscriminately picked up and implicated by the police and justice establishment in solving cases involving terrorism and communal violence. These men were without help and money and Azmi often worked for free, with pragmatism and guts.
Mehta delineates Shahid’s life in a simple and linear arc. After the 1992 Bombay riots, which jeopardizes the security of Shahid (Raj Kumar) and his family of three brothers and his mother living in Govandi simply because they are Muslim, he enrols in a camp training armed dissidents in Kashmir. Shahid is arrested on his return the following year, under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (Tada). After spending five years in prison where he completes his higher education, and where he makes acquaintances whose antecedents are with underworld dons on the run or terrorist groups, Shahid completes his law degree, joins a renowned criminal lawyer in Mumbai (Tigmanshu Dhulia), and after a few months, starts his own practice. Early in his career, he falls in love with a harrowed single mother Mariam (Prabhleen Sandhu) embroiled in an ugly property dispute and marries her. Shahid’s resolve becomes stronger, and his personal life disintegrates, as he begins receiving frequent death threats.
In a short solo career, Shahid won 17 cases, a feat in our sluggish criminal justice system. After his death, the Supreme Court acquitted Fahim Ansari of all charges in connection with the 26 November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. Ansari, who was accused by the Mumbai police of having provided the 10 terrorists with logistical support, was represented by Shahid, who had proved in a lower court that there was not enough evidence against Ansari.
Mehta and his writers, Sameer Gautam Singh and Apurva Asrani, just about touch upon Shahid’s early life in the Kashmir camp. There is very little about how it was possible for Shahid to strengthen his cases so fast, or how he wrestled with the system and used its failings to his advantage. In that sense, it is a uni-dimensional portrait, without much complexity or sinew. The layers don’t open up, except a few scenes including one in which an opposing lawyer accuses him of being a terrorist. We see Shahid as an undaunted and upright man, going about his job diligently inside the courtroom; his legal bristle forthright and unmitigated.
The courtroom scenes are riveting—the film’s best parts. The two cases we see Shahid representing get detailed time. The camera is fluid, and the lighting is natural, to miniaturize the claustrophobic, chaotic and humorous battlegrounds in which laws are made and unmade in Indian courts—the real circus, as opposed to what we are used to watching in Hindi films. The research for these sequences are meticulous, both of the writers and the actors.
In dialogue, art direction, visuals and performance, the film is sparse and focused. Mehta’s storytelling is sharp. In secondary roles, the performances of Sandhu, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub and Baljinder Kaur are efficient and convincing. At the centre is actor Kumar’s perfectly pitched lead performance. He neither magnifies nor underplays the character’s seeming ordinariness, but the tough interior is obvious without any dialogues or situations to actually show it. In his first solo lead role, Kumar is outstanding. He humanizes a character written in shades of black and white.
Shahid is an admirable project, but as a biopic, it is far short of a masterpiece.
Shahid released in theatres on Friday.