A still from the film
A still from the film

The lawyer who courted death

A new biopic brings to screen the controversial life and work of Shahid Azmi

He was a born fighter, you know, and to think of it, even when we played cricket as children, he had a strong sense of what’s right and what’s not," says Rashid Azmi about his brother. He leans forward on his swivelling leather chair and tries to smile before repeating, “The name Shahid means he can never die."

It’s the same chair Shahid Azmi sat on, in the same office in Kurla, Mumbai, where the 32-year-old lawyer was shot dead by assailants over two years ago.

Shahid Azmi’s promising, yet controversial life and career, which ended in February 2010, will soon be brought to life in a film, Shahid, which premiered at the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival on 9 September. It’s a little story about a big thing, says the film’s director Hansal Mehta, which will “provoke thought the next time you label somebody anti-national because of the person’s caste or colour or religion".

Shahid Azmi
Shahid Azmi

Shahid’s well-reported life has a variety of twists and turns with some contentious episodes, which makes his story a potential cinematic treasure. Disturbed by the 1993 Mumbai riots, the third of five brothers is supposed to have fled to Kashmir to take up arms against the state (his brothers deny any knowledge of this). He was arrested on his return the following year for plotting to kill some politicians and charged under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (Tada). He spent around five years in prison where he completed his higher education, deciding to study law and journalism after he was released. After working with lawyer Majeed Memon for some months, he branched out on his own.

Shahid’s life, according to family, friends and reporters who followed his career, was dedicated to representing people who had no help, who were wrongly accused of committing crimes—a reaction to his own ordeals as a teenager. He would often work for free, taking as much money from people as they were able to pay.

“He was under threat constantly—because of the cases he fought and people he rubbed the wrong way," says the youngest brother Khalid, also a lawyer, who has since taken over Shahid’s practice. “The last few months, he distanced himself from us because he was convinced he would be killed."

“There’s so much about his life we don’t know. Only he (Shahid) can tell you," says Rashid.

Police outside the office after Shahid was shot dead in February 2010
Police outside the office after Shahid was shot dead in February 2010

Mehta slouches in his chair in his Oshiwara office; he is an easygoing man with a ready wit and a chequered Bollywood career. By his own admission, he was creatively “dead" after his last film Woodstock Villa (2008) did not do too well. He packed up and moved to Lonavala, pondering on what to do next and concerned about the growing inequalities in society.

“As a film-maker I was doing nothing about it," he says. “My anger has been growing since the attacks on Mumbai, with people making political constituency out of polarizing communities. But I did not have a story to tell, which Shahid’s death changed. More than his death, it was his journey, and I saw a film (in it)."

His script and co-screenplay writer Sameer Gautam Singh researched the subject for over two months, meeting Shahid’s family repeatedly, and came back with something for Mehta to work on, though the script underwent changes right till the end. “There are big events that shake us, like 26/11, but beyond that there is a personal story that represents the times," says Mehta.

On a budget of under 1 crore, shot in real locations in Kurla, Pydhonie, Govandi and the other places Shahid (played by actor Rajkumar Yadav) frequented or inhabited, Mehta says the lawyer’s “soul has been blessing us. It’s uncanny and I am not saying this in a filmi way. We would go to crowded locations without permissions. Then someone would ask what we were doing. I would say we are making a film on Shahid Azmi.

“‘Oh, Shahid bhai? Make a good film,’ they would say and before we knew, there would be barricades to keep the crowd away and it would be all fine. It’s a legacy of a seven-year-old legal career that so many people are willing to put their arm out for him."

Khalid Azmi at the office where his brother once sat

Shahid is expected to show next at the Mumbai Film Festival (MFF) in October though Mehta insists it’s not what, in common parlance, is known as a “festival film". “The narrative is linear, smooth and unpretentious. It is a political thriller, a biography and romantic tragedy. At its heart, it’s a courtroom drama." He credits his editor Apurva Asrani with creating a graph for the courtroom scenes and bringing the film together in post-production.

“I am not here to make a documentary, but to engage with a story," adds Mehta. “If the audience is engaged and it communicates what sort of a person he was, I would have succeeded. It’s not just about being accurate."

The legacy

“The film is 95% accurate," says Khalid Azmi, the only one from the family to have seen Shahid before it went to Toronto. For the others, it might yet be too difficult.

The eldest, Arif, a father figure to the other four brothers, has not yet agreed to see the film. Rashid, his voice choking, merely shakes his head when asked if he would like to see it. He waits a long time before saying, “Maybe at some point; it’s too painful now."

A poster of the film
A poster of the film

Khalid is an hour and a half late for the meeting; during this time, the office fills up and empties with remarkable regularity—groups of people seeking the lawyer for a signature or to enquire about a bail application. It is peak “season", Khalid says later, because he is defending some of the accused in the Azad Maidan protests of 11 August.

Their family friend Anwar, who waits for an hour and leaves before Khalid arrives, gives instances from cases past about how Shahid would weaken the defence by finding simple oversights in the investigation. They all speak of his legacy: Khalid says he became a lawyer to continue Shahid’s work, Rashid says there are many children in the neighbourhood who want to become lawyers, and Anwar speaks of Shahid’s meticulous efforts in building a case. They remember a soft-spoken man who was polite, would dress well, and would be so burdened by work that he would rarely sleep.

Writer Singh says despite doubts from the mother, the family wanted the film to be made but without any fabrication, which is why they helped him continuously with names and telephone numbers. The brothers themselves are non-committal to the question whether Shahid’s story is one that needs to be told on screen. They are, however, committed to keeping his name alive by doing his work. “When I see his pending cases," says Khalid, “I realize his work cannot be negated. Particularly, when the people I represent tell me, ‘If bhai had been alive, I would not be rotting in jail’."

A release date has not been announced yet by Shahid’s producers. One of them is Anurag Kashyap, whose Black Friday (2007) was held up in the courts for nearly two years because of a petition that maintained its release might prejudice the 1993 blast trial.

Representing the petitioners, then, was a young lawyer named Shahid Azmi.

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