Bollywood hardly ever churns out realism and even when the odd ‘true story’ comes along, it treads the commercialized tightrope. Hansal Mehta’s Shahid is one exception to that rule because it chronicles an underappreciated man while still delivering an entertaining movie.
First screened at least year’s Mumbai Film Festival, Shahid has finally made the slow crawl to a wide theatrical release this week. The film sheds light on human rights lawyer Shahid Azmi (played by Raj Kumar). His life was both eventful and controversial, made all the more so because of his stance against a law that allows authorities to imprison a suspect for an indefinite period without any tangible proof to validate the charges made against them. I won’t give away anything else of Shahid because it is the kind of movie you'll enjoy the most if you go in knowing the least. The film does a good job being a character study and without being preachy, Mehta calls out the hypocrisy and incompetence that has plagued Indian courts for decades.
At its best moments, the film captures that queasy feeling that we've all had while watching the evening news and seeing the day’s top story is about a religious clash and the miscarriage of justice in this country. But Mehta and Co. are not content to deliver a knee-jerk reaction and a manipulative movie. Shahid will pushes our buttons, making you hurtle from empathy to seething anger and ultimately to a woozy sense of calm. It makes you invest in the central character and it’s this emotional connection that makes you feel that it doesn’t matter that the film runs about ten minutes longer than it needs to. Those who watched the film at MFF last year will be happy to know the theatrical cut trims the opening segments into a lighter, more effective, finished product.
Shahid is not a flawless movie and Mehta takes a few too many shortcuts in the process of telling Shahid Azmi’s life story. But there's some real angst powering Azmi’s story and it's tough to not admire a guy who went through what Azmi did and sought to act against daunting obstacles like human ignorance and an unacceptable law. Mehta is also to be commended because he has been able to balance a most unpleasant subject matter with some well-observed sense of humour. You don’t often get such well detailed, nuanced and restrained films in India.
After LSD, Gangs of Wasseypur, Talaash, Kai Po Che and now Shahid, I'm fully convinced that Raj Kumar can do just about anything. You can complain about the physical discrepancies between Azmi and Raj Kumar or you can ignore these superficialities and appreciate an actor who has worked really hard on a role that clearly matters to him. Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub plays Shahid’s brother and is another one of those actors who always delivers a strong, committed performance, but doesn’t get any credit when the movies do well. That may change this year, thanks to his performances in Raanjhanaa and now Shahid.
Mehta has a good eye for casting, which is obvious from the supporting roles - we see good performances from the likes of Bajinder Kaur, Vipin Sharma and Shalini Vatsa (she plays the hateful prosecutor). Newcomer Prabhleen Sandhu plays Shahid’s wife and brings nuance to her character; a rare talent among actors in Bollywood.
Unlike the commercial hogwash that sloshes around movie screens every week, Shahid is a brave and ballsy film made for grown-ups who like a little intelligence in their entertainment.