Seven years, seventeen acquittals. This is the extraordinary record of slain lawyer Shahid Azmi (Raj Kumar Yadav), who had made it his life’s mission to rescue those falsely arrested in terrorist cases (mostly lower middle-class Muslim men).
His past, as we see it, is equally beguiling. Mumbai riots, 1993. In a shanty, we see Shahid and his family huddled together. Shahid goes out to inspect, and is horrified at the organized violence he sees. Deeply disturbed, he finds himself training at a terrorist camp soon after. But Shahid is sensitive enough to understand that one kind of violence need not feed another.
He runs away from the terrorist camp, but ends up in jail. When he is finally released, Shahid decides to study law. His brother (played marvelously by Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub) steps up to support. It’s a family you immediately warm up to.
And yet in one of the film’s most hard-hitting scenes, in the riot stricken area, the mother huddling the rest of the family members, doesn’t let her own son enter the door for fear of death.
Shahid does well and gets employment with a fancy law firm. Thing is, his naivete doesn’t sit well with the slimy ways of top lawyers. He cannot, for example, understand why his boss (a fab cameo by Tigmanshu Dhulia) would defend a criminal, knowing the truth fully well. In that wonderful line he describes his angst, “Poori duniya, paison ke peeche paagal ho gayi hai” (the world has gone mad after money).
So he starts his own practice, and ends up defending Muslim youth wrongfully put behind bars for alleged terrorist activities. For example, a man unknowingly lends a laptop to a terrorist and also gets detained. And Shahid takes up these cases at a very low fee, having faced a wrong implication himself.
He gains a reputation as a messiah, while others misunderstand him as a terrorist-protector (jihadiyon ka Gandhi). Threatening calls begin, and his face is blackened in open daylight.
The film then melts into a courtroom drama – one of the most engaging portions in the film. Depicting the Indian courtrooms as they really are, without the fuss and glamour (you see people walk in an out randomly), writer-director Hansal Mehta manages to add in unexpected treats of humour.
One of this writer’s favourite scenes is the one where Shahid and opposing lawyer (the wonderful Vipin Sharma) ) are arguing vociferously, realizing a little later that the judge has already left.
Dialogue is searing, heartfelt and impactful. Note the brother describing the Indian judicial system, when Shahid is released from jail – “Waqt lagta hai, par ho jaata hai.” (Justice takes time, but it does happen).
Things are kept simplistic. Shahid decides to practice on his own and can afford a comfy office right-away. The romance is sketchy. At first, Mariam (Prabhleen Sandhu, excellent) appears to be a forward-minded single mother, who can be a wonderful partner for our protagonist. But over time, the film portrays her as a shrieking, over-the-top character, veering on the heartless. And then she’s absolutely absent from the finale.
Hansal Mehta (Chhal, Woodstock Villa) makes several points through Shahid’s journey— he makes a statement against TADA ( the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act), the impossibly convoluted judicial system, and against communal chauvinism.
Co-writer and editor Apurva Asrani has a crucial role to play as he balances the various tempos needed for the hard-hitting issue-based drama, romance, and the humour interspersed.
We last saw Raj Kumar in the hit Kai Po Che! In Shahid he proves to be a consistently masterful actor. It’s very exciting to see an actor of his strength in a role that seems written for him. The supporting cast is highly competent.
The cinematography, art design, sound, do their work in the background never overshadowing the story. Except the background score, that flits between being interesting and distracting.
Shahid salutes the man who walked a unique path, almost as if he were destined. Powerful, engaging and thought-provoking, the film does full justice to the man and his extraordinary life. Watch!
Rating: Four stars