Films based on real-life personalities seem to be the flavour of the season. The latest to the addition is Hansal Mehta’s Shahid, which follows the life of the slain human rights activist-lawyer Shahid Azmi. After travelling with the film to the festival circuits around the world, the director and actor Raj Kumar - who plays the eponymous role - settled down for a chat at the MiD DAY office to talk about what drove them to take up the project...
What’s your take on the so-called ‘film festival movies’?
HM: I always say that general public - not Martians - attends film festivals. They might be smaller in number but they are hungry for a certain kind of cinema. Today, even films meant for festivals are packaged wisely. However, this change happened six years ago when Dibakar Banerjee entered the scene with his Khosla Ka Ghosla.
When exactly did the idea of making a biopic occur to you?
HM: (Pauses) I think the very morning I read it in the papers that Shahid Azmi has been shot dead. Although I was always intrigued by his story, that incident provided the trigger. The truth is that we live in a very divisive era and there is so mistrust. It could emerge from anything from following a different religion or hailing from a different region. Today, if I don’t have a right-wing leaning and if there is a person who does, he’ll stop trusting me. That’s how bad things are now. As a filmmaker, it’s my responsibility to document the times I live and in Shahid I found that contrast between being born in Bombay and living in Mumbai. The latter disturbs me while the former is nostalgic.
In all probability, don’t you think Shahid Azmi was a controversial figure?
HM: Yes, of course. The very tagline of our film says that. But then, we live in controversial times. So the idea was go beyond this layer of controversy and dig into what is publicly unknown yet. We wanted to delve into him because there’s no doubt that he led a remarkable life - the things he did despite his chequered past. He could have ended up as a fundamentalist but ironically enough, he was the guardian of law protecting those who had no one to turn to. Our society lacks real heroes like him.
The film emphasises a lot on the wrongful incarceration of citizens. So does the messenger turn into the message given the protagonist’s own troubled past?
HM: In a way, yes, because Shahid himself was arrested for no mistake of his own. Any other person who went through what he did would have turned into an anti-social being. Speaking of incarceration, the home minister recently made a statement that there are several Muslim youth targetted and put into prisons without proper legal procedures. I found that statement ridiculous. Innocent people - irrespective of their religion - go through this humiliation just because they don’t have the means to defend themselves.
How has Shahid’s family reacted to the film? Have they seen it yet?
HM: Khalid (Azmi), the younger brother, has seen it. Their mother is not willing to watch it yet. Even the elder brother, Arif, told me he doesn’t have the courage to see Shahid’s life in a movie.
What was the greatest challenge you faced while playing this part?
RK: I think it was more of a responsibility than challenge. We’re talking about a real person here. I met his family several times to get an idea about the person I’m playing. They were kind enough to share whatever they knew about him. He led a rather short but interesting life and there was no video footage of him available to allow me an idea of how he really was.
And you're playing a lawyer for the first time in your career...
RK: Actually, I visited a courtroom for the first time, thanks to this film. I didn't have a clue how it looked like in the real world. Turns out the courtrooms they show in movies are very filmy.
Is there any plan to collaborate with Hansal again in the near future?
RK: There are plans with the capital S (smiles).
HM: Nowadays, there are two actors with whom I share whatever I write. One is Manoj Bajpayee and other is Raj Kumar.