Making its US debut April 13th at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, Shahid is a fairly straight forward biographical film directed by Hansal Mehta about a man who probably isn’t a household name here in the West, but whose remarkable life has something to say to all of us.
Shahid Azmi grew up in a Muslim family in a poor suburb of Mumbai. At age 14 he was caught up in the 1992 riots pitting Muslims against Hindus. He fled to Kashmir where he trained briefly at a camp for Muslim militants, but he ultimately rejected their violent ways and returned home only to be arrested as part of a conspiracy to commit political assassination. He was eventually acquitted but not before spending 7 years in a Mumbai jail. While there he earned a college degree and upon his release pursued and received a law degree. Dissatisfied with the work he wound up doing for a Mumbai lawyer, Azmi struck out on his own doing pro bono legal work and eventually making a name for himself defending Muslims wrongly accused of terrorist acts. While defending a man accused in the November 26, 2008 Mumbai hotel attacks, Azmi was assassinated in his office.
The film begins with Azmi’s murder then backtracks to fill in his story. There isn’t a lot of context given for the things that happen on screen, but I assume they’re well understood by Indian audiences and a quick Google search tells you all you need to know. What makes his story interesting besides its tragic end is how he fits right into the middle of the worldwide conflict we refer to here as the War on Terror. Azmi rejected the acts of violence but at the same time he fought tirelessly within the system to end the oppression and injustice that so often breeds that violence.
He’s played from 14 until his death by Bollywood actor Raj Kumar Yadav who infuses Shahid with a somewhat naïve gentleness and openness mixed with a great determination. He’s an unlikely hero, but a very compelling one. At the same time Azmi at times comes across as a little bit too good. The story might’ve benefited some from a more even-handed approach to the character that allowed some of his human flaws to show. It’s possible he didn’t have any, but that too would be a fact worth commenting on. As it is, it’s tempting to suspect the filmmakers were a little too caught up with their subject.
Then again, Shahid never makes a case for being a warts and all type biography and I’m making a minor quibble. In fact, take away the biographical true story and Shahid plays just as well as a straight courtroom drama. Watching an intelligent young man working relentlessly within the broken system that once burned him in order to fix that system is both entertaining and inspiring.
The 11th Annual Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles opens tomorrow night at the Arclight in Hollywood with the West Coast premiere of Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur and it closes April 14th with the Los Angeles premiere of Deepa Mehta’s adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s widely acclaimed novel Midnight’s Children.
Stay tuned also for my review of the documentary Mohammed to Maya which plays the festival Wednesday evening.