Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
Hansal Mehta’s somber “Shahid” (2013) does the excellent job of steering us through familiar terrain with a story we have not seen, but need to. This Indian biopic chronicles the life of Shahid Azmi, the human rights attorney recently gunned down by militants. It packs an emotional punch from its opening scenes, taking us through the untold story of incarcerated suspects in India’s War on Terror, positioning their narrative alongside the rise of a right wing Hindu militancy that sparked riots in the early 1990s, the election of one head of state a few years later, and another this past year. It holds no sympathies for fundamentalisms (Muslim or Hindu) or secular nationalisms (Indian). Rather, it directs our compassion toward the helpless individuals who get caught in the legal crossfire. This film’s message is very relevant: when a people position themselves as victims, even the most civilized can justify horrific behavior, but the true victims are those bystanders they trample upon.
As Azmi walks out of his mother’s apartment in January 1993, he walks into a violent mob. One month earlier, in Ayodhya, India, Hindu militants overturned a mosque, alleging that five hundred years prior, it was originally a Hindu Temple. While sentiments were already boiling prior to this film’s story, Hindu-Muslim strain brewed in many South Asian sectors, fueled through debate on propriety over the State of Kashmir, itself a proxy battle between India and Pakistan, further inflamed by various influential preachers. The overturning of that mosque and opening (or re-opening) of a temple was the trigger for unrest in various urban pockets.
Two very popular films, Ratnam’s musical “Bombay” (1995) and Boyle’s quirky “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) also start with these events. The former hopes that love conquers all, especially bad religion. The latter suggests that destiny drives the world. This film has its own explorations of love, romantic and familial, and those poignant passages please us, for the Indians are masters of depicting tender, vulnerable romance and family.
Despite the sentimental pauses, the movie asserts that fundamentalism breeds counter-fundamentalism. Ideology breeds counter-ideology. When the countering ideologies clash, the result is blood. Juxtaposing the events in the story, we see the terrorism in 2008 against Mumbai sites as part of a cycle of violence going back at least to the events of the early 1990s, which themselves blame previous empires. In the process, many innocents get suspected and persecuted.
Azmi makes his way to Kashmir, to join Muslims in training to fight the Indian military. During a moment of brutality or brutal justice—the film does not clarify—he runs away, back home. He gets arrested and tortured. While in prison he almost re-enlists in militancy on behalf of Muslims against Indian oppression. Then, he is challenged by other prisoners—Muslim and Hindu—to improve himself, fight oppression through non-violence, through intellect, from within the system. And that changes his life.
We have seen the formula before. The film starts with his assassination, then takes us back through the past, where he starts as a nobody, and dies as a hero for nobodies. We go through his life, through his transformations, his highs and lows, developing feelings for him, before reaching his end. This film has the taste of a gritty, low budget “Gandhi” (1992). While we do watch requisite career struggles and learning moments, most of the film takes unexpected turns. It is a story of a young man fighting the world, petitioning against the machines of government. As the quiet story of a man who cannot help being the man he is, mentored by guides good and bad, the movie has both the sense and feel of an unlikely parallel: Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” (2007). Here, the wilderness is full not of trees and bears, but of lawyers, bigots, mobsters, hooligans, and terrorists.
Mehta’s work is a pleasant surprise. I did not know of Shahid Azmi, but found his story very inspiring, especially today as suspects languish in Guantanamo and other Black sites (what to think of how many Black sites there are in India), all across the world because of our wars. He directs the narrative through a series of vignettes, alternating between his changes, his family moments, expected romance with a client, his cases, and the threats against him. This film is a biopic, an exploration into families, an Indian romance, a courtroom drama, and a tale of heroism. The lack of polish at first seems like a film school weakness, but grows into a well-crafted asset, especially in his deliberate fades to black. Rajkummar Rao carries the cast of great performances with his boyish face and determination.
As I type this essay, the internet tells me that the case against Azmi’s killers remains open. On a side note, excavators revealed a decade later that the Hindu Temple itself was standing on the site of Buddhist Temple. Perhaps we would find something else beneath the Buddhist Temple. Considering that the Aya Sofia in Istanbul went from being a Pagan Roman Temple, to a Church, to a Mosque, to a Museum, I wonder what the future is for that Temple. I wonder how many more Shahids there are, to protect those fallen amidst the destruction.