Shahid: Hansal Mehta’s sensitive and gripping account of a real-life rebel

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Shahid is based on the life of a controversial Indian human rights lawyer named Shahid Azmi, who was gunned down by unknown assailants in his office on 11 February 2010. He was only 32. The film begins with his assassination and goes back to 1993 during the Bombay riots where we see him as a misguided 14-yr old youth who ends up joining a militant camp in Kashmir after becoming deeply disturbed by the riots and its shocking aftermath. He runs away from there after witnessing a beheading and ends up back in Bombay with his family, which consists of his mother and two brothers.

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No sooner had he returned home than he is arrested by the police, who falsely accuse him of taking part in a conspiracy to assassinate some political leaders in the country. He is subjected to extreme torture and humiliation and is later forced to admit the crime, after which he spends seven years in India’s famed Tihar jail. There he is saved from brainwashing by an inmate named War Saab (a superb KK Menon). War becomes his mentor and encourages him to study and earn a degree. Their heartwarming and fun interactions remind one of Robert De Niro’s A Bronx Tale. Once Shahid gets out, he makes up his mind to become a lawyer.

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Disenchanted with the experience of working under a senior lawyer named Maqbool Memom (Tigmanshu Dhulia being great as always), he quits and starts his own practice. He spends the remainder of his life fighting for innocent Muslims who were imprisoned under false charges. He takes on many cases and wins them all. 17 acquittals in 7 years – that’s his record. However, with every new victory comes the ever-increasing threat to his life. To make matters worse, he gets married to a divorcee named Mariam (played by Prabhleen Sandhu), who has a child from the previous marriage. Mariam, a woman who once used to support his decisions,  is now asking him to drop these cases.

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Shahid fought strongly for men who had been put through the same nightmarish process that he was put through in the past. The film makes strong statements on India’s judicial system, media and the close-minded attitude of some of the people. Mehta’s direction has an almost Paul Greengrass-style level of urgency. Every actor is in top form here, especially Rao and Sandhu. Rao is very convincing as the firebrand litigator. The courtroom scenes are superbly staged. In the middle of one trial, the prosecutor brings up Shahid’s past and he gives him a piece of her mind.  Rao can play vulnerable, scared, angry, determined and awkward (loved the scene where he asks Mariam if she is married) with equal finesse. It’s his performance that mostly drives the film.

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