Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Heroism on an intimate scale – about Hansal Mehta’s Shahid

“Mr Shahid, you have to let it go,” a judge tells Shahid Azmi (Rajkumar Yadav) in the new biopic about the lawyer and human rights activist who was murdered in 2010. Other people say much the same thing over the course of this film, but “letting go” doesn't come easily to Shahid. He might – in an attempt to break the ice with a new client – crack a lame joke about lawyers’ ethical codes, but he is dead serious about his work and goes about it with quiet, unshowy determination.

As Shahid shows us, though, it wasn’t always that way – this is a story about personal growth, about finding your place in the world. When we first see Azmi in Hansal Mehta’s film, his face is a blur, then his features come slowly into focus. The shot anticipates a narrative arc where a confused young man will grow in stature and confidence, his personality becoming more sharply defined as time passes. If you watch the early scenes in Shahid without knowing much about the real Shahid Azmi’s life, you might be unsure what he’s about, what his motivations and impulses are, what he is going to do next (and he is probably just as uncertain himself at this point, vacillating between the company of a militant and an intellectual activist during a prison stint). But by the end, he has become an unlikely hero.

Actually, “hero”, with its many filmi connotations, might seem an inappropriate word given the type of film this is. Shahid is subdued and un-dramatic, which is strange since one of its very first scenes (set during the 1992-93 Bombay riots) has the young Shahid recoiling in shock as a burning man lurches towards him. This is followed by vignettes from Shahid’s early life: his brief time in a militant training camp in Kashmir, his efforts to educate himself and transcend the disadvantages of a poor background, his seven years in jail after a stage-managed arrest under TADA. When he is released, he sets about working for voiceless innocents who might find themselves in similar situations: lower-class Muslims who are being railroaded because they are soft targets.

This is not material that lends itself to understated treatment, especially in our communally fervid times. Yet Shahid somehow manages not to be an overtly political film, full of large, bird’s-eye-view narratives about discrimination and injustice. Apart from a couple of short monologues – delivered without flourish – it isn’t much concerned with the sweeping historical view of things. Instead, like its protagonist, it stays in the here and now: it makes its points by operating at ground level, showing the daily functioning of the judiciary, the lack of transparency in the workings of bodies that all of us depend on - in the process suggesting how systemic flaws and prejudice can spread across levels (starting with foul-mouthed, inadequately sensitised policemen), how well-intentioned people can become cogs, and how underprivileged people can find the cards stacked against them.

This ground-level view is reflected in the film’s form, which is more that of the handheld-camera docu-drama than of a dramatic feature. The shots of Azmi in court, bickering with prosecution lawyers and judges, have the spare, naturalistic feel of Cinéma vérité. What we see here is not the grand courtroom of mainstream Hindi film and drama – the stylised, allegorical place where injustice and justice are meted out in turn, where lies and truth are in timeless conflict – but a much more mundane setting, and the lawyers are not suave show-offs but hassled, sweat-soaked people, speaking legalese almost mechanically, worn out from going through the same routine day after day. Of course, important things ARE happening here, life-changing decisions are being made, but the image of the court as a theatre – or a purgatory for souls whose fate lies in Justice’s scales – is thoroughly de-glamorized. Even the dubious witnesses (such as the man who claims to have seen something important during a holiday in Nepal, and recites key-words like “momos”, but can’t remember other basic details about his trip) aren’t smug or slimy character types invested in ruining innocent lives; they are nervous people who may have reasons for doing what they are doing. (Perhaps they believe the people they are fingering are definitely guilty, and the law simply needs their help to get a conviction.)

And amidst this bedlam, here is Shahid Azmi doing whatever he can do, fighting the good fight not as a superhero crusader but as an ordinary, flesh-and-blood man who can’t always look his wife in the eye when she asks him, what about your responsibilities to your family? This is heroism on an intimate, prosaic meter. Even when a prosecution lawyer makes an insinuation about Azmi having served time in jail and been in Kashmir with militants, Shahid’s reaction is a poignant mix of outrage and defensiveness (“I was never a terrorist OR a radical,” he says). There are no hyper-dramatic speeches, no grandstanding, and this is why Rajkumar Yadav (who is consistently excellent in unglamorous parts, and even more unlikely than Nawazuddin Siddiqui to develop actorly tics or become associated with a particular character type) is perfect for this sort of film. It is a cliché to say of a good performance that you forget about the actor and only register the character (and it isn’t a cliché I think much of, because I usually manage to appreciate great acting while being perfectly aware that it IS acting), but Yadav comes very close to that ideal here.

The other performances – such as by Vipin Sharma as a prosecuting lawyer and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub as Shahid's brother Arif – are very good too, bringing integrity to scenes that might otherwise have become trite. And while the emphasis on verisimilitude (right down to shooting some scenes in the real Shahid Azmi’s office) works well, there are also some effective dramatic touches, such as a scene where Shahid and his wife Mariam (Prabhleen Sandhu) argue near the kitchen, she brushes her hand in frustration against some of the utensils, and the resultant clattering of a steel lid continues for a good 10 or 15 seconds on the soundtrack, a tinny accompaniment to their continuing conversation.

I liked the economy of the storytelling too: everything isn’t spelled out, the viewer is allowed to fill in the gaps, make leaps and connections. In the early scenes particularly, we get snapshots from Shahid’s life – appropriate perhaps for a story about a man whose life was cut short much too soon, who never got a chance to realise his full potential or do everything he wanted to do. There are small parts here – cameos, really – for Kay Kay Menon and Tigmanshu Dhulia as people Shahid meets on the course of his journey from naif to potential jihadi to believing that you can only change the system by being part of it. Watching the film, I kept getting the impression that a longer (more flabby, more didactic) cut exists; that (for example) Menon and Dhulia may have had larger roles, and that the director and editor showed discernment in paring the film down to its current length. In one scene, Shahid proposes to Mariam – who is his client at the time, and a divorcee – and she seems outraged and walks out on him; but then there is an immediate cut to them exiting a courthouse together after their low-key wedding. Apart from leaving out details that aren’t relevant to the film’s immediate purpose, this sudden cut is a reminder of Shahid’s persistence, and it also lets us conjecture what may have happened: perhaps Mariam – because of the conservative assumptions of the milieu she grew up in –was so taken aback by Shahid’s proposal that she simply didn’t know how to respond, and took some time to come around.

In any case, the world of the lower-class Indian Muslim – under-educated, vulnerable to fear and paranoia, exploited by politicians as well as religious heads – is very much in the background of this film, even though the script doesn’t emphasise it. We never forget the social milieu Shahid hails from, and there are glimpses of cultural conflicts and inner turmoil, as in the scene where he takes his wife to meet his family for the first time and she is appalled that he is asking her to do something she has never done, to wear a burkha (“just this once, never again” he pleads, but in the desperation he shows, one can see where the “just this once” might lead in the future). Scenes like this make Shahid’s personal growth and self-actualisation even more creditable, because we are reminded of the many things he had to overcome, the many small battles he had to win. This isn’t a man to whom heroism comes naturally, he has to grow into it. And by the end, this intense, low-key film has us believing in him.


  1. Rajkumar Yadav was brilliant in Kai Po Che. In other movies he was probably too good to register his presence. I wonder, if this is a factor of a personality trait along with acting technique - sometimes an actor may develop "actorly tics" because he is narcissistic?

  2. Rahul: narcissism in some cases, yes. But I'm also a believer in intangibles, such as the possibility that a certain actor might have an innate quality that strikes a chord with a particular audience, and when that actor gets cast in the "right" film at the "right" time, a star personality gets established. And such a personality, once established, becomes very difficult to erase.

    Another way of putting it is that I am sometimes sceptical of the over-the-top praise directed at actors who "immerse" themselves in a range of characters, and who never get "stereotyped". In some of those cases at least, those actors have simply never had the personality traits that create a strong vibe with a mass audience. This makes it easier for them to be chameleons, or "versatile" in the narrow sense of the word.

    It's all subjective, in any case. I always find it surprising when someone tells me that when they watch, say, Om Puri or Shabana Azmi, they think only of the character, never the actor. I envy the level of immersion those viewers can achieve, but I can never achieve it myself when it comes to an actor whose body of work and past history I am familiar with.

  3. Jai, great reply , Thanks! `
    "In some of those cases at least, those actors have simply never had the personality traits that create a strong vibe with a mass audience."
    Pavan Malhotra comes to mind, as we have talked before in this space.

    I remember an interview in which Irfan was talking about his technique. He mentioned he tried to learn method acting, read a few books, but nothing concrete came out of it. He said that he tries to engage the viewer at every instance. So, even when he is playing an understated character like in Namesake or Lunchbox, he is thinking of ways to relate to and engage the audience. Perhaps, this has resulted in greater mainstream success for him.

  4. @ Rahul, Jai - Interesting discussion this is. I remember watching Love, Sex and Dhokha and I was so impressed with acting that I didn't feel like knowing even the names of those actors who played those characters and Rajkumar Yadav was one of the actors. I agree with Jai that no matter how good Om Puri etc are, its impossible to not think of them as Om Puri. One performance on those lines by Hellen Mireen in The Queen, but again in that case, I had only seen one film of hers before watching The Queen.

  5. I agree with you in that, I can never blur the lines between an actor and the character they are playing. I can be involved, and deeply at that, but you are always conscious that you are watching a piece of work. I too envy those who can immerse themselves completely.
    On the subject of immersive 'acting', I have heard of some actors stating that they just dissolve into the character when the director says action...and supposedly they become the characters they are playing. I somehow could not agree to that, since I believe how much ever you become the character, you are always conscious that you are acting, because acting means also reacting and you are always looking for the 'cues' so to speak.
    What do you think about this?

  6. Loved Rajkumar Yadav's performance. The other great character was Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub's. I didn't get the small confrontation he has with Shahid on the latter's return (escape) from the militant camp. Is he angry about his return or his joining in the first place? Anyway, irrelevant I guess but I first thought this is a potential discouraging person to Shahid but the film had me believing otherwise.

    The courtroom scenes were a revelation. I thought the scenes with Vipin Sharma cannot be topped and then we have the 26/11 case. The humor throughout and especially in the post-argument interaction between Vipin Sharma and Yadav.

    There was always this inherent goodness about him stressed and his doubts about himself and how others perceive him, like he defensively repeats to the judge about the prosecutor in the 26/11 case, "I can sue her but I won't." "I can sue you but I won't".

    Did anyone else feel a bit giddy when Kay Kay Menon popped up on the other side of the system (a good guy but still guilty in the eye of some misguided judiciary) after his terrific Rakesh Maria in Black Friday?

  7. Last year, I had to appear in a case in Bangalore, and I was given police protection for the time that I was there because the case involved a journalist against some rowdy Bangalore lawyers, and there was every possibility of the lawyers turning against violently for representing a journalist. I remember thinking of how Shahid Azmi walked around defending people whose alleged crimes involved so much more stigma. He was a big hero for lots of us advocates, and will continue to inspire lots of us.

    Still, the fact that he was pushed to join a Mujahideen group doesn't sit well with the rest of his image. I wished this movie dealt with it in more detail. That, for me, was the most interesting part of his life. The fact that he was on the side of violence, but came back this way. That transformation is dealt with too lightly to paint a coherent picture of a character -- it was the flaw that made him real, and it seemed a little airbrushed.

  8. I have heard of some actors stating that they just dissolve into the character when the director says action...and supposedly they become the characters they are playing. I somehow could not agree to that, since I believe how much ever you become the character, you are always conscious that you are acting

    This whole talk of "immersive acting" is something that actors talk up to make themselves sound "respectable", to make acting sound like a "science" so to speak. Something as respectable and "serious" as nuclear physics or investment banking.

    It's beneath the dignity of modern actors to call themselves "showmen" or "entertainers". Those labels probably hurt their exaggerated sense of self. Hence all this talk of immersive acting to distinguish themselves from the "simpleton" showmen of earlier generations like Chaplin or Keaton. After all they have "studied" acting in schools unlike those vulgar showmen of the 20s/30s. So they ought to know acting better.

    Hitchcock got it spot on when he said actors ought to be treated like cattle. The acting fraternity needs Hitchcock-like figures to keep having their egos punctured on a regular basis.

  9. ^ investment banking is not 'serious'; the Wall Street bozos are the stupidest of the lot. Wonder who gave you the idea that investment banking is 'serious'. heh.

  10. ^ investment banking is not 'serious'; the Wall Street bozos are the stupidest of the lot. Wonder who gave you the idea that investment banking is 'serious'. heh

    Never said it's serious. I used "serious" in quotes. Was referring to how professions are perceived. Starting with the 50s, actors sought to make their profession appear high-falutin with theories like method acting. They were no longer comfortable calling themselves entertainers or showmen. It's a bit like prostitutes branding themselves as "escort" girls.