Larger Than Life

Director Hansal Mehta on the journey of his obstinate pipe dream called Shahid.

Published: October 18, 2013 12:35 am

It all started in February 2010 when I shifted back to Bombay (sorry Mumbai) after an extended sabbatical that was intended to shake me off my creative inertia and to give birth to many new ideas for my uncertain future as a filmmaker. The sabbatical lasted over two years and all I had achieved was a perfect Nihari recipe and some other happy culinary accidents.

In some other part of Mumbai,a young lawyer (Shahid Azmi) was killed in his office. Information on Shahid Azmi was sketchy but somehow I saw my next film in his life. Young writer Sameer Gautam Singh gave me a script that had promise but way beyond my interest at that point. I was too angry with the world,too disturbed by the prospect of my children inhabiting a deeply polarised world ridden with conflict and mistrust. Shahid’s story gave me the opportunity to not only express my concerns but also tell a story that was optimistic and hopeful beyond his sad end.

Sameer and my son,Jai (then 19 years) were given the task to investigate Shahid’s life and to collect information that would be converted into a script. They met his family,his colleagues,his friends,his neighbours,his opponents and his clients. They managed to get me transcripts and petitions of Shahid’s controversial cases. I approached Shahid’s brothers Khalid and Arif who took me to their heartbroken but strong mother for permission to convert Shahid’s life into a film. I think she sensed an honest intent and a passion for his story when she consented to allow a failed director to tell her son’s

amazing tale.

While the script was being developed there was uncertainty over its future. I did not have a producer on board and no star to play Shahid. Sunil Bohra is an old friend and I knew that he would at least listen to my idea. He asked for a five-minute narration,which I completed in three minutes. He loved the idea and called Anurag Kashyap who made his debut as a writer in my unreleased debut film Jayate. Anurag told him that he would be happy to partner in making the film as he believed that I would emerge out of my previous failures to finally make a good film.

Anurag (and then casting director Mukesh Chhabra) recommended Raj Kumar to me. Thankfully,we got along and he reposed enough faith in me to help bring Shahid alive. I recalled one of my best collaborators from self-imposed exile (and perhaps blissful existence) Apurva Asrani to edit the film. I believe that the final draft of a film’s script is written at the editing table. I needed a magician like Apu to do just that. Shahid in Arabic means witness. I wanted to shoot Shahid’s story like a witness in an unobtrusive manner,without overly underlining drama or conflict. I also wanted to use the digital medium to shoot the film with minimal light in real locations that brought out the claustrophobia of my city. The film has a natural organic energy in the way scenes are arranged and presented — only because I had actors that lived in the moment and played their parts selflessly.

Shahid has been produced at a budget of less than Rs 1 crore in multiple locations including a stint in some stunning parts of Himachal Pradesh. People called my dream to make this film an obstinate pipe dream. There were many days of despair and chaos that all of us had to endure while making the film. But we gave each other hope while carrying on with the same optimism that Shahid Azmi’s life story so aptly epitomises. For me,Shahid is the triumph of teamwork,skill,passion,honesty and immense faith.

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