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Screen Exclusive: In conversation with ‘Shahid’ director and on screen Shahid Azmi

Director Hansal Mehta and actor Rajkumar share interesting insights about their critically-acclaimed film 'Shahid'.

Mumbai |
October 18, 2013 3:56:50 pm

I met Shahid’s family and spent a lot of time with them to understand his character and personality. Physical appearance can be taken care of,but understanding his thought process is a different thing. I also studied the Quran.

— Rajkumar,actor

For me,Shahid Azmi is like Gandhi. In this day and age,we need people like Gandhi. We complain about our circumstances too often,but we do nothing about it. If you want to see change,become the change

— Hansal Mehta,director

After making entertaining films,what drew you to this subject about a social activist,Shahid Azim who was assassinated?

Hansal Mehta: My film journey started with a courtroom drama in 1999. Somewhere after that,I lost my way. With this film,Shahid,I have found my way back. I always keep saying; “I was born in Bombay,but I am living in Mumbai.” The city I was born in and the city that I am living in right now are completely different. The film reflects that and the reason the city has changed is because of us. I was waiting for a story to express all this and Shahid’s unfortunate death gave me a chance. With this film,I have returned to my roots.

What was the most inspiring aspect of Shahid’s life?

HM: I think it is the power of the common man. For me,Shahid Azmi is like Gandhi. In this day and age,we need people like Gandhi. We complain about our circumstances too often,but we do nothing about it. If you want to see change,become the change. Shahid took on the fight despite his economic status and disadvantaged position. It is what inspired me.

Although we know the broad outline of the film,can you,Rajkumar,discuss any specific episode from Shahid’s life which we will get to watch in the film?

Rajkumar: In the film,we have focused on only two important cases,as it won’t be possible to show all the 32 that he had fought. The film starts off with the Bombay riots of 1992. The ensuing events instigate him to become a fundamentalist. But later,he realises that this is not what he wanted to do in life. He comes back to the city and starts his life from scratch. The police wrongfully implicate him and he is sent to Tihar jail for seven years. After his release,Shahid studies law,and dedicates his life to people like him,who are wrongly implicated in criminal cases. His fight was for the defenseless,and that’s when he was shot at in his office,when he was only 32 years old.

What prompted Shahid to join the terrorist camp?

HM: It was his reaction to the 1992 Bombay bomb blasts,as he felt victimised and suffocated. He reacted to the incident like any other misguided youngster would and later,he found the right path within the system. Unfortunately,not every young boy in such a situation finds the right path.

While working on the script,did you feel that although the subject is relevant,it is also extremely sensitive?

HM: A subject like this needs to be handled sensitively,as it is not about any community or race in particular. Injustice does not affect any particular religion,it is targeted at those who cannot defend themselves. In that sense,the film is about anybody who is suffering from injustice and is looking for a savior. I see it as a film that is pro-humanity rather than sensitive.

In a country where whistle-blowers and people who are on the right side of the law are usually end up getting killed,do you think cinema works as a medium to affirm that things will turn out well in the end?

HM: My first intention was to tell the story in the best way possible,without thinking about audience reaction. You write the story and look for a producer so that all the logistic and financial issues are solved. After that,you focus on telling the story with perfection and then finally,show it to the audience,who looks at your intent and respects your effort.

As part of your research,did you meet Shahid’s family to understand his life?

HM: Initially,details about his life were very sketchy. It would have looked very insensitive,if we would have just landed at his house and informed his family that we are making a film,especially at a time when they were grieving. We waited for a few months before I sent my team to meet Shahid’s family and gather information about his life. I did not go,because I carry the baggage of being a film-maker. Besides,I also got the time to introspect about the feasibility of the idea.

Muslim youth have always been projected as being misguided. During research,did you encounter that there are more people who find the right path,once the anger has subsided?

HM: I think the progressive voice is never heard because it is subdued. It’s not just the Muslim community that I am talking about,because even the Hindu progressive voice is subdued in today’s time. They do not take a stand and that is the core of the divisive times that we live in today.

What kind of preparation did the actors have to go through for their roles?

R: I had to do a lot of research,and one of the stumbling blocks was that very little information was available on the internet. I met his family and spent a lot of time with them to understand Shahid’s character and personality. Physical appearance can be taken care of,but understanding his thought process is a different thing. To understand the religion,I studied the Quran. Later,we sat in courtrooms for hours to understand the proceedings and how lawyers behave.

Did you pick up any special traits from the lawyers? Also,which courts did you visit?

R: There are so many minute details,like how the judge announces the next date of a hearing and the lawyer quickly takes out a pen to note it down on his hand. Contrary to our notion that lawyers take turns to talk,they were seriously arguing. In fact,even the judge asks questions.

HM: The whole proceeding in a court is very chaotic,but in between all the chaos,a lot of work is done.The judge would actually pass significant orders in the middle of all this. We visited Andheri Court and Esplanade court among others. We tried to go wherever we could to observe lawyers and the scenario was the same everywhere. We clicked some clandestine photographs in the court,in order to recreate the ambiance for the courtroom scenes.

How emotionally draining was it for you as a director and an actor,working on Shahid?

R: I was emotionally drained,because the character was extremely challenging and complex. There were some scenes where I had to cry and I just couldn’t stop myself,thinking what Shahid must have gone through.

HM: One of the challenges that Rajkumar had was the fact that Shahid had a sense of humour. So while there were ups and downs in his life,he always maintained a smile through the hardships. He found time to woo a girl and eventually get married. I think that is what makes the character humane.

Where was the film shot?

HM: The film was shot all over Mumbai at real locations,especially in small pockets of areas like Pydhonie,Kurla and the slums in Govandi. The terrorist camp portions were shot in Himachal Pradesh. Nothing was recreated,except the courtroom,as one cannot shoot in a real court. The court looked eerily real and many people asked us if the court was an actual one.

R: We also shot at real locations including Shahid’s office,his house,the NGOs that he was working for among others.

Is there any particular format that you used to convey the mood of the film?

HM: It’s been shot in guerrilla style. The film was shot on all available digital formats without really worrying about which lens was available.

How did you manage to get the entire cast together?

HM: Actors who needed convincing are not in the film (laughs). I was looking for someone who could merge into the character and become Shahid. Anurag Kashyap recommended Rajkumar’s name and a few casting directors also insisted that I meet him. Once I had found Shahid,the rest of the cast fell into place. In fact,Rajkumar auditioned with all the actors,which is something I didn’t know. He went there to see how the other characters reacted to situations.

How was it working with Tigmanshu Dhulia?

R: It was great because he is a fantastic actor. In this film,he is playing one of the lawyers. We tried to make the atmosphere on the sets very light,as there were many intense scenes which were laced with a certain amount of humour. What we remember of the shoot is the amount of fun that we had. I wish we had a longer role for him.

Do you think Hindi films today are focussing on the common man as an integral character,which also means that it opens up new vistas for actors?

HM: There has always been a demand,but the supply has been scarce. If there is one bad film which is not following a formula,people dismiss the entire slate of films that fall into that category. The market always existed,but now the makers are fearless. Studios like Disney UTV are giving film-makers the kind of support that a mainstream film usually gets.

As an actor what do these kind of films offer you?

R: I am really happy that film-makers like Hansal sir,Anurag Kashyap,Dibakar Bannerjee among others are making films with unique concepts. Otherwise,all the characters will just have six packs. Stories like Shahid and Kai Po Che have real characters and not make-believe heroes. The focus is now on stories.The audience is much more receptive now. For a long time,we were living in a bubble where we felt that only a specific kind of films will work. That’s the reason why films like The Lunchbox are doing well and maybe,Shahid will also do well.

What do you want the audience to take away from this film?

HM: If the film manages to provoke a thought and generate a certain amount of discourse,then I think it will serve its purpose. Films cannot change the world,but they can provoke you to think,and I am hoping this will provoke the audience to think about themselves.

Has Shahid’s family seen the film?

HM: His younger brother was very moved after he saw the film and messaged me – ‘ you have kept my brother alive’,and mentioned that the film is 95 per cent accurate. We had never met Shahid,nor did we know what had happened behind closed doors.

Shades of Shahid

Hansal Mehta mentioned that during the shoot,Rajkumar got into the skin of the character. After completing the shoot,he texted Mehta to inform that he was missing Shahid.

Tigmanshu touch

Hansal confessed that both he and Disney UTV put their foot down and told Tigmanshu Dhulia that come what may,he had to make it for the shoot . He also mentioned that Dhulia’s character in the film will have the audience in splits.

Walk down memory lane

On his arrival,Rajkumar mentioned that he was happy to be back at the Screen office and noticed that the arrangements were as amazing as the last time he was there when he had come for Kai Po Che earlier this year

Transcribed by Priya Adivarekar

edited by Farida Khanzada

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