'We don't need a Narendra Modi, we need a Shahid'
Having received some rave reviews at various film festivals around the world, Hansal Mehta’s Shahid is finally releasing in India on October 18.
The film is about lawyer and human rights activist Shahid Azmi, who defended those accused, often falsely, of terrorist acts and was shot dead in 2010 for defending one of the main accused in the Mumbai terror attack of 26/11 (he was later acquitted by the Supreme Court).
The film focuses on Azmi’s seven-year career as a lawyer, during which he secured 17 acquittals.
The film also shows his training in a militant training camp in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) and his ordeals in Tihar Jail.
Mehta, who returns to directing after a five-year hiatus, says it was Azmi's touching story that prompted him to make the film on the lawyer.
“I was inspired by Shahid Azmi, who decided to take things into his own hands to change the system,” says the director.
In the conversation that follows, the director takes us through the journey of making Shahid.
Why did you want to make this film?
The film actually came out of self-introspection.
I’ve been swimming against the tide for many years but somewhere while swimming against the tide I stopped looking within. I gave up on myself.
I stopped making films just to introspect. I realised I was best at making films that address my concerns about the world.
Those concerns were about how we as common people are impotent. We do nothing, we only complain -- about potholes, traffic, or any other thing -- but we do nothing about it.
The anger was growing within me but there was no story to tell. There was an idea which I was working on which was not expressing these concerns.
But when I read about Shahid’s unfortunate killing in the papers, I realised may be this is the story that I should be telling.
Shahid Azmi’s was a story that represented my concern.
Image: Movie poster of Shahid
'I owe Shahid to my lack of success'
You have been very vocal about the fact that you were making films that you were unhappy with…
(Interrupts) I was unhappy after I made them. That is a disease many of us suffer from.
Nobody sets out to make a bad film. Everyone feels I am going to make something amazing, but in the process, you stop listening to your inner voice and you just make films because you know the craft.
What I was doing was misusing the craft. What do people think can make an interesting film? Twists and turns, great locations, dramatic scenes and you think with that you can make a film.
These are the last things you need. What you need in a film is your voice. After making Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar and Chhal I sort of began to lose my voice.
So were you too succumbing to commercial demands?
If I was succumbing to commercial demands, I would have made films with superstars too.
I was doing the same thing, only making it more commercially accessible.
I started making films with actors like Manoj Bajpayee and Kay Kay Menon at a time when nobody was doing it.
In 2000, when Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar came, I was alone. There were no multiplexes for smaller audiences.
I should have continued with my battle to make those kinds of films but I did not. I tried to make films that others make with lesser resources.
I am back now to what I was doing, the fight is back.
Do you regret making any of the films that you made in the past?
No, not at all. I feel that failure is the stepping stone to success. I owe Shahid to my lack of success.
Image: Hansal Mehta with Rajkumar and Sunil Bohra on the sets of Shahid
'When I wasn't making films, I was working with communities in rural India'
What were you doing all this while when you were not making movies?
I was working with communities in rural India. I do volunteering programmes abroad. This also helped me introspect because I was actually co-existing with our real country.
Being in the villages with the people and their hardships made my own expectations from life smaller.
I loved staying in villages. It was pretty. The air was fresher than in a city and I had a nice small kitchen and all my friends used to visit me there. I was blogging which was like the voice of my conscience.
Was Shahid a way to vent your anger?
More than anger it was concern about what we are doing, where we are going.
Here’s a story of a guy who stayed within the system and yet made such a massive impact. He was just a common man, somebody with no resources, the least of means, yet was determined to make a change, rise above his circumstances without any economic benefit.
I think we need many more Shahids in our world.
We don’t need Narendra Modis or Manmohan Singhs. We need Shahids if there has to be a change.
Image: Rajkumar in Shahid
'Film festivals are for a director's personal pride'
How has Shahid’s family reacted to the film?
Shahid’s family has been very supportive. They helped me through the research. His mother was very helpful.
His older brother Arif is very hesitant about watching the film as he was very close to Shahid. The younger brother watched it and he really felt that Shahid was back with all of them.
Is your film a mere re-enactment of the real life story or does it convey a point?
It’s not preachy. It tells you a story and it wants you to take back his story and life and think for yourself and let that life affect you.
The moment the film starts teaching you, starts giving you bombastic pieces of dialogue, I fail as a director, writer and author because then I think I am spoon-feeding you.
The film has travelled to film festivals and I have received tremendous appreciation from the audience.
Do you festivals are more important now than they were earlier?
Film festivals are for a director’s personal pride. You feel very satisfied that you are invited somewhere. You are honoured and treated with respect.
They appreciate good films and if your film is bad they tear you apart. It’s a great leveller.
I think we do it more for ourselves. Except The Lunchbox, which succeeded in a tie-up with Sony Pictures Classics, no film has really earned revenue out of festivals.
Image: Rajkumar in Shahid
'I was under pressure to cast a big star for Shahid'
You faced a lot of financial issues while making the film.
That is my fault. My immediate past did not inspire confidence in producers.
I am not blaming anyone. Producers aren’t doing charity. At the end of the day they also want to earn profits.
Anurag (Kashyap) and Sunil (Bohra) who produced the film, trusted me blindly.
You were initially reluctant to cast Rajkumar in the film.
I had seen him in Love Sex Aur Dhoka (LSD). I had not seen any of his other work. I did not remember his performance in LSD but this in a way turned out to be positive.
Anurag had just finished shooting with him for Gangs Of Wasseypur and told me how brilliant Rajkumar was.
I was also hesitant because the finance was also not in place. At the back of my mind I was thinking if I said yes to Rajkumar was I asking my producers to say no to me as I was casting a new face again.
I was under pressure to cast a big star. Later, Sunil and I went to see Ragini MMS and Sunil just loved him in the film.
Mukesh Chhabra (the casting director) pushed me to meet him. Finally, when I met him and spoke for half an hour, I knew I had got my Shahid.
You have shown Shahid going through jihadi terrorist training. Did you tone down certain sequences to get past the censors?
No I didn’t. I had faith in the censors. Our censors are very mature. Except for the smoking ticker which I find very atrocious (laughs).
It’s a terrible example, but a film like Grand Masti is a glowing example. The censors want the audience to decide what they want to see.
My film was passed by the censors without a single cut. They were very liberal. The promos created a little problem as there was some objection to some dialogues in the film.
I was very angry at the time. But I realised that it wasn’t the censors’ fault; the fault is with the audience. The censor board fears that the audience will react and create a tamasha because of certain dialogues in the film.
The problem is that people jump to conclusions even before they see the film.
Image: Rajkumar in Shahid
'I often felt that the film would never get made'
Do you think you would have got such a big release for the film had it not been presented by UTV?
Yes. I was confident about my film because I knew I had completed my journey of making the film.
During the shooting I often felt that the film would never get made. After the film was completed we didn’t know what to do with it.
It was a pure accident that Anurag met Cameroon Bailey (director of the Toronto International Film Festival) and showed him the DVD of the film. It got selected for the Toronto festival.
I never thought that the film would be shown at film festivals. I am glad that big studios are starting to help indie films to get a wider release.
How much are you in favour of a superstar endorsing a film? In your case Aamir Khan has supported the film.
Anything that helps a film is worth it. If Kiran (Rao) had not presented Ship Of Theseus, I don’t think so many people would have been able to see the film.
It’s really good that the industry is supporting something that they believe in. If Karan Johar hadn’t come forward with The Lunchbox, the film would have languished, been showcased at film festivals and would have had an apologetic release with just two shows a day.
But I still feel we have a long way to go. Helping just five films a year is not enough.
Image: Prabhleen Sandhu and Rajkumar in Shahid