Shahid (Azmi): Beyond the Film

(Mahtab Alam is a Delhi based civil rights activist and journalist. He co-edits and currently working on a book on Shahid Azmi. Email:

I am pained, the heart bleeds, when I hear what they have endured. But in spite of all that, it will never be easy for me to see an innocent being sent behind bars or to the gallows only because the crime alleged was a bomb blast. -Shahid Azmi (1977-2010)

The much awaited feature film, Shahid, directed by Hansal Mehta was released for public on Friday, 18th October. It is a biographical Hindi film based on the life and works of Mumbai based slain civil and democratic rights’ lawyer, Shahid Azmi. The film, before its public release, was premiered at various national and international film festivals including at the Toronto International Film Festival 2012 (TIFF 2012), the New York Indian Film Festival, the Chicago South Asian Film Festival, and the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI) and won many awards. Ever since it is made, it has been receiving loud applause from film critics, saying ‘it needed to have made’ and is ‘a brave, unflinching and one of the strongest films’ ever made on the issue. However, there are people who believe that, it is ‘an incomplete tale of Shahadat’ , arguing ‘Mehta brings the film to an abrupt, grinding halt’ and ‘it would be too early to hail Mehta as that beacon and voice for justice in Bollywood 2013 and elsewhere’.

To me, someone who is certainly not a film critic but love watching good films and who have eagerly followed almost every single news and event since the tragic murder of the brilliant lawyer, which foreclosed rich possibilities that lay before all of us interested in justice, the film is a must watch. Factually speaking, the film is very close to the real life of Shahid. And here, I completely agree with his younger brother, Advocate Khalid Azmi, the man who is carrying on the legacy of his brother, when he says that, ‘almost 95 percent of the film is accurate’. This is given the fact that, the official facebook page of the film clearly states, it as ‘a work of fiction based on the fascinating true story of Shahid Azmi’.

I am also saying this because I went to watch this film with much apprehensions, which were based on based on the promos and parts of the script which I had read in advance provided by Khalid Azmi during my visits to Shahid’s home in Mumbai. Contrary to my apprehensions, I found it much beyond expectations and I must confess that it is one of the few best political films I have ever watched on the issues of terrorism and militancy. One such film, which I can recall and would like to mention here was Maachis. Yes, there are problems in the film but overall it is a fantastic work. And for this wonderful job, Hansal Mehta deserves loud applause, especially for his sensibility for the matters and characters of the film.

The Film’s Narrative

The film starts with a shot of the murder of the lawyer in his office. Then it goes to a flashback, the infamous communal violence of Mumbai in early 1990s in which he along with his family got caught up, leading him to train with militants in Kashmir. But soon Shahid runs away from the training camp when he is forced to witness the beheading of a turncoat. Upon his return to Mumbai, he is arrested and brought to Delhi, where he is brutally tortured at Delhi’s infamous Delhi Police Special Cell’s office at Lodhi Road and forced to sign a ‘confession’, which results in 5 years imprisonment for no crime. While being lodged at Tihar he had to choose between siding with militants again or choosing a different path. He chooses the latter, and after the release he come home and enrolls for law school. Three years later, he quit a relatively better paid job to join as a junior under a defence lawyer on just Rs 1,200/- (in real life it was Rs. 2,000/-) a month. But soon he realizes that the law is a double-sided game. So he starts his own practice and takes on only the cases he wants. The majority of his clients constitute poor Muslim youth who have been falsely accused of terrorism. Notably, he takes on these cases which no lawyers are ready to take up, given the threat involved and the fact that most of the accused are not in a position to pay lawyer. And we are told that in a career of just 7 years, he got acquittals in 17 cases. This is a record in itself. During the trial he raises difficult questions and clearly establishes how the investing agencies are framing innocent Muslims and how the rule of law is flaunted time and again. Due to his success and acquittals, he starts receiving threat calls from unknown numbers, asking him to withdraw from these cases. But his standard reply to all of this would be Tum apna kaam karo, Mujhe apna kaam karne do (You do your work and let me do mine!). For a mainstream film to tell this story, in an climate of relentless Islamophobia on part of all Governments and state agencies, is itself an act of courage.

Beyond the Film

Now, I would like to beyond the film. In the last part of the film, we are shown that Shahid has been shot dead in his head on evening of 11th February 2010 by some ‘unidentified’ persons though in the earlier part of the film there are clear signals about who could have killed him and at whose behest. Similarly, in the last part it is also shown that after three months of Shahid’s murder, his client Faheem Ansari, an accused in Mumbai Terror Attack Case (the 26/11 case) is acquitted by a special court. The charges against Fahim were of aiding and abetting Mohammed Ajmal Kasab and other terrorists who had attacked Mumbai on November 26, 2008.

So now the first and foremost question is what has happened to the case of Shahid’s murder itself? Have the killers been brought to justice? What is the status of his murder case? More than three and half years after the brutal murder of Shahid, the case has barely moved. In this period, his assailants, alleged members of ‘nationalist’ underworld don Bharat Nepali gang, are behind bars. But the trial is yet to start. Not only that, in January 2011, the special Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act (MCOCA) court dropped the MCOCA charges against four people accused in the case, buying the defence’s argument that ‘the police failed to prove the underworld links as well the pecuniary gain in killing Azmi’. Moreover, there have been attempts to sabotage the evidences and the sole eyewitness is threatening to turn hostile.

And what happened to Fahim Ansari (and Sabauddind Ahmed, a co-accused acquitted in the case and not mentioned in the film)? The fact is that, even after the acquittal in the Mumbai Terror Attack case, they are still in jail. The reason is they are named in yet another fabricated case of attack at Rampur CRPF centre in Uttar Pradesh. Those who have studied the case files and followed the case say that it is a totally concocted case. Fahhim is at present lodged at Bareilly Jail and his wife Yasmin is finding it difficult to pursue the case. According to Yasmin, the case is proceeding very slowly and it is really difficult and unaffordable to travel from Mumbai to Bareilly time and again. The fate of Sabauddind is different. He is also a co-accused in Rampur CRPF Centre attack case. They have not even been granted bail.

There is no doubt the film is a fitting tribute to the protagonist and his real work. However, the actual homage would come on the day, when all those who are really involved in his murder are brought to justice. And similarly, those police officers involved in framing innocent Muslim youths in fabricated cases are prosecuted. We all are waiting for that day, wo subah kabhi to aayegi. Meanwhile, we have to keep fighting, as that would be our tribute to Shahid.

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