The ‘unlikely’ lawyer as an unlikely hero

Shahid Azmi's life had all the twists and turns of a Bollywood film, without the usual happy ending. He might have appreciated this latest. A movie based on the lawyer and human rights activist, who had been defending a key accused in the 26/11 case when he was shot dead, is headed for the Toronto International Film Festival to be held in September.

Shahid, produced by Anurag Kashyap and Sunil Bohra, will have its world premiere at the festival's 'City to City' programme in which Mumbai is the focus this time. Love Sex aur Dhokha actor Rajkumar Yadav plays the lead role.

Director Hansal Mehta says it was the "incompleteness" of Azmi's life that attracted him. Azmi was just 32 when he was killed, but in his short life, he had seen a lot — all of which Mehta faithfully details.

When he was barely 14, Azmi was arrested for violence during the communal riots that rocked Mumbai between December 1992 and January 1993. In 1999, he was arrested under the now defunct TADA for allegedly conspiring to assassinate Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, but later acquitted.

While in Mumbai's Arthur Road Jail, he started his college education, and enrolled for a law degree after acquittal. "It was in jail where his transformation from a shy boy to a strong human rights activist began, and it is here that I find hope in Shahid's life," says Mehta.

In his brief, seven-year career as a lawyer, Azmi earned a reputation for taking on cases of Muslims charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, many of which he fought pro bono in consultation with NGOs such as Jamat-e-Ulema-e-Hind. It was while he was defending Fahim Ansari in the 26/11 attacks case that he was killed in February 2010. Earlier, Azmi had also represented accused in the 7/11 Mumbai local train blasts, the 2006 Aurangabad arms haul, the 2006 Malegaon blast and the 2005 Gateway and Zaveri Bazar blasts.

Mehta, whose last cinema outing was 2008's Woodstock Villa, admits he didn't set out trying to tell Azmi's story. The idea initially was to make a story on the larger canvas of terrorism, with Azmi as a passing reference. After a brief meeting with the lawyer in 2008, the director had an impression of him "as a guy who was in a hurry". Mehta claims Azmi even discouraged him from making a film on "hopeless guys" — a term he reportedly used for those entangled in the web of terrorism. But the shocking death of Azmi, inside his office in Kurla, made him change his mind.

However, as Mehta avers, "Azmi was not an easy guy to make a film on, and this was not an easy film to shoot". It took two years of research and a dozen drafts before Mehta was confident to roll. The director says he tried to keep the focus on Azmi's "personal story" and, despite the lawyer's death, believes his film is "a journey of hope". While the names of the other characters in his story have been changed, Mehta says anybody who has been following the news can tell who they are.

If Azmi's family was supportive, including his mother and brother, his old neighbourhood welcomed Mehta with open arms. The crew shot in Azmi's office and colony at Kurla as well as in Nagpada, where Ansari's wife Yasmin lives. Mehta says people offered them any help they could, giving him an inkling of how many lives the lawyer had touched.

"We had no permissions because in a place like Nagpada the cops have no say. When people got to know we were making a film on Shahid's life, they would go out of their way to help us and tell us, 'Shahid bhai pe bana rahe ho na? Banao, zaroor banao'. They gave us their homes to shoot in, nobody asked for money, they wanted to do this because he had stood up for these people," says Mehta.

Quiz him on the speculation around Azmi's death and Mehta says: "His death is much beyond two shooters or a bunch of henchmen. It was the inequality of our social system that killed Azmi." This is the statement he hopes to make through the film. "We operate in a system where same laws are applied differently for different people. There exists an invisible layer of segregation. It is this system that is killing people like Shahid."

Incidentally, barely two months after Azmi was killed, Fahim Ansari was acquitted in the 26/11 attacks case. The case against Azmi's killers. allegedly hired by gangster Bharat Nepali, goes on.

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