Storytelling is no simple business — especially when it comes to cinema. Even without wanting to take sides, the storyteller often ends up being accused of favouring one version of events.
This is precisely what makes cinema so complicated — despite the apparent simplicity of cinematic beauty.
Of all the films that I have seen in recent months, none have moved me like Shahid. The film’s cast includes Raj Kumar Yadav who, deservedly, landed a national award for Best Actor. Yadav plays Shahid Azmi — the late Indian lawyer who was gunned down in Mumbai during the tense days of the trial of his client Faheem Khan, an accused in the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai.
For many, Azmi was not just a criminal defence attorney but also a human rights champion. He spoke up for those accused who are often condemned by the media and the general public even before trials begin. He represented the unpopular and the notorious —his clientele included multiple individuals accused of terror attacks.
Throughout his life, Azmi reminded the world of the importance of that word ‘accused’. And through his character the film reminds us that as much as we feel angry about terror attacks and feel the need for ‘speedy’ procedures to punish those responsible, the discussion between ‘accused’ and ‘perpetrator’ should never be forgotten.
India, in the past as well as currently, has experimented with laws to counter terrorism and punish those responsible for it. Of course, as a democracy, it needs to act against this menace. But this experiment has caused enormous miscarriages of justice in individual cases. And it goes to India’s credit as a society that a film such as Shahid can still be celebrated.
Here, at home, Pakistan is experimenting with laws to respond to the internal threat of terrorism too. This film is a poignant reminder of the enormously important choices involved.
Fighting terrorism is the duty of the state but there is another side of the story too. A story we often choose not to see or think about. Since we consider ourselves and our fellow citizens the victims of terrorism by non-state actors, we do not question enough the violations of rights that a state can commit when it sets out to ‘protect’ its citizens. Certain elements in this must remain non-negotiable, the equality of arms between the defence and the prosecution as well as the presumption of innocence.
Prosecuting those accused of terrorism is only part of the story however. The discourse is broader than that. What is the proper balance in this discourse? At what point do we stop being human rights activists and are seen an unpatriotic? At what point do people start saying that those who speak of presumption of innocence of the unpopular accused are actually doing this for ‘attention’ rather than out of any conviction?
I am not a criminal lawyer but what I can say unequivocally is that representing the accused in cases where your client has already been condemned by the media and public can never be an easy task. To do so, time and time again requires not just strength of character but also a conviction. Azmi, looking from one angle, carried this conviction. In a profession where many people will cross ethical and professional boundaries to rake in work, standing by one’s convictions is no small feat.
Yet there will be those who will point to Azmi’s tricky past and his flirtation with radicalism. What if he spoke up for those accused of terrorism because he did it out of a religious conviction? Was he motivated by fanaticism throughout or communalism? Was law just a tool for him?
The film never answers these questions for the viewer and neither does it ask them starkly. But it beautifully portrays these issues in the way that they deserve to be portrayed: complicated stories of human experience with layers of nuance where there is no clear answer. It reminds the viewer that the listener’s biases are just as important as those of the storyteller in shaping the narrative. It reminds us that our lives and of those we judge are driven not by one major conviction — but rather by an aggregation as well as assimilation of experiences and choices, not always of our making.
Does it matter then why Azmi spoke up for human rights? Should we focus on the end result or the motivations of people? There are and will be no clear answers to this — except for the absolutists and there is no shortage of those. Personally, I find that sad. But thankfully that does not shape the world — only my limited existence.
Shahid is imbued with beauty and brilliance when it comes to portraying the politics surrounding the issue of terrorism. Is it justified to question a lawyer because he will focus on the ‘accused’ in one context and not other? If he defended those accused of terrorism, should Shahid Azmi be burdened with the responsibility of those accused of domestic violence, rape or murder in general? The professional discourse about these issues is complicated and the spin added by the media even more so. The movie vividly portrays through courtroom drama the impact that this can have on the lives of individuals as well as societies.
A particularly sensitive angle to the movie is that it delves deep into the difficult choices that shape the personal lives of lawyers. We all want doctors and lawyers that will answer your text message or take your call in the middle of the night or on a public holiday. That is what makes us turn to them — they are there in our hour of need. But this takes a deep personal toll on the personal lives of such service providers. So, what is the greater duty? To the family or to ‘the cause’, if any? Or is the greatest duty of all to the client or the patient who is expecting you to come to her rescue?
There is no lack of passion in the discourse surrounding the issue of terrorism or human rights. People take sides and argue their positions with abiding conviction. But to portray a life that had experiences as complicated as Shahid Azmi’s and not take sides is quite remarkable.
It is this and much more that makes Shahid the most remarkable portrayal of a remarkable and complicated life — and reminds us of the complexity of our existence. No matter how simple it may seem.