Shahid: India's Malcolm X?

Winner of the Best Director Award at this month's New York Indian Film Festival, Hansai Mehta's Shahid covers a lot of ground. The opening, which commences with a bang, depicts the assassination of Shahid Azmi (Raj Kumar Yadav). The Muslim human-rights-activist lawyer was just 32. The year: 2010. 

The bio pic then jumps back in time to the night a younger Shahid decided to take an evening saunter only to discover his impoverished neighborhood was being attacked by Hindu mobs and his fellow Islamic neighbors were being randomly slaughtered when not set on fire along with their houses. He barely escaped.

Disillusioned with his and his family's prospects, in the July of 1993, Shahid went in for terrorist training in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, where brutal camp leaders were trying to turn a ragtag band of men into selfless martyrs: "Banish the fear of death from your heart." But for Shahid, this "martyrdom" was basically an act of suicide, which is forbidden by his religion.

So he returned home, only to be arrested for being an incendiary. The following seven years of incarceration, although dispiriting, were not ones of waste. Shahid, when not playing soccer, earned a law degree. Eventually the charges against him were dropped, and once freed and engaged in his new profession, he quickly awakened to the fact that lawyers are as corrupt as everyone else.

With his mantra being "delaying justice is denying justice," Shahid took on the cases of the poor, and after the Mumbai bombings, defended men who he was convinced were falsely accused of being murderous fanatics. His refusal to back down from such representation eventually led to his own slaughter.

The film, which apparently was made by Mehta to battle growing negative allegations against the late Shahid, includes numerous fictionalized moments. One taken from Mehta's own life has the hero walking down a street when a group of gents attack him and cover his face with black shoe polish.

Then there are the romantic moments that are a bit hard to countenance. Shahid falls for one of his lovely clients, Mariam (Prabhleen Sandhu). The wooing process includes walking through plazas hand in hand scattering pigeons...and walking hand in hand along sandy beaches to a romantic soundtrack.

Endearments aside, what's a bid odd here is that Shahid, the unflinching defender of the defenseless, is depicted as so afraid of his mother, it takes him months to tell her he has already married Mariam, a divorcee with a child. Then on the first uncomfortable meeting between mom and wife, he forces Mariam to wear a burka against her will.

Pushing aside some ungainly aspects, here is a timely effort that shines a light on the United States' own relationship with the inhabitants of Guantanamo and even the recent Boston bombings. What rules of justice will society circumvent when confronted by terrorist acts? And does it matter that a few innocents get mowed down if further mass killings and injuries can be thought to prevented? 

Solidly acted by all, Shahid would no doubt have benefitted from a more documentary feel, yet a review published in The Indian Express has no qualms about the film or its power: "[Shahid] is much more than a compelling biopic. It is an explosive expose of the deep-rooted, pervasive anti-Muslim prejudices of the Indian state." Here, clearly, the content elevates the proceedings. - Brandon Judell

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Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theatre" and "Gay and Lesbian Identity in Literature" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice,indieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate,and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.

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