Shahid follows the final 17 years of its title character’s life. Beginning with a scene depicting his inevitable murder, we are then taken back to 1993, where Shahid (Raj Kumar Yadav) has a horrific encounter during the Hindu-Muslim riots. This experience pushes him to join a jihadi terrorist camp, where he is equally alienated witnessing the beheading of a turncoat. Making his way back home, he is then jailed - without evidence - on account of being a terrorist. Released from prison, he makes it his goal to defend the defenceless accused of acts of terrorism against the state..
It may seem that the majority of the film has been spelt out above, and you may be correct. But this is where the film’s main weakness lies. The structure of Shahid feels more akin to a novel, than a film, with different chapters reflecting different parts of Shahid’s life. Though the end of each chapter pushes Shahid closer to the upright defence lawyer he is destined to be, there is no ‘main’ plotline that the film focuses on. Instead, the film’s plot shifts from “Mission Kashmir” to “Maachis” to “The Shawshank Redemption” to two different John Grisham courtroom dramas. This is a fantastic list of references to have, and it has to be noted that the film is only inspired by, and never imitates the list.
What would have been better is for the writer to have not relied so heavily on a direct linear structure. If the film chose to focus on just the one legal case – the defence of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist suspect – and gave us flashbacks to the rest of Shahid’s journey to show why he cares so much for what he does, the end product could have been much tighter and more rewarding for the viewer. It is understandable that the filmmaker’s had a barrage of incredible information on the real-life Shahid that they wanted to include, but good discipline would have helped here – less means more.
The large gaps in time between the chapters in his life tend to slow down the pace, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual chapters are not interesting. There are some deep statements the writer makes on how law firms are increasingly focussed on money and it cannot be disputed that the courtroom scenes are compelling to say the least, especially when Shahid’s history catches up with him.
The acting, directing, cinematography and the sparingly used background score are top notch here, without one wheel out of place. What rings out most strongly is the pure emotion on screen, whether we see the reaction of Shahid’s mother when she sees her son for the first time from his release from jail, or the heartbreak we feel for Shahid when his ambition to make the world a better place comes to horns with his family duties. Unfortunately, the ending of the film does not work so effectively when we know exactly what Shahid’s fate holds.
Nonetheless, filmmaker Hansal Mehta should be heavily applauded for bringing such an important message to our screens. The real activist lawyer Shahid Aziz, on whose life the film is based, fought for justice and for the mistaken imprisonment of innocent Muslims jailed for acts of terrorism. Those in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong name – guilty till proven innocent, often until the end of their lives. Hopefully this film will increase awareness of the flaws in the system, not only in India but all around the world.