Monday, 10 April 2017

At the BFI: "Shahid"

The Anurag Kashyap revolution - nudging Indian cinema towards a consideration of trickier-than-usual subject matter - continues unabated. The shaded biopic Shahid, produced by Kashyap for writer-director Hansal Mehta, serves as a memorial for Shahid Azmi, the skilled human rights lawyer who emerged from the Mumbai slums only to be shot dead in February 2010, reportedly in retaliation for his work on behalf of those Muslims left to languish in the motherland's prison system. As incarnated by the boyish Rajkumar Rao, Azmi is presented as a figure motivated by his own early brushes with the law: he's shown being jailed midway through his studies as a result of having briefly attended a jihadist training camp. Briefly is perhaps the operative word here - it's a knotty biographical detail, skimped over during a song in the opening credits - but we do come over time to gain a sense of a man who was gentrified (rather than radicalised) by his time behind bars, learning to channel his burning sense of injustice into other, more socially beneficial activity.

If Azmi's progress through the legal ranks at first appears a touch too steady and straightforward, destiny carries him into several flashpoints in recent Indian history, not least the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai bombings: here, our hero will find that in this altogether fraught age of terror (and draconian responses to terror), simply hearing out a Muslim's story leaves one at risk of being labelled a traitor, a terrorist sympathiser or an enemy of the state. Mehta's theme is the haphazard modernisation India is undergoing in the first decades of the 21st century, a process evident as much in the form of the country's cinema as in the altogether more adult and challenging content of these films: the fresh-faced Shahid strides into the dusty, darkened, cluttered corridors of power (not unlike those navigated in the recent indie success Court), raises his voice, and - case by case - begins to make a difference, pushing back against decades, if not centuries, of hidebound prejudice.

The Kashyap influence means Mehta is allowed newish ways of showing this: immediately evocative location shooting that captures something of the push and the pull of modern India, and a properly sophisticated dramatic technique that, while allowing room for genuine dissent (as one of Shahid's fellow prisoners bluntly puts it, "this country doesn't give a shit about us"), doesn't just bash the viewer over the head with the issues under discussion. That much can be parsed from the trial sequences, conceived as credibly petty squabbles rather than the series of grandstanding speeches courtroom cinema traditionally reaches for. Much about it remains low-key, as modest as its protagonist; Shahid's romance with Mariam (Prableen Sandhu), the client who became his wife, is a neat means of marrying the personal and political, even if it leads to a few slightly rote scenes in the second half as the lawyer becomes consumed by his task. Still, Mehta finds an effective focus in Rao, an actor capable of suggesting the vulnerable human being behind the hero - a man with an increasingly heavy burden, trying to do the job that will ultimately do for him.

Shahid screens in NFT2 tomorrow at 8.30pm, and again on Sun 16 at 5.30pm.

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