Q&A: Hansal Mehta on His New Film ‘Shahid’
By Priyanka Pereira
After a series of box office flops, director Hansal Mehta says he needed a break from film making.
But he still had stories to tell and in early 2010 after a four-year hiatus from the industry, he heard about the murder of lawyer and human rights activist Shahid Azmi in February, and says he had a sense that the tale of this short but influential life, could pull his creativity out of the rut. No one has been convicted for the murder.
“I was very mesmerised by this young lad who had taken on the system on his own. He was killed at 32, but there was so much he had achieved before that. I knew there was a story to tell there,” says Mr. Mehta.
“Shahid”, a film shot with a budget of little over 10 million rupees (US$161,920)is a biopic of Mr. Azmi’s battle with the India’s justice system, in which many of those arrested are branded as terrorists before being found guilty by a court.
The film explores his past, which included a short stint in a militant training camp in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and seven years in Delhi’s Tihar Jail on charges under India’s terror laws. He was acquitted on appeal by the Supreme Court.
The focus then moves to Mr. Azmi’s seven-year career as a lawyer, during which he secured 17 acquittals. The crux of the film rests on two of his most high-profile cases where he acted for the defense; the Mumbai train bombings on July 11, 2006, and the Nov. 11, 2008, Mumbai attacks.
The film was released in Canada last year, after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, but is set to release in India, on Oct. 18.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Mehta spoke about trying to get the film off the ground, its international success, and meeting one of the main character’s childhood friends.
The Wall Street Journal: What was the toughest thing about making this film?
Hansal Mehta: I don’t see anything as tough. When you make a film you know from the beginning that it is not child’s play. There are hurdles throughout. There are highs and lows. But if you find a subject that makes you obsessive, then you are more-or-less sorted. I have spent the last two-and-a-half years of my life on “Shahid” and I am happiest that I did so. It is a passion venture not a business venture.
WSJ: Why was the story of Shahid Azmi so important to you?
Mr. Mehta: For many years, I have been concerned about the common man’s impotence in our society. I have seen how most people have been bogged down my circumstances and this has been the underlying theme of most of my films. Shahid Azmi’s was a story that represented my concern. It was the story of his will and determination which surpassed his circumstances. And when I read about it, I knew I had found the challenge I was looking for all these years.
- Hansal Mehta
WSJ: Was researching for the film a bit of a hurdle?
Mr. Mehta: When I decided to make the film, I knew I had to research and figure out all about him which made him the person he was. During that time, I met this young writer named Sameer, who came to me with a script. I expressed my inability to make that film. But I asked him if he was willing to co-write with me another script which I was keen on doing. Sameer agreed and I immediately sent him to Shahid’s hometown to meet his family. My 19-year-old son who was then interning with Anurag Kashyap, director, producer and screen director, also accompanied him. I did not go, because I feared that seeing a filmmaker would alter the version of Shahid’s life they narrated. So the two of them stayed there and collected facts from his family and friends. When I finally went to seek permission, there was scepticism. Some of my past films did not inspire people. But soon enough they realised that my intention was honest and noble. They opened up and I spoke to them. Soon the story became an obsession.
WSJ: What about Shahid’s life inspired you the most?
Mr. Mehta: That under no circumstances did he give up his will to fight. He lived an ordinary life, with extraordinary conviction to do what he believed was right. This somehow rubbed off on me as well and I started believing in the film even more.