“By subjecting me to injustice, the Lord taught me the importance of fairness. By throwing pain, humiliation, and torture my way, he taught me to be strong.” It is with these words, spoken in a voice-over by the film’s protagonist, that director Hansal Mehta’s Shahid opens. Easily one of the strongest films you’ll see this year, it’s based on the true story of controversial human rights lawyer Shahid Azmi, who was gunned down in cold blood in 2010, presumably for defending a 26/11 accused, who, as it turns out, was acquitted last year.

Mehta cuts a sympathetic portrait of Shahid (Rajkumar Yadav), who we first meet as a young boy scarred by the barbaric violence he witnesses during the communal riots of Mumbai in 1993. The devastating impact of those events prompts him to join a terrorist training camp in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. But in a terrific scene that illustrates the actor’s ability to convey volumes without the crutch of words, he changes his mind and heads back home, only to be picked up and thrown into Tihar Jail where the cops try to beat a confession out of him for his suspected links to terrorist outfits.
 
 
These charges, never proved, are dropped subsequently. But our protagonist really comes into his own (much like the film itself does) when he acquires a law degree and becomes determined to help other innocent people like himself who’re labeled terror suspects without sufficient evidence to support that claim.
 
For seven years Shahid Azmi fought the cases of men and women who he believed were wrongly accused and imprisoned under terrorism charges, securing as many as 17 acquittals in all. Mehta’s film is not only a story of courage and conviction, but one that questions the hypocrisy of our legal system, and urges us to confront our own prejudices. In a scene that stings with honesty, Shahid asks a packed courtroom if an accused by the name of Matthew, Donald, Suresh, or More, would be singled out and subjected to the same injustice as his client Zaheer, who has remained in jail for a year-and-a-half although no evidence could be gathered against him.
 
If there are problems with the film, it is the questions that Mehta and his co-writers leave unanswered in their rush to beatify their subject. Details about Shahid Azmi’s time and his exact role in Kashmir are hazy. And the filmmaker appears reluctant to go into the subject of who killed Shahid. To be fair, these issues are fast forgotten in an otherwise powerful, moving film.
 
Mehta succeeds in giving us a fascinating hero, and constructs an engaging film around him. Occasionally, in scenes between Shahid, his brothers and his domineering mother, the director even gives us moments of unexpected humor. A big reason the film never feels contrived is its remarkable cast and their pitch-perfect performances. Particularly worthy of mention: Prabhleen Sandhu as Shahid’s wife Mariam, who brings depth and real feeling. Also, Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub (last seen playing Dhanush’s friend in Raanjhanaa), wonderful as Shahid’s trusted sibling Khalid. Expectedly it’s Rajkumar Yadav who provides the soul of this fearless film. Relying on minimalist instinctive acting over loud theatrics, he delivers his second winning performance this year after Kai Po Che.
 
The film itself is brave and unflinching, and oozes the kind of sincerity that you long for in most Hindi films. I’m going with four out of five for Hansal Mehta’s Shahid. Well made, and gripping till the very end.
 

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