[H]ansal Mehta’s latest film Shahid, based on the life of slain human rights activist and lawyer Shahid Azmi, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Hansal, who has made films like Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!! (2000), Chhal (2002), Dus Kahaniyaan (2007) and Woodstock Villa (2008) before, speaks about his career trajectory, his inspiration to make Shahid, and his tough journey with the film:
What is Shahid about?
Shahid is based on the remarkable journey of human rights lawyer / activist Shahid Azmi. It is a very personal account of an inspiring life tragically cut short. As Cameron Bailey of TIFF describes very beautifully on the TIFF website “it marries elements of political thriller, personal biography and romantic tragedy while being a courtroom drama at its core.”
What inspired you to make a film on the life of Shahid Azmi?
I was out of the country for nearly 3 years between 1990 and 1993. When I returned home I realized that I had come back to a different city from what I had left behind. I saw mistrust, hatred and segregation in a city that had long lived in harmony. As events unfolded around me I grew increasingly disturbed by the inequality, injustice and violence that were destroying our world. Freedom had different connotations for different people. The same laws applied differently to different people. Human beings were now labels – a function of their color/caste/creed/religion.
In my initial films I tried to respond to the world around me by voicing concerns of class, helplessness and injustice (Jayate,1998 and Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar, 2000 ). After Chhal (2002) greed, desperation and bankruptcy of ideas took over. I made indifferent films. I lost my identity. My personal life went for a toss. Alcohol became important to me. I had nothing to say and my films reflected that. While my concerns were intact I had lost the will to communicate these through films. After Woodstock Villa (2008) I took a break to simply reflect, cook and rejuvenate. I was happily cocooned in my home on the outskirts of Bombay.
Shahid Azmi’s death changed my life. I realized that I was still angry. I realized that I was still disturbed. I realized that I wanted to express my anguish. This was a story that had to be told.
Tell us how you went about funding the film.
Wanting to make the film was one thing. Getting it made was another battle. No producer wanted to touch me with a barge pole. I had no access to stars. The initial journey was lonely. I was confident that I would make the film; without knowing how.
Sunil Bohra is an old friend; we used to hang out in my wasted days and he would always motivate me to make films that I believed in. He did not have the means then. I did not have the courage. When I met him with the story for Shahid, things had changed. Sunil was producing and distributing films successfully now. He asked for a short narration. I gave him a 5 minute narration and he said we were on. He spoke to Anurag (Kashyap) who felt that it was the right time to make a film with me – I was the same guy that got him to write his first film (my first too!) all over again. I was hungry, desperate in a positive way and he felt those were ingredients for a good film.
Soon our friend Shailesh Singh was also involved in the project. We tried to make it ‘feasible’ by approaching stars who we thought would help us raise money to make the film. Fortunately for me none of them worked out. Some of them felt the subject was controversial. Some of them had no confidence in me. I am thankful to all those who rejected my film. I had to rework my budget and make the film at a near impossible cost. But I was prepared to do that. It was a price I had to pay for creative freedom. All those who worked on the film sacrificed money, time and personal lives to make it possible. The cast, crew and producers are the real heroes of my film.
Tell us about the journey of making Shahid.
We had some major hurdles to overcome while getting Shahid made. The first was of course research and scripting. I met a young writer from Delhi named Sameer Gautam Singh. He roughed it out with me, tirelessly researching the subject and making innumerable changes to the screenplay. Had it not been for him, I might have given up on the film before I even took it to Sunil.
Apurva Asrani was another man in exile when I planned the film. He was living a settled life in Bangalore and I asked him to return to join my team. Apu who won awards for his work as an editor with Satya and Snip had also edited Chhal. His work on Chhal made it into a film that was less than ordinary and I had to have him back for the biggest film of my life. Apurva, besides editing the film also shaped the narrative into a seamless, linear progression for which I have credited him for screenplay along with Sameer. If the film communicates a compelling story a lot of credit for it goes to Apu.
The second major hurdle was casting. Expressing a desire to work with ‘actors’ and not stars is fine. But where do you find good, fresh and authentic looking talent? Sunil introduced me to my casting director, Mukesh Chhabra. He fought with me, argued about my choices and made the film’s characters come alive with his casting choices. Some brilliant decisions were the casting of Raj Kumar as Shahid, Prabhleen as his wife, Zeeshan as his brother and Baljinder Kaur as his mother – they looked like a family. He found Baljinder for me and what a choice she was! There are so many characters in the film and all of them look the part because of Mukesh’s stubbornness to cast right. I owe the authenticity of the film to Mukesh.
I was adamant about shooting the film at real locations. I wanted to use my camera as an observer of events, as a witness to a wonderful journey. My camera had to travel through slums, mountains, prisons, tiny homes, small offices, messy courtrooms and local trains – without looking fake or manipulative. I did not want the film to look ‘lit up’. I found an ally in Anuj Dhawan, a young cinematographer. He created a visual style without imposing lights or constraints. He covered the action while maintaining a consistent look and without limiting actors from improvising. The film used minimal lighting – mostly tube lights and LEDs (light-emitting diode). He worked with 4 different cameras, tough conditions and challenging locations without ever flinching. Anuj only said no if he felt I was compromising on my vision. Otherwise he was game for every challenge and that for me is the hallmark of a great collaborator.
Raj Kumar lived Shahid for nearly 9 months and very often scenes germinated out of his instinct. He made Shahid come alive for all of us. Raj Kumar is a remarkable talent and while he is lucky to have found a role like this so early in his life, I am fortunate that I found him. Raj Kumar and the entire ensemble rarely ‘performed’ scenes. Scenes evolved from an event, emotion or situation – the actors reacted, while my camera covered and my editor made sense of the material that we gathered!
The film was shot with a very small unit and with minimal resources. My son Jai was my chief assistant (and my only assistant), favorite punching bag and the ‘pressure’ man. He ensured the film was made on schedule, within budget and the way I wanted it made.
My sound engineer, Mandar had the unenviable task of recording sync sound at uncontrollable locations, without professional ‘lock-up’ teams and with huge amounts of improvisation by the actors. He took on the challenge and ensured that I dubbed less than 10% of the film.
I think films are made by people – passionate people. Shahid is as much about the people who made it as it is about a fascinating journey.
Have you found a distributor for the film yet?
This is something best answered by Sunil (Bohra) and Anurag (Kashyap). They have a strategy with experience to back the plan and I am going along with their belief in the film.
Your comment on current independent film making scene in India; and the attention that Indian films are getting abroad?
While some vibrant independent films are being made there is also a lot of trash that is passed off as ‘independent’. It is the same with our mainstream cinema. What is exciting is that all kinds of films are being made and getting an opportunity to reach the world. We are slowly breaking the shackles of formula and that is heartening.
The unfortunate part of making independent films is the cost of marketing and release. After spending 3-4 times the cost of production we are plagued by an audience that is neither mature nor discerning enough. They do not invest enough time or money in independent films. Without their support this movement is in danger.
International festivals and audiences on the other hand are far more receptive to a larger variety of films. Fortunately, they are noticing some of the sparkling work emerging out of India and a large amount of credit for this attention goes to Anurag Kashyap and Guneet Monga. They have championed the cause and provided a platform for alternative cinema to thrive. But there is a warning – these are early days and we should guard against getting carried away. Our films need to evolve much more in terms of content, form and business models.
Who are the filmmakers you admire?
I was making Khana Khazana and some inconsequential music countdown programs for television when I attended a film festival in Bombay. I followed a crowd of people into a hall that was showing Krystof Kieslowski’s Blue. I was totally mesmerized. I saw Red and White after that. Kieslowski changed my life. I am making films because of his trilogy.
I became a film-maker because a friend pushed me to do so. That friend was a young composer called Vishal Bhardwaj. He is one of my favorite filmmakers today. I think Dibakar Banerjee is very special and his Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye remains one of the finest portraits of Delhi I have ever seen. I admire Anurag for his courage and his passion for experiment. I loved Dev D and I think Gangs of Wasseypur epitomizes his delightfully indulgent cinema.
I also love Raju Hirani’s films – they make me believe that mainstream cinema in India is alive and admirable. Of course I deeply admire the usual suspects – Wong Kar Wai, Scorcese, Kusturica, Greenway, Akin and am quite a big fan of Ken Loach.
What are you working on next?
There are a lot of ideas in my head and on paper currently. But the priority is to see Shahid recover costs, reach the world and help me regain my faith in myself. I need to trust myself more to continue making films that I totally believe in.