A provocative Bollywood biopic opening Friday tells the story of a slain human rights attorney who began a career in the law after turning his back on a life as an insurgent, only to be shot dead in his Mumbai office.
Shahid Azmi attended an insurgent training camp and was jailed for years before qualifying as a criminal lawyer, who became known for defending those he believed were wrongly accused of terrorism. At the time of his death in February 2010 when he was 32 years old, Azmi was representing one of three men accused of involvement in the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks, Fahim Ansari, who was later acquitted.
Director Hansal Mehta told AFP he wanted to make the Hindi film, Shahid, because the story of the lawyer "offered hope, in spite of the tragic ending". He said Azmi became a lawyer to "defend the defenceless, sometimes for free. He had learned that if you had to fight for justice you could get it by working with the system".
Azmi joined an Islamic insurgent training camp in the disputed Kashmir region after experiencing deadly religious riots in Mumbai in 1993 when he was 14 years old. The film depicts Azmi escaping the camp dissatisfied and returned home, only to be arrested soon afterwards and jailed on charges of plotting against the state. Mehta believes the five-year prison term was the turning point in Azmi's life.
"Going to the terror camp was reactive. His real transformation began when he went to jail and found empowerment through education," Mehta said. Azmi decided to become a lawyer after completing his graduation in jail, and he went on to secure a number of acquittals for his clients. Azmi's younger brother Khalid told Indian media last year that the lawyer "was under threat constantly -- because of the cases he fought and people he rubbed the wrong way. The last few months, he distanced himself from us because he was convinced he would be killed".
Actor Raj Kumar plays the part of Azmi in the biopic, which begins with the riots and ends with his death. It has not been proven who was behind the killing. "I hope the film will provoke thought and generate discourse on how divisive we have become as a society that is getting increasingly polarised," said Mehta, whose earlier films include Dil Par Mat Le Yaar (Don't take it to heart) and Chhal (Duplicity).
Bollywood has recently seen a spate of biopics including Paan Singh Tomar, about the athlete Tomar who became a notorious bandit, and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (Run Milkha Run) on the life of sprinter Milkha Singh.
"Indian cinema used to borrow a lot from Indian literature but with the absence of fitting contemporary writing, filmmakers are turning to real life stories which are often much richer," said Mehta.