Director Hansal Mehta and leading man Raj Kumar Yadav of Shahid in conversation with the Box Office India team
Hansal Mehta (HM): We have been receiving a lot of calls and the trailer has been received very well. It’s got close to a million hits on YouTube, which is amazing. We never expected a response like this.
Raj Kumar Yadav (RKY): Everyone I know has loved the trailer a lot… so many people on Twitter. Many from the industry too have liked the film. When the film was screened at MAMI last year, the audience appreciated the film a whole lot.
BOI: Hansal, how did you think of making this film?
HM: I was on the lookout for a story that I felt passionate about. You feel passionately about issues but as a filmmaker you look for stories. You can’t just find an issue and make a film around it. There have to be characters that drive those issues and you have to feel inspired. Shahid Azmi’s unfortunate death and the headlines in the newspapers about the incident gave me that story.
BOI: Since the story is based on a real-life incident, what kind of research went into making the film?
HM: We had very sketchy details about the character. So we waited a few months before we approached the family. We had a writer who was writing a love story that I was not interested in. But he persisted. So, after the incident (Shahid Azmi’s death), I gave the writer a call. By then, he had already mailed me a stinker, saying I did not realise his worth but that he would be famous one day.
I asked him to write this film for me instead. I first sent him on an investigative spree and told him to gather as much information as he could. I didn’t want to investiage the issue myself because when people encounter a filmmaker, they tend to clam up.
So this writer went ahead with the assignment and gleaned a lot of information. The initial plan was to simply get to know the deceased and his life and find out if there was a story in it or not. Every idea doesn’t necessarily convert into a screenplay. We spent 18 months on research and realised that we had more than enough material to write the story. Raj also did his own research. So, while shooting, each of us brought in our individual inputs about the person.
BOI: Raj, since you play the protagonist, did you meet the family to learn more about him?
RKY: Yes. His mother was very warm and receptive, and I am still in touch with her. I tried to gather some details about him after speaking to his family and used those inputs during the film. Since Shahid Azmi was a lawyer, we even went to courtrooms to find out what he was like with his colleagues. I even read the Quran to learn about Islam because he was abducted by militants and taken to Pakistan for militant training.
HM: We had a very long journey to Himachal to shoot the scenes for terrorist camps. Over there, Raj spent his free time reading pages from the Quran.
RKY: Not at all. The moment Hansal narrated the script, I jumped on board. I was very excited and wanted to live the part. For me, it was a very inspiring story, so I really wanted to be that person on screen.
HM: And I don’t think it’s grim and dark. The circumstances were grim. But this is about a man who rose above those circumstances.
BOI: There was a lot of humour as well as drama in the courtroom scenes. What was the brief given to you?
RKY: The courtroom scenes are Hansal’s magic. He gave us the freedom to play our part and that was incredible. The only thing we kept in mind before we began shooting was that we had to shoot the film in a very realistic way. We should not be caricaturists and use clichéd lines as is the case in most Hindi films like ‘order order!’ and ‘tamaam sabooton aur gawahon ko matde nazar rakhte huye…’
Besides, Hansal asked us to play our parts and fight like lawyers. That’s how we argued in the courtroom scenes. Hansal even asked the guy who was playing the judge to ask us questions during our arguments. He was given the liberty to surprise us with questions. And he did! It was a great experience because we were actually living those lives and sharing our lives, not just memorising lines and mouthing them on screen.
HM: The only people who didn’t enjoy the scene were the sound engineers. They were going crazy with unwanted noises. The recordist was, like, ‘Why is he shouting out of turn?’ A location recordist usually has a script in front of him, and so did he. But everyone seemed to be talking all at once, which got him very flustered. He asked me what the hell was happening!
BOI: Was there any political pressure on you, given that the film deals with a sensitive subject?
HM: There is always some amount of pressure but in this case, I didn’t feel any. This film is made for those people who have made it their job to put pressure. It is for them to open their narrow minds.
BOI: The film was made a while ago and it’s taken a very long time to release. How did things finally fall in place and how Disney UTV come on board?
HM: Actually, it was not a very long time. The first stumbling block was finding a producer. My earlier films had not done well and they were not very good. So producers were not very keen on backing this film. That was the biggest hurdle. Then I called Sunil (Bohra) who is a close friend. After I told him the idea, he jumped on board in five minutes. He told me he wanted Anurag (Kashyap) to be part of it. That’s how we cleared the first hurdle. The question that remained was: who do I think could play Shahid’s role?
When I announced that I was making this film, a tabloid had posed this same question and they had fielded the names of Shahid Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor. But I had no intention of casting either actor. I didn’t have any access to them and having them would also make it difficult for the film. That was the first hurdle. So, now I had producers but I needed someone to play the lead.
Shahid’s life has inspired us in real life and we felt he was watching and wanted us to make this film. And things seemed to change and nothing seemed difficult any more. So when UTV watched the film, actually it was Sid (Siddharth Roy Kapur) who was one of the first one to watch it, he said, ‘What a special film.’ Those were his very words. We began talking and there was never any doubt that they would acquire the film.
HM: I think that perception is now changing. We never expected to go to any festivals. I had a rough cut, which I gave Anurag to watch. He hadn’t watched the film and he was to meet the director of the Toronto Film Festival. He gave the director the DVD and the film was selected for the Toronto Film Festival! That’s how the film’s festival journey began.
I got a call from Guneet (Monga) at 2 am and she told me to get ready for Toronto. That was a life-changing experience because I never expected my film to go to any major festival. I have always made mainstream movies and worked with mainstream producers. This was a new direction and it changed the direction of my life. The love we received at festivals reinforced my belief that the film would connect with the mainstream audiences too. At the end of the day, festivals also attract audiences; they don’t attract Martians! (Laughs)
BOI: Raj, your character has many shades… the romantic angle with Prabhleen’s character, the professional relationship with Tigmanshu (Dhulia) and the brotherly camaraderie with Zeeshan’s (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) character. Can you tell us how all these equations were struck?
RKY: All our actors were really talented, whether Zeishan, Prabhleen Sandhu and even the woman who played my mother. You just have to react to what they are doing. I think that’s what actors do. If you have good actors working opposite you, you react to them naturally. Then, striking an equation is not a problem.
HM: When I was directing the scenes where Shahid had to interact with his family members, Raj and the other actors actually bonded like a family and that’s the equation you see on screen. In fact, they were a family off-screen too. I could have made an entire film with that family. It was magical.
RKY: The scene where Shahid comes back from jail and meets his mother for the first time… I think that was the most pure moment for me. I actually felt the pain as well as the happiness I would have felt if I was meeting my mother after seven years. As Hansal said, the film was blessed.
BOI: And the same chemistry was there with the other co-actors too?
RKY: Yes, Zeeshan was almost like a real blood brother. Our bonding and chemistry was as real as it could get.
HM: There is a scene where Zeeshan confronts Raj when he brings his wife (Prabhleen) home for the first time to introduce her to his family. We were not planning to have that scene in the film and it was scrapped because we wanted to tighten the script. But Raj remembered that that scene was part of the script and when we finished shooting and were packing up, both Zeeshan and Raj felt we had to incorporate the scene. So I gave in.
We had already shot the bit where Prabhleen’s character visits Shahid’s home in a burkha. But Raj felt that the brothers had to have at least one confrontation. We didn’t shoot it in an over-the-top, dramatic way with a hot exchange of words. Raj was very quiet in that scene. I told them we had just 10 minutes to do the scene, and they did a fabulous job.
RKY: You mentioned the prison sequence earlier. That was impromptu. The way Shahid is tortured in the prison… those scenes were not supposed to be shot like that. While shooting them initially, they looked very clichéd…
HM: (Cuts in) It looked staged.
RKY: Hansal was not very happy with it. That’s when I thought Shahid should be naked in that scene. You know, stripping a person of his clothes is a form of mental torture. You are mentally and physically violating him. So I asked my co-actor to hit me really hard as a police officer would. That’s how that scene was executed. I wanted the feeling of being in jail and mentally tortured. That helped me portray my character much better... to be beaten for nothing.
BOI: That’s the scene on the poster?
HM: Yes. I asked him to take off his shirt and he took off all his clothes. It is like a metaphor for violation.
BOI: Despite it being a serious film, there are also comic elements as you mentioned… the courtroom scenes where you are arguing with your co-lawyer.
RKY: Yes. Vipin Sharma, who plays that part, is a great actor and he improvised so well…
HM: (Cuts in) He is funny in real life too.
RKY: Shahid had a clear head, as it was the beginning of his career. So he was very serious as well as enthusiastic when he began working as a public prosecutor. His fellow lawyer (played by Vipin Sharma) was his senior and despite the heavy duty court room drama during the proceedings, once the judge adjourned the case to a later date, the entire tension between the two would dissolve. Vipin’s character was funny and light-hearted. And that’s what we portrayed in the scene where the moment the court is adjourned, he comes over to my bench to peek inside my bag to check what I had got for lunch.
RKY: Yes, it was very tough but that does not mean I started going to court every day! But, yes, it was hard to let go…
HM: (Cuts in) He called me the day after the shooting was complete or maybe he messaged me the same evening, saying he missed Shahid.
RKY: Yes, I did miss my character. A character like this becomes part of your soul. It was very natural for me to miss playing the part till I started shooting for Kai Po Che.
BOI: How does the film Shahid fit into your career graph?
RKY: I think for both of us, this was a very special film. It is straight from the heart both professionally and personally.
HM: It’s the high point of my 15-year career. I had to wait a very long time to make a film that was so special. My mother passed away in February and she has watched me struggle all these years. She passed away before she could watch the film. So this has been both the toughest and the most beautiful phase of my life.
BOI: How do you think the audience will receive such a hard-hitting film?
RKY: I think our audience is very intelligent and they are very receptive to watching different kinds of films. I am quite sure everyone will like it.
HM: It is an entertaining and engaging film. It’s the kind of film that speaks to the audience. The actors have a certain kind of humour as in real life, where every tough situation also has humour.
HM: Well, UTV can answer that question. They are putting their whole might behind it. As we speak, there is an army of people working on the film, around five times the number of people who made the film. So I am sure they see the possibility of a mainstream success. It’s about time the barriers between mainstream films and alternate cinema were removed.
RKY: It’s about respect more than it is about money. There are films that make 100 crore but that doesn’t mean they earn the respect of the audience. I am not saying our film should not make money but we are very sure that we will gain a huge amount of respect.
BOI: And, Raj is that a personal choice you have made in your career?
RKY: Yes, I want respect more than I want money. I want to be like after 100 years, when people think of the five actors who made a difference; I want my name to be among them, not like who was the top earner.