Hansal Mehta, who’s just won the National Award for the best director for his film Shahid, has finally got recognition after 15 years in filmmaking. Now busy in the post-production work of his next film City Lights, Mehta directed Shahid because he was intrigued by the story of Shahid Azmi. Azmi was a lawyer who was gunned down in his chamber in a Mumbai suburb in 2010, two years after he took up the case of 26/11 co-accused Fahim Ansari. Mehta, who worked as a software engineer in Australia before getting into cinema, feels vindicated that his hard work has paid off. The director of Jayate (1999), Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar (2000), Dus Kahaniyaan (2007) and Woodstock Villa (2008) tells SONIA SARKAR that he was inspired by Azmi’s life. Excerpts:
Q:How does it feel to get a National Award?
A:I believe everything happens at the right time. I am glad that I got the award for Shahid. I may not have been this happy if I had won it for some other film. This award certainly inspires me to direct more fearless films. I have decided that I will do only things that come straight from the heart. It has to be something that reflects my concerns.
Q:Why did you want to make a film based on the life of Shahid Azmi?
A: I came across the story of Shahid through newspapers and was intrigued by it. When I started reading about him, I realised that his was not an ordinary life. Shahid chose to take on the system; he was a true whistleblower. My film is on his life — the spirit of his life. The film is an accurate representation of his life but not a factual representation. About 95 per cent of the film is based on his life; five per cent is fictional. But the part relating to Shahid’s life is absolutely accurate. You have to be responsible and sincere to keep the man’s memory intact.
Q:Why did you cast Rajkummar Rao as Shahid?
A:Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap recommended Rajkummar to me. When I saw his work, I told myself: he is the man who can play Shahid. Even in all his past films, he was never just an actor; he was always the character — and that differentiates him from others. I have always worked with new actors. I have always taken challenges, so I was not afraid to cast him. He is one of the finest actors of this generation. I am doubly happy that he too got a National Award for his role.
Q:Often, when one makes a film on a real life character, there are apprehensions of distortions…
A:I started researching about Shahid Azmi soon after he died. I met his mother, brother and colleagues. When I told them I wanted to make a film on him, they never said no. But they said: tell the story as honestly as possible.
Q:Did Azmi’s family help in developing the character?
A:Once Shahid’s mother came for the shoot. She looked at Rajkummar and kept looking at him. She finally said, there is a pen missing from his pocket. Then she put a pen there. She also showed us how Azmi would hold a pen while writing.
Q:Azmi’s story is controversial. Did you face any hurdles while making the film? (The police called Azmi a militant, and he spent five years in jail. Once he was released, he studied law and later fought on behalf of Muslim boys accused of violence. There was some speculation that he had been killed by the police.)
A:The only problem that I faced was in getting finances. Anyone who showed an interest in financing the project would ask: who will play the lead character? Since I had no access to any of the big stars, I didn’t know what to say. I talked to Manoj Bajpayee but the film had to capture the life of Shahid as a 19-year-old boy too. It was not fair to expect Manoj to play that role. Then I met Sunil Bohra (one of the five producers of the film), who told me that he would love to produce it. He called up Anurag Kashyap who too agreed to co-produce the film.
Q:Your association with Kashyap is not new. He was the scriptwriter of your first film Jayate…
A:Jayate was Anurag’s first film too as he began his career as a scriptwriter. Both of us were newbies when we started. He was as enthusiastic then as he is today. We did not work together for long but we were blogging mates.
Q:Because Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar was on migrants who came to work as labourers in Mumbai, Raj Thackeray’s men ransacked your office and blackened your face. You were also made to apologise to MLAs and other party workers. Can you tell us what happened?
A:I don’t want to talk about it.
Q:Shahid is also a controversial subject. Doesn’t it worry you that somebody or the other will take offence?
A:This time I decided that I would not hold back from telling the truth. I will not hold back from fighting for what is right. I will not hold back from making my voice heard. The consequences are something that I will deal with courageously. I will apologise only if I have done something wrong.
Q:After Woodstock Villa in 2008, you stopped making films for four years till you started shooting Shahid. Why was there such a long gap?
A:After Woodstock Villa, I was disillusioned with myself. Perhaps I was not doing enough as a filmmaker. I thought I’d failed on both fronts — professional and personal. I left Mumbai for two years. I spent a lot of time with family — my daughters and wife. There was an urge to do something, to make a film. Then I came across this piece of news about a young lawyer being killed. It was Shahid. I knew, then, that this was the film I had to make.