Monday, 18 November 2013

The Witness and the Martyr

Let’s say, you’re a young Muslim man in India, not particularly educated, not rich, not well connected in any way; someone just trying to make a living like everyone else. Also, like everyone else, you’re grateful if the powers that be just leave you alone to get on with your life.

Now, somebody sets off a bomb somewhere – a bomb which has nothing to do with you, of which you knew nothing till it went off. And the next thing you know, the police come and arrest you as a terrorist who made the bomb or helped the people who made the bomb.

Why? Let’s say your name is similar to that of a suspect...or that you might have one time lent him your laptop or something like that. An entirely innocent activity, long since forgotten. But now you’re in jail, with the media already having tried and condemned you, and without money or connections or any hope of ever proving your innocence – especially since the “tough anti-terrorist” law says the burden of proving innocence is on the accused. In other words, you have to prove – while locked up, and without any means of doing so – that you’re not a terrorist. And any confession the police can extract from you by torture is admissible in court and can be used to convict you.

Now, perhaps you could still find a way out if you had a good lawyer. But there are a couple of problems with that. First, the top lawyers are incredibly expensive – far out of your financial means. Second, your local lawyer’s association – stuffed with right-wing, politically connected members – refuses to take up any case defending a “terrorist”.

You are, therefore, done for. Decades of prison time, if not the death penalty, is what you’re looking at – even though you haven’t done anything at all.

This is actually a not uncommon fate of many young men in this country; after each terrorist attack, even though it’s not even known who’s responsible, the police arrest Muslim men with great fanfare, parade them before the cameras, and then they disappear from public view. Somehow these Muslims are all from the working or lower middle classes, never from the affluent; the latter, after all, have both money power and connections. A number of them are quietly released when it becomes obvious that there’s not even the slightest, flimsiest, bit of evidence against them – but, of course, they’re pretty much ruined for life branded as “terrorists” for evermore. As for the rest, it’s like something out of Kafka’s The Trial. You probably know that play.

Now, this is the kind of thing that the Great Indian Muddle Class doesn’t like thinking about. It’s, as I’ve said before, reflexively anti-Muslim anyway. Besides, it has peculiarly convinced itself that the political class and the police may be thoroughly corrupt and lie as a default mode – yet, when it comes to Muslims/terrorism/Pakistan (all of which are the same thing where the Muddle Class is concerned) they somehow always tell the truth. So, if someone’s accused of being a terrorist and is a Muslim, proof isn’t important – the fact that he’s a Muslim is proof enough.

So, it’s always a little surprising when there are actually people in the popular media who dare tackle this kind of subject. Even more is this true when Bollywood, which now exists solely to cater to the Great Indian Muddle Class, actually dares to make a film about it – and a film based on a real life story. I watched that film recently. It was called Shahid.

Shahid Azmi was a teenager in a Bombay slum who was caught up in, and badly traumatised by, one of the periodic anti-Muslim pogroms which punctuated Indian history through the 1980s and early 90s (this particular pogrom was in 1993). Filled with hate and anger, he ran away to join a militant group in Kashmir. Sent off to a training camp in Pakistan, he only lasted a short while before being filled with revulsion at the brutality of the “freedom fighters”, who were quite as bad as the Hindunazi goons who burned Muslims alive in the city slums. not actually how you handle an AK. Please.

Disillusioned, doubly embittered, he escaped from the camp and returned home to the slum to his mother and brothers. Perhaps, he could have slipped back to his normal life, if it hadn’t been for the kind of thing I mentioned.

Arrested at random by the police – not because of his time in the training camp, but because of his alleged role in planning to murder Hindunazi leader Bal Thackeray and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah – Shahid Azmi was stripped and tortured to force him to confess to his “terror” links. When that didn’t work, he was dumped in Delhi’s Tihar Jail (probably India’s most famous prison), where he spent seven years before the charges were dropped  and he was released (in 2001) without ever facing trial. (Remember what I’d said about people being released when no evidence could be found against them?) Perhaps he would then have decided that the terrorists were right after all, and turned completely to the (other) dark side. But Shahid Azmi, as it turned out, wasn’t quite that kind of man.

Instead of turning to terror (in jail he even met a certain infamous terrorist, Omar Sheikh, who would later go on to organise the kidnapping and decapitation of Daniel Pearl), something that would have done nothing except add to the list of innocent Muslims arrested and victimised, Shahid Azmi decided to fight the system with its own weapons. He became a lawyer, but not just any lawyer; he specialised in defending those innocent Muslims in prison and without a future. Having experienced their plight for himself, he fought for them as if he, himself, were on trial. And, perhaps, he was.

In seven years as a lawyer, Shahid Azmi managed to get seventeen people acquitted. That may not sound like much till you consider what he was up against: the legal apparatus, the media, the police (who shamelessly manipulated and forged evidence), and the law itself, which, as you may recall, laid the onus on the accused to prove himself innocent. Getting seventeen acquittals, under those circumstances, wasn’t much – it was amazing.

But of course it carried a price.

Elsewhere, I have repeatedly written about the terrorist attacks of 26th November 2008; among the accused “facilitators” were two Muslims who were later acquitted by the court. Those acquittals were due to the work put in by the lawyer for the accused, one Shahid Azmi. Unfortunately, he wasn’t alive to savour his victory.

Shortly before the court announced its verdict, Shahid Azmi – then all of 33 years old – was “mysteriously” shot dead by “unknown people” at his office. There’s not too much doubt who was responsible; Azmi was a thorn in the flesh of the police and a hate object for the Hindunazis. Even less surprisingly, the killing remains “unsolved” to this day, though the police never seem to have trouble “solving” terrorist attacks within hours to days of them taking place. [There was a similar incident involving teacher SAR Geelani, who was accused of being involved in the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament. After finally being acquitted by the court, he was “mysteriously” shot in the abdomen outside his lawyer’s house in Delhi. Though critically injured, he fortunately survived. That case, too, of course remains “unsolved”.]

As several reviewers noted, the word Shahid has two meanings in Urdu, distinguished by pronunciation: shāhid, meaning “witness”, and shahīd, “martyr”. Shahid Azmi was both.

In most nations, Shahid Azmi’s story would be an automatic subject to attract filmmakers. But – as I said earlier – this is the kind of “sensitive” topic Bollywood is allergic to, so it was a pleasant surprise that it actually handled it. Even more so, it was a pleasant surprise that Bollywood didn’t massacre the story as is its wont; it actually made a sensitive, compelling film on the man without trying to turn him into a hero in the mould of Perry Mason or one of John Grisham’s lawyers.

In other words, at least by Bollywood standards, this film is great. I have no doubt that it was dramatised somewhat, with several separate events merged into one, but they weren’t meant to glamorise Azmi. At no point does he look superhuman; if anything, he’s more “average” than you or me. Nor do the courtroom scenes – Azmi’s chosen battlefield – look at all like the set-piece dramas of the typical Hollywood, or Bollywood for that matter, film. They’re ill-lit, dingy, and there are virtually no spectators except policemen and lawyers. Witnesses lie openly, and seem far from embarrassed when caught out. Lawyers squabble, yell at each other, and persist in their stance even against all logic and propriety. It’s a dirty, squalid world, in which the “justice” is, clearly, just as dirty and squalid, and the defendants’ only sin is that they have Muslim names, not (as Azmi says, in one memorable scene) “Mathew, Donald, Suresh or More”. And yet, Azmi manages to fight and win, over and over again.

The courtroom isn’t the sole focus of the film; far from it. This isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a courtroom drama. Most of the film is about what goes on outside, in Shahid’s personal life. There’s a good deal about his relationship with his domineering, highly traditional mother, and his brothers. And there’s a kind of love story too, with Mariam, a client of Azmi’s who’s a divorcee with a son. Azmi marries her, and makes a life with her; but she’s under no illusions (unlike him) of the dangers he faces, and in the end she comes off as the most reality-facing person in the film, on either side.

One of the cardinal virtues of this film is that it doesn’t treat the viewer like a moron. The editing is choppy, deliberately so, with the audience left to fill in the gaps. For instance, in one scene, Shahid proposes to Mariam in a cafe; she looks shocked, gets up and leaves. The very next scene, they’re together, obviously a couple. The viewer is allowed to imagine what happened in between.

Among the interesting titbits about Shahid is that most of the roles were actually played by non-Muslim actors. The protagonist is a Hindu in real life; both his mother and Mariam are played by Sikh actresses. It’s a tribute to their abilities that they manage to pull it off so well that you’d never have guessed.

Once upon a time, Bollywood flicks were three-and-a-half-hour long monsters crammed full of songs and side-plots, made without a script and  with “something for everybody”; insufferable ‘comedy’ routines in the middle of what was meant to be a drama, ludicrous ‘heroic’ speeches, and unintendedly hilarious deathbed scenes. That terse, focused films like this one are even made go some way to convincing me that Bollywood has come some way into the modern world, though of course Shahid (the film) didn’t do well. Given the tastes of the Great Indian Muddle Class, one couldn’t expect it to.


Just by way of contrast, let me say a word about the...thing...that ruled the box office the week after Shahid. It’s called Krrish 3 (yes, you read that right) and is a...mix, I suppose...between a superhero flick and a science fiction film. Rather than try and describe it in detail, let me make a list of sorts.

It has a flying superhero who jumps on a jet plane in distress, which has its nose wheel jammed, and forces the wheel down into place. Does this sound familiar?

It has a stunningly obvious “disguise” which somehow nobody can see through. A telephone box isn’t included, though.

It has a man in a wheelchair, who controls a group of “mutants” with powers including shape-shifting in one case, and another one who has a rhinoceros horn growing from his forehead. Rings a bell, does it?

Yes, it really was that bad

It has a “virus” (which looks rather like a nematode parasite, actually) being deliberately spread in a particular nation, with the antidote being in the possession of the Big Bad Villain. Think you heard this before?

It has a humongous smash-up fight among superhero and supervillain among high-rise buildings, with satisfyingly toppling tons of masonry, iron and shattered glass, in which not a single civilian becomes collateral damage. This...may not be altogether original.

I could actually go on and on about the number of films this one’s ripped off, but I won’t. I’ll just say that probably the only original material comprised several excruciating songs, one of which actually went (in English translation): “God, Allah and (the Hindu Ultimate Deity) Bhagwan/ Together made this One.”

God, Allah, Bhagwan and, for that matter, Zeus and Quetzalcoatl wept.

I’m not that surprised that the crowds rushed to it, though. Where else can you watch something like twenty films for the price of one?


  1. I can't imagine that I will ever get to see the film "Shahid" and I am profoundly sorry for that. I will see if it might show in Chicago or Dearborn. Shahid Azmi is the sort of humanist hero that the West despises and then consigns to oblivion. Or, if not a humanist hero, a good man, something we are in dire need of.

  2. Bill,
    I'd like to see the film "Shahid".
    Just like Hollywood, it seems Bollywood does one such good film and then churns out 50 or more bits of flash and trash. The masses, what you call the "great muddle class" are not so different, country to country.
    How sad that we get so few films actually worth our time to watch.
    Hey, maybe Shahid will be out on DVD some day.
    Thank you for your reviews.

  3. I was able to find it online. But not in English and not with subtitles.

  4. Bill, Glad to see your post today. 'şahit' (pronounced shahit) means the same thing in Turkish - witness or martyr. I hope we can get it at our local DVD pirate shop in our neighborhood. Sounds really interesting.


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