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5 years of Shahid: How Hansal Mehta didn’t let big stars replace Rajkummar Rao

Some known actors were eager to play the character of lawyer Shahid Azmi. 

Keyur Seta

Rajkummar Rao has made a mark for himself today. He is known as a versatile actor who excels at a playing wide range of characters. One of the earliest films that marked his arrival as a talented actor was Hansal Mehta’s Shahid (2013).

A lot that the actor is today is a result of that film. He played a titular character for the first time and did a phenomenal job. However, the producers of the film were not keen on signing him. It was Mehta’s constant efforts that ensured that Rajkummar (who was Rajkumar Yadav then) finally got the role. The filmmaker revealed this during his chat at the recently concluded India Film Project.

Shahid was released on 18 October 2013 and completes five years today. The film was based on the real lawyer Shahid Azmi who was murdered in 2010.

Mehta shared that the producer wanted a known star; a number of them were also willing to work in the film. “There were some mainstream stars who wanted to do the film. But they came with a certain amount of baggage. And that was a baggage that the character did not require. I didn’t want to make the film with that kind of baggage,” said Mehta.

With actress Prabhaleen Sandhu.

But Mehta was firm on Rajkummar. “I wanted Rajkummar. I went to the producer and said I don’t want to make it with these guys,” said Mehta. He was taken aback by what the producer said. “He said they were willing to pay Rs6-7 crore for a star but not Rs 35 lakh [for Rajkummar]. Their budget was Rs4.5 crore, plus the cost of the star.”

Mehta then thought of a risky plan. “I said, what if I make it in less than a crore? They said, fine. But I would get only Rs50 lakh in cash. The remaining I would get on credit. That’s how we made the film. We had to pitch an impossible budget because not everybody is going to be as passionate as you are. It’s rare to find a producer who is as passionate as the director,” he said.

Sharing the reason for his keenness to sign the actor, he said, “Rajkummar was fresh out of the film institute. He hadn’t not really done much work. And he was willing to go that extra mile to make that film. He was hungry to make a mark.”

Mehta was pleased with not only Rajkummar but also Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub, who played his friend. “The amazing thing was that during that entire journey actors Rajkummar and Mohammad sort of remained in that space and character and were passionate about the film for those nine months. For me, that was a big feat. I still keep searching for that spirit. But I have realized that you cannot search for the spirit; the spirit has to exist,” he recalled.

The film might not have been successful at the box office but Mehta is still happy with the film. “Shahid, for me, is a very successful film because it was made in a tight budget, it is on streaming platforms and it is still being watched by people. I still keep getting viewers telling me how they were moved by the film. I think that is a legacy you leave behind. And not whether Shahid did Rs100 core or Rs10 crore,” said Mehta.