मैं आज़ाद हँ
Main Azaad hoon ("I am Azaad"), one of a very few Javed Akhtar films that Shabana Azmi appeared in, is an interesting rumination on how an ordinary - and anonymous - man can be moved to tremendous sacrifice by the plight of his fellow human beings.
Publisher Gokulchand's (Manohar Singh) newspaper is not selling, and his columnist Subhashni (Shabana Azmi) is facing the ax. To boost the paper's sales - and to save her job - quick-thinking Subhashni concocts and publishes a letter from a fictional man named Azaad - the name means "independent" - who threatens to kill himself in protest against social injustice throughout the state. Azaad is an immediate sensation throughout the city, and Subhashni pens more letters, creating an entire backstory for the fictional man. Gokulchand is delighted with the result in the paper's bottom line, and to keep the charade going he authorizes Subhashni to find a suitable man they can pay to play the role of Azaad. Subhashni discovers a charismatic vagabond (Amitabh Bachchan) who is willing to take on the role in exchange for a few good meals and a generous handful of rupees. Azaad's mystique grows, and everyone with a grievance seeks his aid, from slumdwellers in search of clean water to striking factory workers clamoring for a living wage. Azaad is moved by these causes, and soon he is acting from his heart instead of merely acting the part that Gokulchand and Subhashni have paid him to play. And his heart is tested when the power players who created him try to use him as a pawn for their own advantage.
Main Azaad hoon's script is little too wordy; there were places where the story dragged. But Javed sahib's award-winning dialogues deliver with the expected style the film's statements against manipulation of the common man by those in power - like when one character, an elected official, says that the key to politics is to "make promises to the poor, and make deals with the rich." Subhasnhi's character arc in particular is compelling. She starts out just as manipulative as the power players - she is very shrewd in fact, acting in calculation of her own interests only, and is not moved until she sees Azaad willing to commit himself to the fullest for the rights of others.
Indeed, there are parallels to Shabana Azmi's own experience built into Subhashni's story that are so striking I had to wonder if Javed sahib didn't write the script with his wife in mind. Subhashni begins with the view that her newspaper column is strictly entertainment for the masses. As the film wears on, she struggles to keep entertainment separate from social responsibility, just as Shabana Azmi herself did, and, again like Shabana, ultimately follows her heart in the direction of activism. The film contains parallels between Azaad and Amitabh Bachchan too - in one scene, Azaad emerges from his rooms to find an overwhelming crowd of supplicants awaiting darshan; I have read about such crowds at Amitabh's own home, especially in the early 1980s.
Javed Akhtar once said that Hollywood films are short stories while Hindi films are novels. But the characterizations and scope of Main Azaad hoon are, in some ways, more like the former. Rather than offering reels of epic backstory, Azaad's true origin and life story remain a complete mystery. We learn a little about Subhashni's father - he was a hero, a freedom fighter on the eve of independence - but no friends or relatives of hers are present in the film. By filmi standards, the two principals are unanchored and lonesome (though Azaad has a sidekick who makes a few appearances) - these loners are given their sense of purpose by devoting themselves to a wider community to which neither fully belongs.