Shabana Azmi

first_imgShabana Azmi has built successful careers both in mainstream and parallel art cinema in India. Daughter of the idealist poet Kaifi Azmi, whose political passions made the family live in a communist commune and colored the fabric of her life just a shade of red, and a fiery mother, the actress Shaukat Azmi, she says: “I’m very predictable when it comes to activism. As the daughter of Kaifi and Shaukat Azmi, I will say it as it is, and speak up when I see injustice of any kind.” Recipient of the International Gandhi Peace Prize (an honor bestowed on Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu) and winner of five national awards, Azmi talks about her life, films (“it’s all neurotic business be it Hollywood or elsewhere!”) and the fatwa on her head in an exclusive interview with Little India’s Kavita Chhibber. Theatre personalities Nadira Babbar, Dinesh Thakur, Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi at a rally organised by a forum of artists against the humilation of Habib Tanvir by the Madhya pradesh GovernmentSatyajit Ray said as a dramatic actress you had no peer.Well actually my acting career started and didn’t quite take off at the age of three! I was enacting the nursery rhyme “Hey diddle diddle the cat and the fiddle/ the cow went over the Moon.” I was playing the cow. Alas. instead of going over the moon I fell on the moon, who was another three-year-old girl. She got up and gave me a tight slap. I slapped her in return and the curtains had to be brought down hastily!Ankur, your very first film, netted you a national award. Director Shyam Benegal told me you were his fourth choice after Waheeda Rehman, Sharada, and Aparna Sen. What memories do you have of the film?Shyam Benegal was brilliant. When I went on the sets, I found that I was the only girl in a male dominated unit, but they made me feel very safe and secure. I remember that when we started shooting I could not sit on my haunches, which was very important for this village girl character. Shyam banished me from the dining table and said I was to eat my foot in a corner sitting on my haunches to get into the skin of the character. A few days later a group of students came to see the shooting. They saw me in the corner and said where’s the heroine? I said, “She’s unwell and couldn’t come.” They asked, “What role are you playing?” I said, “I’m playing the ayah.” They said okay and went away most disinterested in me. Shyam overheard that and said, “Today you have earned your place back on the dining table because you really look the part!”This was also the first time I had gone into a real village. The village women would laugh at seeing me struggle with the grindstone and how to grind things the right way. They became friends and guides though they never stopped saying, “What’s the use being so educated when you don’t know how to handle a grindstone and a pestle!” I think the scene that stands out in my mind is when my husband comes home, to find me pregnant. He doesn’t know it’s from another man and seeing his innocence and joy I burst into tears. Somehow I just froze and couldn’t emote. Instead of saying, “Don’t worry, it will be okay, you’ll do fine,” which probably would have made me more tense, Shyam just asked the sets be made ready, made me sit down and started talking quietly about this woman he had met after the Bangladesh famine who had lost everything and was looking around anxiously for her lost daughter. The poignance of that story just made an impact, I found myself relaxing and a sudden moisture and sensitivity to the story coursed through me. Shyam saw the tears in my eyes and said, “She is ready now. Take her before the camera.” That went on to become the most memorable scene in the film.Which brings me to Smita Patil and constant comparisons between the two of you. Benegal said “Smita had an instinct that worked for her. She was a very intuitive actress and she never consciously worked on her part. Shabana is a very thinking person so she works out her roles… as a dramatic actress of course Shabana has no peers.”Look I’m a professionally trained actor. I have always watched my mother doing a lot of homework for all her roles and I do the same. When I read a script, more than what the character is saying, I look for what the silences are saying. You have to try and find out all those things that are not necessarily in the script. However when you are finally before the camera, the technique should not be visible. It should only take you to the point where your character is supported by it while you present its truth. I get a little impatient with actors who are called instinctive actors. They may be talented and lucky, but I consider them very lazy. If they did their homework, they would enhance that talent so much more. Amitabh Bachchan is a prime example of what I’m talking about. I remember working with him in Main Azad Hoon and after every scene he would fret wondering if he could have done it this way or that way. I’d tell him, “Amit stop fretting and forget about all the variations.” The camera has already changed its angle, but in spite of being such a hugely successful actor he has never let up on doing his homework and came ready to enact each scene a 100 different ways. Shabana Azmi with her husband, lyricist Javed Akhtar at a screening of ‘Mistress Of Spices’ in MumbaiPhoto: Tushar Mane/FotocorpMandi, a black comedy about a group of prostitutes, had you play Rukmini Bai the Madam of the brothel. You were pretty young then, You actually visited three different types of brothels in three different cities-Bombay, Delhi and Hyderabad.That is right. In Bombay the prostitutes all adored the actress Rekha and wanted to be like her. In Delhi they had a certain language and courtesan-like culture that they adhered to, but I couldn’t get over Hyderabad. We met this young girl who was dressed simply in a nylon sari and had no make up on. She was supporting a family of eight. She performed to a song I had enacted in the film Fakira, a sweet romantic number, dil mein tujhe chupa ke, kar loongi main band ankhen pooja karoongi teri (I will hide you in my heart, close my eyes and worship you). This girl did the most lewd gestures that left nothing to the imagination about the kind of worshipping she was planning to do.I also found that most women were pretty comfortable with their lifestyle. In fact some of them said, “When you talk of rehabilitating us what do you mean by that? We don’t want to wash utensils at Rs 150 a month.” Again for Lekh Tandon’s Doosri Dulhan I talked to about 10-12 streetwalkers about their lives. When you research these kinds of stories, you also become accountable to these people. You can’t just extract their experiences from them and walk away. I learnt so much during preparation for both films. After they were released, each time my car crossed Juhu beach, these street walkers would come running saying “Shabana didi, Shabana didi.” People must be wondering at the company I was keeping! Fire was a movie that evoked a lot of criticism. Many lesbians felt that to portray two women who were disenchanted with their marriage turn to a sexual and emotional relationship was wrong. That homosexuality is a biological thing and not brought about by dysfunctional relationships.I agree with what this section of lesbians is saying, but frankly this movie is about these two women and not everyone who is gay in the world. This is much more than a story of two women in a lesbian relationship. It was two women struggling against the stranglehold of the structure of marriage that was not working for them. The message here is that if you can stop condemning people just because they are different from you, and accept these two women who were “the other” and empathize with them then may be you will take that second step in accepting and empathizing with other nationalities, ethnic groups, gender, race and religions, all of which is really important to pursue in today’s increasingly intolerant world order. In fact there was also a huge section of the gay and lesbian community who thanked us profusely for making a movie like this because finally this issue was pulled out from under the carpet and more than that it was dealt with extreme sensitivity.You shaved off your head and then the next thing we knew you were out of Water, as was Nandita Das. I heard rumors that you didn’t want to do it anymore. That is not true. I very much wanted to do it, but the distributors said they would not touch the film if it had Deepa, Nandita and me together. In fact when Deepa wrote me an email explaining her predicament and wanting me to be released from the film, I wrote her back saying I understood and that for me it was more important that the film get made. And then I added, “No ! I’m lying! I really want to do the part really, really badly and I challenge you to find a better actress. You’ll never find a better actress than me to do this part!” She laughed when she read that. But today I’m really glad that it is receiving so much acclaim though I really wished I had been part of the film. I think after the Fire controversy the Deepa-Nandita-Shabana trio together literally became too hot to handle.I have always been struck by the fact that in spite of being an exotically beautiful woman, your looks never came in the way of your acting, like they did the case of Hema Malini and now Aishwarya Rai, who have been considered mediocre actresses and all looks in spite of having done some good work.Thank you, but for the longest time I was considered a plain Jane by the Indian media. They would say incessantly – bechari ki shakal toh aise hi hai (poor thing her looks are very average). I was very self conscious about my buck teeth and would keep covering my mouth when I smiled. I’d tell my mom, if only I had perfect teeth, I would be a much better actress. It was the same thing with Mithun Chakravarty. He was so self conscious about his buck teeth until everyone started raving about his dazzling smile. It was Mahesh Bhatt who told me to stop covering my mouth – that a smile had everything to do with the eyes and not the mouth. Then I would step out of India and would be called a ravishing beauty at Cannes and Berlin and other film festivals and would keep looking over my shoulder wondering who they were hreferring to. For the longest time even in commercial cinema I would try to be the stereotypical mainstream heroine dressing up that way until I realized it was just not me. I think the change came when I started getting comfortable in my own skin and realized beauty has nothing to do with the way you look, but the way you are from within.You have been a strong political and social activist. You have had a fatwa on your head for locking horns with Imam Bukhari. A certain section of Hindus have accused your husband Javed Akhtar and you for not being warmer toward Hindus even though you call yourselves secular Muslims. And yet you are fearless. Would it have been better to have a party backing instead of being a lone woman crusader against so many causes. I think the resource base for activism is life itself, so when you involve yourself in social issues you enrich yourself as a person and deepen your understanding of life. This in turn enriches the characters I play, giving depth and complexities to them, which I may not have had if I had not been an activist. While not having a party backing can be a disadvantage, it also frees me to speak the whole truth. If I had a party behind me then there would have been a danger for my truth to become selective truth. Of course, fortunately being an actress gives me visibility people do hear me out in spite of not having a party to back me up.Javed and I have been the favorite targets for both Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists for a long time now. The fact remains that the fight is not between Hindus and Muslims, it’s between ideologies of extremism and ideologies of tolerance and moderation. When secular liberals start establishing their credibility and occupying center stage then the extremists on both sides start attacking them. When I spoke about the hijab, Imam Bukhari instantly said who is she to comment? She is not even a Muslim. She has no right to speak about the hijab. When he said all Indian Muslims should join the jihad in Afghanistan and I said to him on live TV that I would arrange for him to be dropped to Kandahar, his problem will be solved and so will ours, he said, “I don’t listen to a nachne gane wali tawaif (I don’t listen to a singing dancing nautch girl).” The TV bleeped out the tawaif part, but what was most interesting was that I received a huge amount of mail from Muslims saying thank you for standing up to him, he is not our leader. And I’m being accused of being a Hindu beater?There are no two ways about it. You have to oppose fundamentalism of all hues. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a majority or minority, they are mirror images of each other. I’m glad that Javed’s organizations Muslims for Secular Democracy and Citizens for Justice and Peace are doing a lot of good work in that direction.One of the issues closest to your heart has been the fate of slum dwellers.I have been working with an organization called Nivara Hakk for the past 20 years on the issue of slum dwellers. We have been able to influence policy by making them understand that razing slums won’t solve the problems, They will rebuild them elsewhere. Today we have the largest single project in all of Asia of rehabilitating slum dwellers, where we have created 13,000 tenements for slum dwellers and are ready to hand over the first 5,000 homes to them.So what will it take for an Indian film win at the Oscars?They have to cut down the length first and foremost. I do have to admit that I’m not so hung up on some Indian film winning at the Oscar as being the biggest deal. Our self esteem as filmmakers should never depend on that one thing.If you were to change anything about your life what would it be?I think I have been at the right place at the right time and have lived a very rich life, but if I could do it all over again, I would learn to cook and play the piano. I regret not having learnt a musical instrument. Related Itemslast_img

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