I wasn’t groomed by her to be an actor. She didn’t need to live her life through me. When I decided to become an actor she reserved her opinion of me till she saw Ankur at a private screening. She turned back to where I was sitting and exclaimed loudly, “Bete, tum bahut achchi actress ho aur tumne bahut achcha kaam kiya hai” without a thought that people in the auditorium must find it odd to hear a mother praise her daughter so unabashedly.

A few months later we were watching a preview of Faasla. She turned around with determination and announced, “Had Faasla been the first film of yours that I saw, I would’ve packed you off in marriage to the first available man, to protect the film industry from having to suffer you!”

Over the years the barometer of my performance became her appraisal of it. Good or bad, she would say it like it is. So when she praised my work in Mandi, Khandhar and Arth, it meant the world to me.

She’s given me invaluable tips on acting more by example than by design. Over the years I have seen her work very hard to prepare for a part. She had this habit of repeating her lines incessantly, and walk around the house dressed as the character days before the show opened, both traits I have inherited. She made me aware that by the time an actor reaches the set she must already own the world of the character she inhabits. That truth in acting can never be pre-planned; it has to be in response to one’s co-actors.

She would quote Prithviraj Kapoor, “You must be so truthful to the character you play that if someone were to stab you, the blood that oozes out of your veins should not be your own but that of the character you play.” I would listen on in fascination only half understanding what she was saying.

The show must always go on

There were other life lessons too. Africa Jawaan Pareshaan that starred her and A.K. Hangal in lead roles had become IPTA’s most successful play. I (then around twelve years old) accompanied Mummy to Hyderabad to find that there had been some miscommunication and only a few tickets had been sold. A meeting was called to suggest that IPTA should cancel the show.

I watched in awe and respect as both Shaukat and Hangal said firmly that this could not even be a possibility. They ended up giving one of their best performances to an audience of eight people in a hall of 800 seats. The show must go on got deeply embedded into my subconscious.

Many years later I was arrested along with sixteen slumdwellers of Nivara Hakk, a housing rights organization of which I was a member, on fabricated charges of rioting. It was just a few hours before I was to stage a performance of Tumhari Amrita. Mummy, Abba, Javed, Farooq Shaikh and Feroz Abbas Khan, the director, turned up at the Colaba Police Station. Mummy pleaded with the policeman and said earnestly, “She has a show which must not be cancelled. Please release her for two hours so that she can do the show and I will bring her back for you to lock her up again.”

She went back to a packed audience at Tata Theatre and announced from the stage, “Shabana, as you all know, is both an actress and an activist. She has been arrested and it might take a couple of hours for her to be released. For people who wish to leave, their tickets will be reimbursed.” It was to the credit of the audience that not one person left. Two hours later I reached the theatre and was on stage in seven minutes flat. We received a standing ovation.

On another occasion I twisted my foot a couple of hours before a show of Broken Images directed by Alyque Padamsee. She insisted that I take a Voveran injection, bandage my foot, make the limp a part of the performance but that the show must go on, as it did. Next day it turned out I had suffered a fracture and had to be in a cast for six weeks!

A work-life balance

Her commitment to acting was incredible. She was doing a small part in a commercial film. She turned up at RK Studios to find that she had been given a common make-up room with other junior artists. Wordlessly she got ready and reported on set. Her first shot, which was a lengthy dialogue, was okayed in the first take and drew thunderous applause from the crew.

Randhir Kapoor, who was an assistant director, got to know that she had been dumped in the common make-up room. He threw a blue fit, was very apologetic and asked why she hadn’t complained to him. She turned around calmly and said, “I cannot allow these considerations to make me lose focus. I know my work can speak for itself and will get me what I deserve.” I wonder if I can ever show that kind of equanimity.

What continues to strike me as unusual is the balance she brought between her work and her home. She was a legendary hostess and a lavish dastarkhan awaited all guests at the frequent parties my parents hosted. Biryani, aaloo ghost, shaami kebabs, baghare baigan was the staple spread whether it was for Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Josh Malihabadi or her IPTA colleagues or the many strugglers patronized by Abba and Mummy.

Baba [Azmi] and I always knew when we were going to have house guests. She had only one gold kada which she wore at all times. Whenever we found that it was missing from her wrist we knew she had pawned it so the house guests would have a comfortable stay. It was done in such a matter-of-fact manner without the melodrama seen in Hindi films when the wife tells her husband, “Yeh lo mere gehne bech do.”

When Javed [Akhtar] and I were getting married, a wise old aunt said to him, “Watch Shaukat Aapa closely. If you like her, marry Shabana because with age the wife grows to be exactly like her mother!”

I think Javed was short-changed, poor fellow. Because although I have started bearing a striking resemblance to Mum, she was a much more evolved person than I am. She was wise, I continue to be impetuous, she was very forgiving, I tend to be so – not because I’m compassionate but because I have such a weak memory that I forget and so forgive!

Excerpted with permission from The Oldest Love Story – A Motherhood Anthology, edited by Rinki Roy Bhattacharya and Maithili Rao, Om Books International.

Also read:

Shaukat Kaifi: ‘When I descended the stairs all made-up, nobody could recognise me’

‘He always remained first class’: Shaukat Kaifi on the legendary poet and lyricist Kaifi Azmi