Shabana Azmi has barely paused since she first burst on the scene in Shyam Benegal’s Ankur in 1974. The Film and Television Institute of India graduate’s career graph includes numerous acclaimed roles in arthouse and mainstream films and stage productions, and she shows no sign of letting up. At the age of 67, Azmi continues to stack up credits in films, plays and television shows, including Signature Move, which was screened at the Mumbai Film Festival in October, and an American tour of the play Broken Images.
What keeps Azmi going? Among other things, her curiosity about and flexibility towards the new currents in Indian cinema and her bold and principled public position on social issues, including feminism and communalism.
Right from 1974, when you had your first release ‘Ankur’, there has barely been a year when you haven’t had a film out.
There have been just two years in my entire career when not a single film of mine was released, but I was very busy with my plays. I did a 23-city tour of the US with Broken Images, a 16-city tour with Kaifi Aur Main and a three-month stint with Happy Birthday Sunita in London. So it wasn’t that I wasn’t acting, it was that I was doing theatre.
Five national awards, five Filmfare awards, a Padma Shri, a Padma Bhushan, a Rajya Sabha seat and several Indian and international awards. What is there to aspire to?
Plenty. Cinema is changing and I’m very excited. I’m very curious about what’s happening on the web – short films, web series where you don’t have to abide by censorship rules. And because the laws of conventional distribution do not bind, it allows for a lot more experimentation and that excites me.
It fascinates me that the new form of watching movies is on the phone. I went to Azamgarh and discovered that for 10 bucks, you can see 10 movies on your mobile phone. There will soon be a time when you will have sensory experiences whilst watching a film, such as smelling food, or feeling cold, and I definitely want to be a part of that movement, that gigantic change.
Do you differentiate between a lead role and a character role?
This is a very important question because it is inevitable that somebody who has played a lead role as a hero or heroine in the conventional sense of the word will, in the natural process of aging, have to make way for a younger group of people. A lead role, which is in the romantic space, will necessarily have a young couple.
Now that kind of career, according to me, is short-lived because it relies basically upon your youth and good looks. The only way you can invest in a longer-term career is that even when you are playing the lead roles, rather than just be the romantic lead, you choose roles that are substantial characters. An actor like Anil Kapoor has done exactly that.
We are lucky to be at the right place at the right time. Even 10 to 15 years ago, it was inconceivable that a woman who had crossed 30 could aspire to be anything other than the forgiving mother or the sacrificing sister or a bhabhi or maybe a lawyer. It comes to me as a very pleasant surprise that in 2017. I had five releases with completely disparate roles. I had an American film Signature Move at the Mumbai Film Festival, another American film The Black Prince, Paanch Rupaiya, Aparna Sen’s Sonata and a children’s film, The Wishing Tree. None of these characters has even an iota of what the other characters have.
So while I understand that I will not be offered the same kind of roles as when I was younger, I am still offered substantial parts. It is also interesting that I am getting roles that are comic or with some wickedness because earlier I usually got roles that had me as a good, morally correct woman.
Today the length of the role is not important. I’ve also just finished doing two series for ITV and one for BBC, so my plate is very full.
Have you rejected films in which your character’s beliefs differed from yours?
Many. I declined films that show women as second-rate citizens or submissive or accepting being second place. I refused two three four films and after that such films stopped coming to me.
I have always said that I am willing to play a helpless woman if by the end of the film such a sense of outrage is created in the viewer that he feels this must stop. Or I am willing to play a helpless woman if there a transition or a transformation, even if it is in the last frame, which is what happens in Ankur.
Fire is today a cult film and I have been to any number of universities where it has been shown and spoken about, but I remember I took a whole month to say yes to it. I work a lot with women in slums and I didn’t want the religious fundamental types to say I was teaching them all the wrong things. I shared my concerns with Javed [Akhtar, her husband] and he said you will be criticised anyway. I knew Deepa Mehta would handle the subject with sensitivity and finally went ahead and did it.
What is interesting here are two reactions. Zoya [Akhtar], who was around 22 years then, read the script and asked me why I was just considering it and not taking it up. I mentioned it was about a same sex relationship to which her answer was a “So?” I realised that it was not even a consideration for her.
And then Farhan [Akhtar], who was even younger than Zoya, read the script. In one of the earlier versions of the script, Radha gets charred to death in the fire and Farhan said that that would defeat the very purpose of the film and the message that would go out would be that if you dare to be different, this is what will happen to you. I told Deepa this and credit to her that she took it on board.
You have been speaking about gender equality for several years now.
I grew up in a family where gender equality was a given. My father [Kaifi Azmi] wrote a poem in 1942 called Aurat, which 70 years down the line still remains a very revolutionary poem. Now in an atmosphere like that it was a given that women were working and the roles at home were completely interchangeable. My mother would tour a lot with Prithvi Theatres, we couldn’t afford a maid and my father would dress us up and take us to and from school. When Abba was underground (this was when the Communist Party of which he was a card holding member was banned), my mother took over all the duties.
I must have been around 19 when I realised that what I took for granted was an exception rather than the rule. I came from a family that believed art should be used as an instrument for social change, plus the atmosphere at home and the films I was doing, all this resulted in my awareness that I should use my position as an actor to further the cause of gender equality.
Do you ever feel that we are bending over backwards for the girl child and the boy child is being neglected?
This is the same kind of argument that says we are bending backwards so much for minority appeasement that the majority is feeling threatened. Firstly the majority can never be threatened because of their sheer numbers. Second what is shown as minority appeasement has not resulted in any progress for the community. If there had been minority appeasement there should have been better figures in education, jobs, there should have been better representation in government but such is not the case as the report of the Sachar Commission clearly shows.
So today if we are saying that we are neglecting the boy child because of the girl child its balderdash. In our country the stranglehold of patriarchy is so deep-rooted that a boy is privileged from birth just because he is born a boy. We need to compensate for the years of neglect that has been accorded to the girl child. We need to make girls the focus of development to reverse the discrimination. When you try to redress that balance there is going to be a shift in power structures and when that happens the people who have been in power don’t want to willingly give it up so they will come back with all sorts of accusations. The percentage of boys suffering is so negligible that it doesn’t beg mentioning.
Having said this, I think there is some confusion in today’s young girls where they have started measuring equality almost literally and clinically. Once I was in America staying at my brother-in-law’s and I was ironing Javed’s kurta and this woman walked in and asked me that wasn’t I a feminist. I said yeah, to which she countered, how can you be ironing Javed’s kurta? Does he iron your clothes? Why doesn’t he iron his own clothes? I said, “Because he cannot do it and understand that he is not asking me to do it. He will either burn it or he will wear it crumpled. It gives me great joy that he wears a kurta that I have designed in the way it should be worn. But look at the democratic relationship we share in which both of us have the freedom to retain our independent identities. That is equality.”
Whenever there is a citizens’ movement against an atrocity or a political murder, you are always in the forefront of protest. Do you think you put yourself too much out there?
I’m not a maverick; I don’t do things unless I think it through.
As a younger person I was far more impulsive. My reactions would be solely on my emotional gut feeling and it got me in trouble, but it also held me in good stead. Today I hold my horses but I go out and speak when I feel this is impossible to tolerate. Gauri Lankesh’s killing and before that Pansare and Kalburg are chilling because they demonstrate that difference of opinion will not be tolerated. In fact, it will be constructed as anti-national.
India’s greatest strength is her pluralism, but today there is a concerted effort to snuff out all differences and fuel communal divides. Any and every issue is being positioned as a fight between Hindus and Muslims. That’s wrong. It’s a divide between ideologies, between the liberal and the tolerant Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh on the same side against the bigoted, intolerant fanatic Hindu, Muslim, Christian on the other. The fanatics have always attacked Javed and me and my father before that whether they were fanatic Hindus or fanatic Muslims. So our secular credentials are a case in point because we are attacked by both.
Which recent films are worthy successors to the kind of films you made in the 1980s?
They cannot be the same because ours were films that spoke about feudal issues and today’s youngsters have no experience of that. But lots of them are making wonderful films. For example, I saw Titli by Kanu Behl and it just grabbed me because though it was a violent film, it was not derivative. It was so deeply rooted in small town India. It was not trying to copy Tarantino. Masaan was lovely and moved me very deeply. Qissa and Death in the Gunj were films I liked very much. What is common is these are not catering to the lowest common denominator.
Your own filmography has very few mainstream films.
Of course not, there have been many – Parvarish, Chor Sipahee, Amar Akbar Anthony, Avtaar. In fact at one time, I was happily sailing in both boats, doing Kamyaab with Jeetendra singing “Dhakam dhakam hua, pyar bada pakka hua” while simultaneously doing Gautam Ghose’s Paar.
And isn’t what I was doing 30 years ago exactly what is happening nowadays? Aren’t we seeing the movement of mainstream actors into what was called parallel cinema? I am increasingly seeing this in choices that the actors are making. And because they’re doing only one film at a time, they are able to invest much more in their characters.
The ecosystem has changed because of the advent of the casting director. The casting director has ferreted out people from small theatre groups, from small towns. These are real looking people, not the stock characters we used to have.
Are contemporary films more about the look and the costumes rather than the narrative?
No, films today are at a very interesting place because it’s the first time in mainstream cinema that we are seeing a synthesis with the middle of the road cinema, the Sai Paranjpye and Basu Chatterjee type of cinema. For example, films like Bareilly Ki Barfi or Dum Laga Ke Haisha are now being pushed into mainstream cinema and are finding viewership, which is absolutely lovely.
On the other hand, there is that very glossy film which is now not seeing as much success as you would have expected. The belief that having one big star is enough no longer holds true. Today in fact, more than ever, everybody has realised that content is king. No star can guarantee box office success in the absence of a good script.
Has the quality of writing deteriorated in recent times?
The market dictates everything. The market today is asking for content, but you have to invest in your writers. In the West, writers get tonnes and tonnes of money to develop scripts that never see the light of day. You cannot expect that a writer, whose earning depends on what he is able to sell, should work on your script for a measly 10,000 or 20,000 rupees for a script which you may reject. We have to start paying our writers to develop content.
Do you write poetry?
I provide the inspiration.
Which is your favourite Javed Akhtar poem?
He’s just recently written a poem called Aansoo, which moves me so much so much, so much. Javed, under that cynical exterior, has a very sensitive and a very compassionate heart, and he gets moved particularly by people who try to keep their dignity in times of adversity. Aansoo is a very beautiful poem that says, “I heard somebody speaking about their plight and my eyes teared up. Was it because of the plight that I heard or was this tear hidden away somewhere in the recesses of my being. I suspect that it was within me and now gets the chance to take cover under this person’s sad tale, and express the pain that I am feeling.”
I just love Javed’s poetry because he is able to say a lot in very simple words. He is a maahir. He knows the language so well and yet he’s never tempted to show off his knowledge because communication is vital to him.
Have you never thought of writing or directing for the stage or cinema?
It’s much more comfortable being an actor. It’s very tiring to be a director, you have to deal with so many people. If I come across a subject that I feel only I can make then I’ll do it, but there’s no pressure on me to do so.