Shabana Azmi has reached that stage in her storied career where she can lift a movie merely by standing in front of the camera.
In the Netflix original film Kaali Khuhi, which explores female infanticide through the device of a horror-tinged thriller, Azmi is the keeper of a dastardly secret. Kaali Khuhi has no shortage of strong performances. Although on the screen for less time than its 10-year-old heroine, played by Riva Arora, Azmi is both remarkable and unforgettable.
Her character Satya has a unibrow – part of a larger design to portray a woman who “lives with guilt”, Azmi told Scroll.in. “I joined my eyebrows – though it’s a small thing, it shows you a kind of woman who has never even looked into the mirror or given it a thought,” she observed.
Azmi also mildly altered her voice, making it sound deeper. “I figured that I needed to show a character who has a deep history of sorrow and hasn’t had many outlets for expression,” she said. “She lives with this guilt. I wanted it to reflect in her personality, a heaviness to exist in her walk.”
Kaali Khuhi will be streamed on Netflix on October 30. Its co-writer and director Terrie Samundra has previously made short films and written plays. Samundra’s lack of feature experience didn’t deter Azmi, who has appeared in several films by new directors over her 34-year-long career.
“The script held my attention, and I have always been very encouraging of first-time directors,” Azmi said. It also helped that Samundra and the film’s producer, Anku Pande, had parents who were members of the Progressive Writers Movement. “We were children of parents who had similar views,” Azmi pointed out.
The film’s focus on exposing the horrors of foeticide also attracted Azmi, who never shies away from weaving political activism into her choice of roles. “I felt strongly enough about the subject – female foeticide has been something of a concern for me,” the 70-year-old actor said. “It is outrageous that in the 21st century, we know it is occurring but we don’t give the focus needed to eradicate this evil.”
Azmi’s filmography has straddled mainstream and arthouse productions ever since she first appeared in Shyam Benegal’s Ankur in 1974. Work has never dried up for the grande dame of Hindi cinema. She bases her acceptance of roles on whichever element in the project appeals to her the most.
“Sometimes, it’s a completely new approach to the story, sometimes it’s the director, sometimes it’s the script or the money,” she explained. “I am not enamoured of doing roles I have done to death. Interestingly, at this point, I am getting to play a lot of characters who have shades of grey. All my life, I have played good and noble women. I am also being given comedy, which again is interesting.”
Among these roles in the past two decades is an ambitious singing show contestant in Loins of Punjab Presents (2007) and the corrupt politician in Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (2013). In the biopic Neerja, Azmi steals the show as the mother of the Pan Am air hostess Neerja Bhanot, who was killed while helping passengers escape from terrorists on a hijacked flight in 1986.
In Kaali Khuhi, Azmi plays a different kind of maternal figure, one who knows more than she lets on. She sounds and even looks a bit different, but she is, in the end, unmistakably Shabana Azmi.