Shabana Azmi – An actor of substance

Shabana Azmi with Russell Crowe at AACTA ceremony in Sydney

By Rekha Rajvanshi

Veteran actor Shabana Azmi is known for powerful and impactful films like Ankur, Arth, Mandi, Fire, Mrityudand and Godmother. Shabana was one of the main female actors who dominated the films of the so-called “Parallel Cinema” in India in the 1970s and 1980s. Shabana has acted in over 120 Hindi and Bengali films in both mainstream and independent cinema. She is also a women’s rights activist. The President of India gave her a nominated membership of the Rajya Sabha. the upper house of parliament and also awarded her with Padma Shri, a civilian honour  of the country. Shabana attended The Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) film awards as one of the Grand Jurors in November 2017.

Here are the excerpts from my conversation with her:

You are considered as an intellectual, feminist, communist type of actor. Why do you think you have this image?

I grew up in an atmosphere where my father, Kaifi Azmi, was a known Communist Party leader and my mother, Shaukat Azmi, was a very well-known actor. Where eight families were living in the same flat shared one common bathroom. My father was a very active member of the progressive writers association. We were raised in a liberal atmosphere and I firmly believe that the art should be used as an instrument to bring social change.

You made a mark with Ankur, a parrallel film, then Arth. What made you choose those sort of strong characters?

Several women told me how my film ”˜Arth’ directed by Mahesh Bhatt transformed their lives and gave them the courage to stand up and speak for themselves. This film came 30 years ago, it was ahead of its time, and women started looking up to me as a mentor, expecting me to provide solutions to their marital woes.

Also apart from the films, I work for an NGO ”˜Mijwan Welfare Society’ established by my father Kaify Azmi in 1993 the organization works for the empowerment of villagers in a small village. ”˜Mijwan’ is my father’s birthplace and he believed in empowering girl child. He started Inter and Degree colleges and opened computer, sewing and tailoring institutes for the village girls. Now I look after it with my God daughter Namrata Goyal. Famous designer Manish Malhotra has adopted our Chikankari Centres in Mijwan. The girls get a means of livelihood by which they can negotiate a better position for themselves in a patriarchal society.

You have done some amazing films. Do you go through scripts before signing a film?  

It has been a different criteria, especially now. I don’t have to do them unless I feel like doing them. I am also branching out like I did two TV serials this year, I am also doing the play.

You have acted in films, as well as theatre, and then Hollywood. What do you prefer?

I have done a lot of theatre including theatre in England, Singapore and other countries. I enjoy theatre very much but essentially, I think I am a cinema actor.

Who influenced you more? Your father or mother?

My father and mother both. My mother was a talented actress, and my father being an activist has also impacted my personality.

Kaifi Saheb and Javed Akhtar ji are well known poets, is this a coincidence or his poetry talent appealed you?

Not consciously but when I met Javed I found so much in common between them ”“ their interest, their Lucknavi Tehzeeb (mannerism) their interest in politics and they were both poets and writers.   Discovering Javed was like I was rediscovering my father, our families were known to each other. There were so many similarities in our background that we should have had an arranged marriage.

What is the secret of your very successful marriage?

The secret of our very successful marriage is that we rarely meet. That gives us space and freedom.

I have heard that you have sung songs as well?

I have a sense of tune but I never trained as a singer but Muzaffar Ali insisted me to sing backstage in a play. I sang and was horrified but he didn’t want professional voice for ”˜Anjuman’. But the biggest challenge I faced last year was when Aparna Sen forced me to sing songs in a Bengali film ”˜Sonata’. I felt relieved when people appreciated it.

You are coming to Australia with your show ”˜Kaifi Aur Main’ tell us something about that.

I am very excited to bring ”˜Kaifi Aur Main’ to Australia. It is the play we have taken all over the world and have received tremendous response. The play is based on the lives of my parents (Kaifi and Shaukat Azmi), it is based on the book my mother wrote called ”˜Kaifi Aur Main’ The dialogues spoken in the paly were actually spoken either by my father or the mother. Javed plays my father and I play my mother. It is the story of their lives interspersed with some of his popular songs. A very good singer Jaswinder Singh is singing them live. We got a standing ovation in all the cities we performed. I hope Sydney people will come and watch it.

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