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An Interview with Shabana Azmi

By: VIren Mayani Email By: VIren Mayani
December 2010
An Interview with Shabana Azmi

According to ancient Indian wisdom, one need not labor to identify a peacock’s feathers; they are distinctive enough to stand out and proclaim their unique and exquisite identity. So it is with Shabana Azmi, who stands out as a woman of substance and style who has excelled in both cinema and social activism, her two spheres of public engagement.

Born to a famous couple, reformist poet Kaifi Azmi and stage actress Shaukat Azmi, Shabana had both the fortune of esteemed pedigree and the challenge of living up to it. And that she did. She and Kaifi Azmi are the rare father-daughter pair who have both won the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian awards. She has received five national awards for best actress, four Filmfare awards, four international film awards and a litany of other honors.

Less glamorous, but more compelling is her work effecting social change in India, whether it is improving lives of children in slums or fighting communalism and religious extremism. Instead of awards, Shabana initially received brickbats and threats for her activism, but she proved her critics wrong and used her celebrity status to emerge as a high-profile social activist.

Shabana’s early childhood was invested in respecting family, social and human values, all of which left a lasting impression on her. Her parents always supported her passion for intellectual stimulation and growth. She graduated from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, followed by a course in acting in 1972, which she topped.

The rest is history, with her first commercial success coming in the form of Shyam Benegal’s directorial debut film “Ankur”, an award winner, itself. She married the equally famous poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar, and together they have made quite an impact in films and society. Now, a presidential appointee in the Indian Parliament, she is making strong headways with Nivara Hakk (“right to a dwelling”), placing 40,000 displaced individuals in homes.

It is her firm belief that art should be used as an instrument for social change -- and she has certainly done that. Khabar spoke to her during the Atlanta stop of her national tour appearing in Broken Images, a stage play featuring her as the solo anchor, a performance she pulled off with aplomb.

Both your father and your husband are celebrated poets. Has that influenced you? Do you write?

I am always asked that, since my father, Kaifi Azmi, was a poet and Javed is a poet, and my father-in-law, Jan Nisar Akhtar, was a poet; and my standard response to that is no, I provide the inspiration.

I wouldn’t dare write poetry. I write a bit, but that’s largely work. I write my speeches, I write talks and lectures that I have given, because I’m also a visiting professor at Ann Arbor University.

You have earned your acclaim in both theater and films. Which one do you prefer?

I’m a professionally trained film actor. I did a diploma at the Film and Television Institute, Pune, and I’m a gold medalist for the best student in acting. So I do think that my primary identity is that of a film actor. But theatre is in my bloodstream. I was just four months old when my mother used to strap me on her back and take me for rehearsals, when she was member of the Prithvi Theatre.

Also, during vacations, she used to get my brother and me to accompany her on her performing tours. I used to be sleeping backstage when she was performing. So I literally grew up with the smell of greasepaint in my nostrils, so to speak.

Then when I was in school, I did a lot of theatre. At St. Xavier’s College, both Farooque Shaikh, who was just two years my senior, and I formed the Hindi Natya Manch, where we started doing plays, and we’d win all the awards.

So it’s been a mixture of both, but my primary identity is of a film actor. [But] for me, it is very difficult to make a choice and say I prefer this over the other, because I think ideally for an actor, it would be great to do both because you learn from both disciplines.

Although the act of inhabiting the world of the character is similar, different skills are required. In theatre, you get much more time during rehearsals to reject what doesn’t work, to enhance what does. In film, you have less time. In television, you have no time whatsoever. So, in terms of mediums, I think film is a director’s medium, theatre is the actor’s medium, and television is the writer’s medium. 

What drew you to Broken Images, the play you’re performing in this tour?

Girish Karnad is one of our foremost contemporary playwrights and Alyque Padamsee is a theatre stalwart. And when I read the script, I found it very, very engaging. So it’s technically challenging. And judging by the responses of the audience, I seem to have made the right choice. I really hope that when people watch the play, they will go back with a satisfactory theatrical experience. That’s what I hope that it will do.

Being a feminist, you’ve portrayed a lot of dominant female characters. Can you comment on the state of feminism in India?

India lives in several centuries simultaneously. We have people living back to back from the 18th to the 21st century, and have people encapsulate all the contradictions that come from being a multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-class society; and so it is with the position of women. So 63 years after independence, we have a woman president, a woman who’s the leader of the ruling party, a woman who’s the leader of the opposition, and a woman as the Lok Sabha Speaker. That’s quite remarkable.

On the other hand, female feticide is still being practiced in India, not only in rural areas that you would imagine, but in cities like Mumbai, in pockets of Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab. It’s totally and completely unacceptable. We see that maternal mortality rates are the highest in India. So there is uneven growth. I think there are already vibrant forces of resistance within the women’s movement. But if you look at malnutrition, if you look at maternal mortality, if you look at female feticide, there is a lot that needs to be achieved and that needs to be addressed.

But on the other level, the focus of development is becoming about women, and that’s a good thing. We talk about the Women’s Reservation Bill, which after so many years is still not being passed. So we’ve achieved a lot, but there is a long way to go yet.

Right from Ankur, most of your films have had a message. Can you describe your thought process in selecting scripts?

Well, I grew up in an atmosphere where my parents believed that art should be used as an instrument for social change; my father, through his poetry, my mother, through the choices that she made as an actor. It’s not that they were giving me lectures on it, but it was the atmosphere in the family. Children learn from example. My father was a very important member of the Progressive Writers Association.

When I started working in movies, I realized that a time comes in an actor’s life when she can no longer do the work like a nine-to-five job. You can’t be playing a person who is fighting social injustice, and then come back to your air-conditioned comfort and say I will have nothing to do with the characters that I play. Some of the residue of what you have played during the day is bound to seep into your real life as well. And so my awareness grew sharper and my sense of being able to contribute whatever I can towards that end. So it was really my background, plus the films that I did that influenced me to start doing work that offered more than just entertainment.  Although, I’m not against entertainment. I think that’s an extremely important end. But crudity’s a different thing.

Some of your roles have put forward issues that perhaps the community was not ready for. What were your first impressions and thought process when you were offered the role involving a lesbian relationship in Fire?

When I first got the script of Fire, it’s not as if I responded immediately. I liked the script very much, but I knew that there would be ramifications. And so I took about a month to respond to that, but I think what clinched it for me was when I spoke to my husband, Javed, about it and he said, you know, you have to work out whether you will be able to defend yourself, because this will arouse a controversy. And I said yes. He said then that’s fine, then go ahead. And then my daughter Zoya read this script. I said I was sort of confused about the same-sex relationship. She said, why does it matter? And I realized that there is a generation for whom it’s not a problem at all.

And I figured that India is not a monolith. Not everybody reacts in the same way. So some people would be moved, some would be offended, some would be confused, but a process of questioning would start, which is the only thing that a film can do: Raise awareness, so people start questioning. And I knew that Deepa Mehta would deal with it sensitively. So I did the film not feeling squeamish about it, believing in it, and believing that it would be aesthetically and sensitively told.

And of course, Fire turned out to be a cult film; I mean, even so many years later, it’s gone to all the academic circles, it’s raised a lot of vent on the issue, which I think is important, because if we have issues that we need to deal with, it’s no good pushing them under the carpet. You have to first talk about it, and in India in particular, we tend to keep silent about things that have uncomfortable questions and push them under the carpet, which really doesn’t help the problem at all.

For me, what was important in Fire was not just the same-sex relationship, but the fact that if you empathize with these two women, then perhaps you could extend that empathy to the “other,” the other race, the other religion, the other gender, the other country. Because in a fast-growing intolerant world order, I think it’s important to not just tolerate, but accept people who have differences from us.

Apart from your parents, who significantly influenced you? Whether it’s from the arts, theatre, literature, or just simple people, like a person who works in your home, that you said influenced you tremendously about a particular character you were playing?

Shyam Benegal had a very important influence in my life because I started with him. And I went abroad with him for the first time. In fact, even the way I look at our city today is really influenced by the way Shyam Benegal looks at it, because I was very young when I first went abroad and, like any teenager, was so excited about the shopping malls and about going to a place. And he wasn’t interested in that. He was interested in the place; he would inquire about the water systems, etc., which for me were completely alien. But that has remained with me, and those are the sort of subtle influences that I feel. I have always thought of him as a guru, but he always wants to treat me as an equal. He has been a huge influence, and he continues to be a very good friend so many years later.

Another person who had a great influence on me was Jennifer Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor’s wife. I used to look up to her, admire her a lot. Her esthetics was something that I liked. She used to like me as an actor, and I used to be very grateful for that. She also didn’t give me any lectures, but just being around her was an influence.

Subhashini Ali, Muzaffar Ali’s ex-wife, who is obviously an extremely important person in her own right with the left movement, as a member of the Communist Party, was an influence because I just started in movies and she used to be around our house a lot, and I knew that she was getting arrested and she would be at demonstrations and things like that, which aroused my curiosity. I found her vivacious and full of life. And then we got talking about lots of issues and I got a lot of clarity on issues from her.

And Javed, apart from my parents, Javed has had the greatest influence on me because we share a common worldview. Javed is a feminist. He also is a very rational person. He uses the mind a lot and I can tend to be a bit fussy about it, and he gives me clarity on lots of issues. We have great arguments, but I think he does influence who I am today, as I do influence him.

Apart from that, I have my activist friends—P. K. Das, who is an architect, and Gurbir Singh, who is a journalist. Extremely invaluable colleagues of mine in Navara Haq, the organization that works for the slum dwellers of Mumbai.

And much more than all of this, life influences me. I feel that for an actor, for an artist, the resource base has to be life itself. What happens in the process of stardom is that you start getting more and more isolated from life because you build around yourself concentric circles of people who protect you. If you can talk to your domestic help, if you can travel by rickshaw, if you can actually stand in line, that teaches you completely different things. It’s not always possible. I mean, poor Shah Rukh Khan, even if he wanted to do it, he can’t do it. But if you are conscious of it, so that you keep your connections rather than lose them, I think that helps a lot.

You have looked at the slum world closely. What has your work with them shown you?

Well, firstly, Navara Haq, the organization that I work for, has rehabilitated 40,000 people free of charge in Mumbai. It’s the largest single rehabilitation project in all of Asia. These were people who had settled in the National Park and a Supreme Court judgment then decided that about 30,000 of those three lakh (300,000) families had the right to be resettled elsewhere. And it’s a long story of how we got it done, but anyway, we have resettled 40,000 people. The government has a stock response to slums. They demolish them. Demolishing serves no purpose. It only creates worse slums, because people don’t go back to the village. They go maybe five kilometers from there. Where maybe the first slum had water and electricity, the second will not even have that. So you have created a worse slum; you have not solved the problem.

People come to the city not in search of housing but they come to the city in search of work, which they find, but they don’t find housing. Now unless the government has a bank of land on which they can provide housing at subsidized rates to the slum dwellers, there’s no way the slum dweller can afford to buy land at market prices. So the cycle of illegality gets perpetuated.

What happens is that a slum dweller in a city like Mumbai has actually come away from his village, having sold his wife’s jewelry, having sold his piece of land, having done all of that. Let’s say he has brought one lakh (100,000) rupees with him. A slumlord says all right, you give me the money and I’ll allow you to pitch your tent here, which he does. The slumlord then gives half the money to grease palms and gives him protection for about a year. And then after a year, he disappears. So this man, who has given his life’s savings to the slumlord, is again rendered homeless.

Now, that’s a lot of money. Slum dwellers are accused of not paying taxes, but the fact is that they pay much more per unit of electricity and water than you and I do. Except that it goes into the wrong hands, because the government refuses to give them basic civic amenities saying that they don’t have a legal status. So the cycle gets perpetuated. Whereas if the government would accept all these taxes, then it would work towards the economy. So the problem really is of land usage. And the government keeps saying we don’t have land, which is not true because, of the land that was given to the government under the Urban Land Ceiling Act, only .01 percent was actually used by the government.

Mumbai particularly is a city that is in favor of the builders and the builders have a nexus with the politicians, and that’s a huge problem. Now I think we have to, at the macro level, give employment at the villages, so people don’t have to migrate to the city in search of work. If we can make district headquarters into cities, then people won’t have to migrate at all.

But to those who raise the highest objections for the slums because they say that it’s ugly and it’s ruining the city, I want to say, what are you talking about? Are you talking about a cosmetic change, or are you talking about affecting the lives of people, all of whom inhabit it, rich and poor, because these are the working people of the city. The boy who brings in your milk, the newspaper vendor, the people in the banks, some teachers, all of them live in the slums. If all of them, 50, 60, 70 percent of them who live in the slums in a city like Mumbai would throw up their hands, Mumbai would come to a grinding halt. You can’t have a one-way relationship with people who service. They are the people who keep the wheels of the city going.

What do you feel about the brand of American capitalism that seems reluctant to social programs for the underprivileged?

Over here, there’s this huge emphasis on privatization, opening up the world, etc.  But I think it is the business of government also to provide the basic needs. And in any civilized world, the rich have to be able to subsidize the poor, that’s civilized behavior, and I think it’s for government to take up that position.

As far as opening of the market is concerned, I’m saying that you know governments need to get out of most business. My own sense is that yes, that is true but there are certain responsibilities of the government that you are not going to abdicate. So I am not necessarily a great critic of the market economy, except everything cannot be market-driven. And that is becoming apparent all over. I mean, look at the USA, which says open up, open up, there should be no barriers and then when they themselves start getting threatened, immediately they want to pull the plug in and say no, no, no, you can’t get jobs here … it’s for Americans, and all that. You can’t play a double game; it has to be the same for everybody.

Do you have any message for Indian Americans?

Well, I do think that this whole business of dual identity is something that people are grappling with and I would just say, keep your feet firmly planted in the ground, so that you will have connection with your roots and then let yourself fly, embrace all the multiculturalism, which is a given today. So you don’t have to be this or that. The world is opening up. I see the younger people having a truly multi-cultural identity and no longer grappling with whether they are basically Indian, and how much American should they be. So I think it really has to be a healthy mix. And the younger generations are becoming world citizens: the amount that they travel, the amount of influences that they have; but I do think it’s important to be rooted. I do think it’s important to know your language, to know your traditions because that gives you very strong roots.

[Acknowledgements: We thank Ketki Parekh, the national promoter of Broken Images and Kew Ray, local promoter, for facilitating Khabar’s interview with Shabana Azmi.]

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