SHA­BANA AZMI

on why stars shouldn’t sell their sen­su­al­ity

Friday - - Front Page -

For the sec­ond time in five min­utes, I check my e-mail on my mo­bile to con­firm that I’ve got the venue right. Yes, it’s at the Ductac in Dubai’s Mall of the Emi­rates. It’s now 3pm and in just half an hour, one of Bol­ly­wood’s most fa­mous and re­spected stars will be ar­riv­ing at the the­atre for an ex­clu­sive Fri­day in­ter­view. But sur­pris­ingly, un­like reg­u­lar film events in Dubai, there are hardly any fans lin­ing up to meet Sha­bana Azmi, who stars in Happy

Birth­day Su­nita, (the play that opens here the next day.)

The car park, which I ex­pected to be packed with fans wait­ing to mob her when she ap­peared, is nearly empty on the war­mWed­nes­day af­ter­noon, while some of the 20-odd peo­ple milling around Ductac’s cof­fee shop are lazily sip­ping cap­puc­ci­nos and ex­chang­ing pleas­antries, to­tally un­aware that a cin­ema icon is about to be in their midst.

Five min­utes be­fore the sched­uled in­ter­view time, a faint buzz de­vel­ops in the re­cep­tion area of Ductac. A few heads be­gin to turn and hushed whis­pers can be heard as two women, one dressed in a bright pink top and a pair of smart black trousers, and the other, shorter and in jeans, walk in.

Sport­ing a pair of shades, a hand­bag slung over her shoul­ders, the lady in the pink top flashes a smile to a cou­ple of girls who are at a ta­ble sip­ping cof­fees.

“That’s Sha­bana,” whis­pers one of them, nudg­ing the other. Her friend shakes her head. “No, that can’t be a Bol­ly­wood ac­tor,” she says. “They usu­ally have half a dozen body­guards around them.”

Although I’m sur­prised that there are no se­cu­rity per­son­nel, hang­er­son, glam squad or cos­tumers trail­ing her, there’s no doubt that the 1.7m at­trac­tive woman is Sha­bana Azmi. With just a touch of make-up and with­out any airs, the ex­tremely tal­ented and down-to-earth ac­tress por­trays a pic­ture of poise. Briefly paus­ing to look around the foyer, she quickly breezes into the au­di­to­rium.

“Oh my gosh!” a young girl ex­claims, point­ing to­wards the door. “I just re­alised that was Sha­bana Azmi – I missed tak­ing a pic­ture with her!”

The PR per­son lead­ing me to the au­di­to­rium smiles. “Sha­banaji [ ji is added to a name in In­dian cul­ture as a mark of re­spect] is one artist who has fine-tuned the art of be­ing in­vis­i­ble in a crowd,” she says.

We find the 64-yearold award-win­ning star seated in the au­di­to­rium, watch­ing set dec­o­ra­tors pre­pare the stage for her play that has just had a suc­cess­ful run in the UK. Sha­bana was also lead­ing the ac­tors dur­ing the UK leg of the tour and elicited rave reviews for her act­ing.

To break the ice, I ask her what she likes best about her role – as Te­j­pal, the head of a dys­func­tional Pun­jabi fam­ily that is get­ting to­gether to cel­e­brate her daugh­ter Su­nita’s 40th birth­day.

“First, the story is a heart­warm­ingly nice one,’’ she says, kick­ing off her black plat­forms and stretch­ing her legs. “It’s a well­writ­ten com­edy and my character, Te­j­pal has many lay­ers to it.”

The English pro­duc­tion, scripted by ac­tor and writer Har­vey Virdi, and di­rected by Pravesh Kumar, touched a chord with the au­di­ence, she says, “be­cause it has a mes­sage with a univer­sal theme that res­onates with ev­ery­one – that it is never too late to follow your dreams.”

Sha­bana should know. De­ter­mined to follow her dream of act­ing, she en­rolled in the Film and Tele­vi­sion In­sti­tute of In­dia, the na­tion’s much re­spected film school, and in 1974, at the age of 24, signed up for iconic art­house film Ankur, di­rected by Shyam Bene­gal, a rel­a­tively un­known film­maker at the time.

“It was an im­por­tant movie be­cause in a sense it launched the par­al­lel cin­ema wave in Hindi,” says Sha­bana, lean­ing back in the chair, her twin­kling eyes tak­ing on a nos­tal­gic glaze. “Of course, [award-win­ning art-house film-

mak­ers] Satya­jit Ray and Mri­nal Sen had been mak­ing movies that were crit­i­cal suc­cesses, but Ankur was not only crit­i­cally ap­pre­ci­ated but was a com­mer­cial suc­cess.”

So pow­er­ful was her role – as Lak­shmi, a mar­ried maid ser­vant who falls in love with a young col­lege stu­dent vis­it­ing the vil­lage and ends up preg­nant – that it got her the first of her five na­tional awards, all for best ac­tress.

“I guess I was blessed to be at the right place at the right time,” she says.

The ac­tor proved her cre­den­tials sev­eral times over, win­ning her sec­ond na­tional award for Arth (mean­ing, life) in 1983. Two more awards fol­lowed in con­sec­u­tive years for Kan­da­har (ru­ins) and Paar (cross­ing). And then a fifth in 1999 for

God­mother.

But Sha­bana, keen to push the bound­aries of act­ing, did not hes­i­tate to grab strong roles that came her way from the world of com­mer­cial cin­ema as well.

Nis­hant (night’s end), Fakira (wan­derer), Sha­tranj Ke Khi­lari (chess play­ers), Amar Ak­bar An­thony, Makdee (fe­male spi­der) and Junoon (pas­sion), among sev­eral other com­mer­cial films fol­lowed in quick suc­ces­sion firmly es­tab­lish­ing her as a lead­ing ac­tor who could bring per­fec­tion to any role given to her.

“The fact that I was do­ing com­mer­cial and par­al­lel cin­ema simultaneously made a lot of peo­ple think that I might be do­ing the wrong thing – like, you know, hav­ing my feet in two boats at a time,” she says. “It wasn’t some­thing many ac­tors did at the time and crit­ics were sure that I would sink. But for­tu­nately that did not hap­pen.”

To­day with more than 120 movies and sev­eral plays in­clud­ing Feroz Ab­bas Khan’s Tumhari Am­rita (Yours truly) and Ing­mar Bergman’s adap­ta­tion of Ib­sen’s A Doll’s House (di­rected by Rey Buono), to her name, Sha­bana has also tried her hand at Hol­ly­wood films. John Sch­lesinger’s

Madame Sousatzka with Shirley McLaine, Ni­cholas Klotz’s The Ben­gali

Night with John Hurt and Hugh Grant, among oth­ers, quickly earned her a rep­u­ta­tion for hav­ing the skill to add sub­tle and novel nu­ances to any part she plays.

So, does she think that com­mer­cial cin­ema has changed a lot over the four decades that she has been in the business?

“There is need for change in main­stream cin­ema,” says the ac­tor, who is mar­ried to the fa­mous poet and screen­writer Javed Akhtar. “There still per­sists a feel­ing among film­mak­ers of say­ing ‘Let’s see which star will bring us the most view­er­ship’ and then cre­at­ing a story around the star.”

Main­stream cin­ema, she says, caters to the “low­est common de­nom­i­na­tor among view­ers be­cause the aim of com­mer­cial film-mak­ers is to at­tract crowds into the the­atre. And to boost col­lec­tion records, songs and dance se­quences that have lit­tle to do with the plot are thrust crudely into the films”.

‘It wasn’t some­thing ac­tors did at the time and crit­ics were sure that I would sink – but I didn’t’

Dis­gusted with the sex­ploita­tion of women in films, she says, “The ad­vent of the ‘item song’ – a peppy, fast-paced, sex­u­ally provoca­tive dance se­quence – has made me think it is time to re­visit com­mer­cial cin­ema’s role in our cul­ture.

“To­day, un­der the guise of ‘cel­e­brat­ing a woman’s sen­su­al­ity’, what th­ese item num­bers are do­ing is sur­ren­der­ing to the male gaze.”

While ad­mit­ting that she has no qualms about cin­ema cel­e­brat­ing women’s sen­su­al­ity, she makes it clear that “what I’m against is com­mod­i­fy­ing and ob­jec­ti­fy­ing a woman’s body. Film-mak­ers should

‘Some of th­ese songs have ex­tremely coarse lyrics that are lead­ing to a sex­u­al­i­sa­tion of chil­dren’

be care­ful when re­al­is­ing their in­ten­tions. The business of film is the business of images, and when you show frag­mented bits of a woman’s body – her heav­ing bo­som or her quiv­er­ing hips or a close-up of her navel – you are rob­bing her of all au­ton­omy and mak­ing her an ob­ject of voyeuris­tic plea­sure.”

She equally hates the in­clu­sion of songs in film with lyrics that are loaded with dou­ble en­ten­dres.

“Apart from vulgar dance move­ments, some of th­ese songs have ex­tremely coarse lyrics that are lead­ing to a sex­u­al­i­sa­tion of chil­dren – small kids, dressed in skimpy cos­tumes, like the dancer in the movie, prance to th­ese songs, and I see a big prob­lem there,” says Sha­bana. The onus of mak­ing an in­formed choice rests with fe­male ac­tors, she says. “They have to de­cide whether this is what they want to do with them­selves.”

Warm­ing up to the sub­ject of un­healthy trends in cin­ema, Sha­bana comes down on another as­pect of Bol­ly­wood films – the por­trayal of courtship. “It’s a kind of eve-teas­ing – a eu­phemism for sex­ual ha­rass­ment even mo­lesta­tion of women on the streets – and it’s not harm­less fun. It’s ac­tu­ally a kind of stalk­ing that is taken as part of courtship in movies. It’s a very dan­ger­ous sig­nal to be giv­ing out that when a woman says ‘no’ she is ac­tu­ally mean­ing ‘yes’.”

In fact, when the Delhi rape in­ci­dent oc­curred, Sha­bana was one of the first celebri­ties who raised her voice against the in­ci­dent. She tweeted: “May SHE [the rape vic­tim] be­come the wake-up call our coun­try needs. We must soul search.” She also said, “We must re­solve to re­flect and an­a­lyse how ev­ery seg­ment of so­ci­ety is, in part, re­spon­si­ble for this misog­y­nis­tic mind­set that re­gards women as ob­jects.”

The star firmly be­lieves that it is up to all mem­bers in the film fra­ter­nity to en­sure that women are pro­jected in the right light. “I’m not say­ing that ev­ery sin­gle film should have this sub­ject in its plot, but there should be sub­lim­i­nal mes­sages that girls can be em­pow­ered.”

The good news is that an avatar of par­al­lel cin­ema, now termed in­de­pen­dent cin­ema, is grow­ing in In­dia and mod­ern film-mak­ers such as Imtiaz Ali and Dibakar Ban­ner­jee are do­ing good work, says the award­win­ning film­star.

“My own chil­dren Zoya and Farhan Akhtar (her hus­band Javed’s chil­dren with his first wife Honey Irani) are some­where in be­tween, be­cause their films are main­stream but not mind­less en­ter­tain­ment,” she says. “In Zoya Akhtar’s film Zindagi na

Milegi Dobara [Life does not give you a sec­ond chance], there’s a scene where Ka­t­rina Kaif emerges from the wa­ter. It’s taste­fully done be­cause the cam­era does not linger on her. It catches her in mid-frame and im­me­di­ately es­tab­lishes her as a work­ing woman who is a diver. I feel it’s very im­por­tant that male and fe­male ac­tors un­der­stand how the cam­era works.”

Acom­mit­ted so­cial ac­tivist, Sha­bana has been at the fore­front of sev­eral ini­tia­tives to raise aware­ness about HIV and Aids and to fight for the rights of chil­dren and slum dwellers. One of her pet projects – Ni­vara Hakk, which means right to shel­ter – aims to pro­vide homes for thou­sands of slum dwellers who were evicted after their land was taken for de­vel­op­men­tal pur­poses, and has re­sulted in ten­e­ments be­ing built for 50,000 fam­i­lies in Ma­ha­rash­tra.

“My ac­tivism took off from some of the movies that I did,” she says. “It started with my role in Ma­hesh Bhatt’s Arth about a woman whose hus­band aban­dons her for his girl­friend. Although dev­as­tated, the wife pulls her­self to­gether and learns to be­come in­de­pen­dent.”

She por­trayed her role in the movie so pow­er­fully that Sha­bana be­gan to get in­vi­ta­tions to speak at sem­i­nars on women em­pow­er­ment. “That’s how I got in­volved in that kind of ac­tivism,” she says. Now she’s the United Na­tions Good­will Am­bas­sador on Pop­u­la­tion And De­vel­op­ment and speaks reg­u­larly at var­i­ous fo­rums.

Another award-win­ning role that changed her out­look on life was that of Rama, in Gau­tam Ghosh’s

Paar – a story of ru­ral ex­ploita­tion by land­lords. While shoot­ing for the

movie in a re­mote vil­lage in north­ern In­dia, Sha­bana met a slum dweller who “I be­gan us­ing as a role model to ob­serve the way she walks, talks, eats, etc,” she said.

The two soon be­came friends and one day, the woman in­vited Sha­bana to her home. “I was shocked to see how poor the woman and her fam­ily were,” re­calls the ac­tor. “There was no wa­ter, no elec­tric­ity, not enough food… I felt that if I went back after shoot­ing the movie and didn’t do any­thing to bring about any change in the lives of peo­ple like her, it would be like say­ing, ‘I will use you and win an award, but I won’t con­cern my­self with your life at all’.

“So when I got an op­por­tu­nity after I was nom­i­nated as mem­ber of par­lia­ment, I de­cided to bring the voice of the poor peo­ple to the place where is­sues are dis­cussed and I have been try­ing hard to make their voices heard.”

So is there any role she wouldn’t do? “Let me put it this way, there are a few roles I could – and would – never do,” she says. “If there is a film that shows that it is good for a woman to be sub­servient, I just can­not do it. It would never in­ter­est me. But again, if her sub­servience cre­ates such a sense of out­rage in the view­ers’ mind that they feel this sit­u­a­tion must change, or if from sub­servience she moves to in­de­pen­dence or at least shows some signs of change, I would con­sider do­ing the role. Ul­ti­mately, I make the choice based on my in­stinct.”

Of all the movies she has done, which would she rate as her best?

“Ahh, that is very dif­fi­cult,” says the star, smil­ing. “I’m very crit­i­cal of my work and I can’t talk of a favourite film. There are sev­eral that are pre­cious to me for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Ankur, be­cause it was my first film and it got me my first na­tional award; Arth, be­cause it started my work with women em­pow­er­ment;

Paar be­cause it started my work with slum dwellers. Then there’s Fire and

Mandi (Mar­ket Place)… which are close to my heart. But I would say

Fire and Kan­da­har (The Ru­ins) are the two movies where I’ve made the least num­ber of mis­takes in act­ing.”

In the back­ground I see the PR woman ges­tur­ing to see if I am done with the in­ter­view. “It’s time for Sha­banaji’s re­hearsals,” she says. “The crew is wait­ing for her.”

Sha­bana looks at her watch, then po­litely asks if I have any more ques­tions. “One more,” I say, pre­par­ing to wind up. She nods. “Okay,” she agrees. “Let’s talk on the way to the green room.”

While we walk I ask her if there’s one thing she could change, what would it be?

Sha­bana pauses then says: “An end to our pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety’s mind­set where boys are val­ued over girls. I feel strongly about this and I hope the pa­tri­ar­chal mind­set will change one day.”

Sha­bana starred in The Ben­gali Night

Sha­bana as a witch in Makdee

Paar in­spired Sha­bana to work with slum dwellers

With Bol­ly­wood star Ur­mila Ma­tond­kar in support of Anna Hazare’s move­ment

Sha­bana with Dia Mirza in Tehzeeb

Sha­bana protest­ing crimes against women

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