In a new film on the life of Punjab’s last king Duleep Singh, actor Shabana Azmi plays Rani Jindan, the queen mother who stood up to the might of the British empire and fought to regain her son’s kingdom.
“The Black Prince”, which also has Satinder Sartaj and Jason Flemyng in lead roles, releases worldwide on July 21. Azmi spoke to Reuters about her role in the movie, how filmmaking in Bollywood is changing for the better, and why she is in a “happy place” at this stage in her life.
Q: Rani Jindan seems like quite a woman…
A: She’s wonderful. She is feisty despite the fact that she has been reduced to penury, and her kingdom has been taken away, her son has been taken away from her and she is in dire straits.
Q: Did you know her story before the film?
A: I’ll be honest. I knew very little of her. When I was given the script, I was really amazed by it. “Is this really true,” I asked. And they said “yes.” Obviously, some of it has been dramatised, but I found the character very compelling. She comes from a place where she wants to undo the injustice that has been done to her family. She has scant respect for the British. I did feel it was a story that needed to be told. The producer of the film is also a historian and felt so strongly about the subject, and I always judge by that. More than just a film, it was a passage in history that hasn’t been remembered.
Q: Is there a particular way you approach playing a historical character?
A: I read up a lot on her, whatever was available. Basically, it is not about imitating but imbibing the spirit.
Q: Did you have any reservations about the dramatisation of the character?
A: I am sure they have fictionalised it, but because Jasjeet-ji (producer Jasjeet Singh) is a historian, there has been so much research. I don’t think they took great liberties in that sense. I am just not sure if she (Rani Jindan) spoke those exact lines.
Q: What drew you to the role?
A: Well, the fact that I felt this story needed to be told. We don’t know anything about Duleep Singh. It was a huge thing – he was raised as an Englishman, he used to drink, he’d cut his hair and was completely oblivious to his past until his mother came and told him that the whole Sikh empire was started by your father and you are the heir.
Q: Is there a difference between how the West handles biopics and real-life stories and how Bollywood handles them?
A: I think the gap is becoming less and less. Bollywood, till very recently, worked in an alternative reality. Not much was needed even from the actors. In this alternative reality that was Bollywood, representative acting was enough – if you raise your eyebrows, you are surprised; and if you cry, you are sad. It is like dance – you represent the emotion. All that is happily changing. After it was declared as an industry and legit money started coming in, actors were then given the choice of making one film at a time. We were (earlier) doing 12 films at a time. The fact that we could remember our lines was more than enough.
The other thing that has happened is the advent of the casting director. Earlier, there would be stock characters – a Jeevan or a Kanhiayalal (Chaturvedi). Now the casting director has gone out and found people from theatre, from smaller towns, and that has caused the ecosystem around the actor to change. We can’t do our old-fashioned acting because these people are so good.
Ten years ago, you could be rockstar (in a film) and not play a guitar. In “Karz”, Rishi Kapoor was not playing any chords on his guitar and we were perfectly okay with it. Today, it would be unthinkable, even to him, that he could get away with that. There was a film which I did many, many, many years ago which took 14 years to make. Fourteen years. It was a film called “Oonch Neech Beech” and in one shot, Shashi Kapoor goes out for a jog and when he reaches, he is 40 kilos heavier! (Laughs uproariously) How is it possible? At least change the first shot or change this shot! All sorts of nonsense were happening.
Q: Does that mean you are now more satisfied with the roles you are getting?
A: I am in a very happy place at the moment. There are parts available for much older people that you didn’t have earlier. Earlier at 30, a girl’s career was over. Now, all of our top actresses are above 30 and doing well. This year alone, I have five very different releases. There is “The Black Prince”; then there is “Eidgah”, which is based on Munshi Premchand’s story of the relationship between a child and his grandmother. I had a release called “Sonata” which was directed by Aparna Sen, and then a lovely American film called “Signature Move”, which is doing the festival rounds.
I cannot remember a time in my life when I had such varied parts. I had a lot of substantial, very dramatic parts, but never varied. It is a happy time.