As Shabana Azmi turned 70 barely four months ago on September 18, 2020, she saw her glorious 45-plus year long career bookended by roles as diverse as they can get.
Her first film, the 1974 classic by Shyam Benegal had her play Lakshmi, a village woman trapped in India’s oppressive caste-ridden society compounded by chronic poverty. Her latest project is as far from that stifling milieu as it can ever get. She plays Admiral Margaret Orlenda Parangosky in the live action science fiction series HALO based on the video game franchise being executive produced by Steven Spielberg.
Between the two she has more 160 Indian and international movies and television projects to her name earning her the oft-repeated description of being one of India’s greatest artists. Her portrayal as Lakshmi in Benegal’s ‘Ankur’ won her the National Award for Best Actress straight off the bat. For a completely untested young talent there could not have been a better start than that. But then something even more remarkable happened.
The great Indian master Satyajit Ray saw Azmi’s work in ‘Ankur and described her as “one of the finest dramatic actresses of the country.” In an interview, originally broadcast the Indian American radio station Bharat FM, Azmi recalled she found the compliment from Ray “unbelievable. “I mean it was Ray,” she recalled gushing.
“One day I got a call from Shama Zaidi saying Ray would like to talk to you and I went completely mad,” Azmi recalled. Ray had called her for a possible role in his first and only full-length Hindi feature film, the 1977 ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi’ based on a short story by the great Hindi writer Munshi Premchand. Eventually Azmi went on to play the role of Khurshid, the wife of a decadent Lucknow aristocrat Mirza Sajjad Ali, played by the late Sanjeev Kumar. Khurshid feels jilted and ignored because of Ali’s obsession with chess that he plays to the exclusion of everything with a fellow aristocrat, Mir Roshan Ali, played by the late Saeed Jaffrey.
At the time Ray called Azmi she was unaware of what the filmmaker had in mind for her.
She recalls, “Anyway, what happened is when I went on the set I would be like a mad girl had gone in my jeans and Manikda (Ray) had one look at me and he said okay why don’t you go and get dressed first and then I’ll come and see you in the makeup room. I found it very odd. I said I’m going to start working with him, he’s not telling me anything. Then it was so amazing because you know the costume that I was wearing made me sit in a particular posture and so by the time he came I had changed from that slouchy urban jeans-wearing girl into somebody who was more stately and he said I didn’t speak to you then because now you’re in the correct frame of mind. My god I can’t tell you what that meant and then when I went, he said we’ll do the more difficult scene first and I said oh god that’s very unfair and then I did it. He said very good but you know what I think is that I get the point that you’re really hurt and angry with him but why don’t we do it so that somewhere it’s angry, somewhere it’s specular in some way. He asked me to give it a few shades and that changed it completely and then it was amazing.”
That was the only time Azmi got to work with Ray because as she described the filmmaker did not cast him again because he “cannot believe that you can be a Bengali speaking person. I said no that’s not fair but then I remember when he saw Khandar (1984, directed by Mrinal Sen) he called me and he said that he liked my presence. I really wish I could have worked more with him.”
Azmi was born in Hyderabad to very prominent parents in Kaifi Azmi, one of the most respected poets and famous Hindi cinema lyricists, and Shaukat Azmi, a well-known theater and movie actress. It was an unusual childhood to say the least. “You know till the age of nine I lived in a commune with my parents. The Communist Party called the red flag hall and all of us had all the comrades there were eight families who had just one room each, which was anything between 180 square feet to 200 square feet. And eight families shared one toilet and one bathroom and money was never around because all the money that my father was earning the communist party gave him, only 40 rupees a month. And then of course when the children came then my mother had to start working too so she then decided to become a radio announcer with Vivid Bharti. And then after that she progressed to Prithvi Theater and then of time that’s how it all started so it was an extremely beautiful childhood. The fact that we didn’t have any money didn’t seem to matter at all for us, what was beautiful is the celebration of India’s pluralism the fact that we would celebrate all festivals – Holi, Diwali, Eid, Christmas with gay abandon and that although religion didn’t play a part of course because we were communists,” Azmi said.
She said her parents had a very large role to play in her life as well as her career “because my parents believed that art should be used as an instrument for social change and that is something that I imbibed from them almost by a process of osmosis so the fact that I had the parents that I did, I was lucky enough to have them.”
What also shaped her early career was the fact that she was a trained actor from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and also that she started her career with Shyam Benegal. “I think these were the very strong formative influences on me because what happens at the film institute at that particular time, we had a chance to be exposed to the best of international cinema, which was not available at all in in India at that time. And, so you know you’re a young 20-year-old and you’re watching Kurosawa and Goddard and Bergman apart from Ray of course. And, that just does something very magical to your aesthetic,” she said.
The fact that both her parents were liberal in their outlook and who strongly believed in India’s deeply entrenched pluralism also shaped her thinking. Add to that Kaifi Azmi’s natural impulses, highly rebellious at the time for someone coming from a conservative landed gentry, of genuinely conviction for the equity among the sexes. “My parents were communists but they embraced the cultural heritage of India. So I grew up in the lap of the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb (syncretic philosophy). Gender equality was a given. You know more than 70 years ago my father wrote a poem called Aurat. It’s an iconic poem in which at a time when people used to say that a woman’s place is in the house looking after the kitchen and the children, he wrote “Awake my love you must watch, march along with me, you have to march along with me.”
In a sense for Azmi the choice of acting as a career was almost a fait accompli. “I think it was because of my mother being an actress with the Prithvi Theater and during the holidays she used to take me along with her on tour. (Well-known theater and movie actor) Prithviraj Kapoor had made clothes for me as a little baby. I was about three or something and on stage in the group scenes my mother would take me also. So it became my playground. In school, I was always playing boys roles because it was a girls school but I was acting every year and then when I went to St. Xavier’s college we discovered that although there was a very active English theater group there was none for Hindi. It was in college really that I started feeling that this is something I would like to do. I had also watched my mother in fascination when she used to prepare for her parts because for days before she went up on stage she would dress up like the part, she would change her voice, she would change her gait and she was very obsessive about learning her lines. And it was a very beautiful morning ritual that my father and she would be having tea in the morning and he would take her cues and she would memorize her lines,” Azmi said.
Her father’s only condition to her decision to join the films was to say that she become the best in whatever profession she chose, even that of a cobbler. Both Benegal’s ‘Ankur’ and Ray’s ‘Shatranj ke Khildai’ quickly fulfilled that condition even as Azmi decided to strike a balance early on between being an arthouse performer as well as a commercially bankable star. “You know I think that I was just working on intuition and it’s only later that I understand that. Because first I did (Dev Anand’s) Ishk Ishk Ishk and the next thing I did was Parinay which became a huge hit and so, suddenly I started getting roles in mainstream cinema as well which is not what I actually carved out for myself. Now I think that had I started with mainstream cinema then I would have been compared to the reigning divas of that day maybe Hema Malini or you know people like her and I would have been at the lowest rung of the ladder but what had happened is that Ankur had given me such status and had won the national award,” she said.
Over the last four and a half decades apart from producing a steady stream of some truly outstanding performances in the movies, Azmi has also channelized her childhood training at the communist commune to pursue a very active socio-political life. She has remained engaged with many social causes such as the rights of the inhabitants of Mumbai’s slums as well as a movement for rural upliftment started by her late father in their ancestral village of Mizwaan in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh. In 1997, she was nominated to the Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house of parliament, where she remained for a single term of six years. Besides she has also been associated with many international causes through her association with the United Nations Population Fund.
Much to her discomfort, Azmi these days is treated as an institution in herself. Asked if that distorts the way filmmakers approach you for roles now, she said, I wouldn’t say distorts it, but they approach me with caution and will not offer me anything that is flippant which I think after 40 years in the industry I deserve. I have been lucky. I’ve been at the right place at the right time. I started with Ankur and the parallel cinema movement. Then in 1989, I moved to Hollywood with Shirley Maclaine and John Schlesinger and then with Roland Joffe. It’s been a beautiful ride and now I’m getting all kinds of parts you know, wicked parts, funny parts, parts different from the rather honorable kind of person right I was in my hay days. I’m enjoying it and I think the OTT has also created a space for the older actors, both male and female. Today I really do not need to do anything except that I’m game for it. There’s no other consideration because see when you’re building your career you have to think of if this might be good for my career or this is a good production house; you know other considerations but today only very good money can attract me or a really different part or if I feel an important thing is being said and the young director needs my support.”
(Shruti Dhawan transcribed the original full interview which ran on Indian-American radio station BharatFM)