Face of independent cinema in India, Shabana Azmi speaks about her popular theatrical work ‘Kaifi aur Main’ that celebrates her father’s verses and life
Shabana Azmi’s forceful voice sounds feeble. It is the noon of December 12. The day Pandit Ravi Shankar passed away. When you call the charismatic actor for a prefixed interview, she begins with, “It’s sad Panditiji is no more.” A brief pause later, she says, “It’s really sad,” and asks if “we could talk later”.
Like the classicist who rocked the world with his tunes, Shabana shot into the global scene much before cross-over cinema became a battered term. She gained global identity with her well-rooted sensibilities and cinematic characters that are energised more by neo-realism than by melodrama. She draws heavily from life, literature, tradition, society, politics, relationships, emotions…And it’s not just for the arc lights. Says the social activist, actor and Parliamentarian, “It helps me look beyond what is perceived as right. It helps me process at multiple levels.”
The darling of celebrated art house auteurs, Shabana is not defined by her roles. She defines them, in her own distinctive way. With films such as Mandi, Ankur, Junoon, Khandhar and Paar, she stirred the parallel movement of the 1980s. Her tryst with people-and-issue-centric films continues with the upcoming Midnight’s Children (Deepa Mehta) and Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mira Nair). Then there is Vishal Baradwaj’s bizarrely titled Matru ki Bijlee Ka Mandola.
For the past few years, Shabana has also been touring the world being the voice of her actor-mother Shaukat Azmi in Kaifi aur Main. “I love the creative clutter in my life,” says Shabana on her way to her native village Mijwan. “My father believed progress is about a stronger rural India. He initiated a lot of projects here for children and women. I have to keep up his good work. I have founded chikankari craft units to help women find employment. I also support them in marketing their products.”
Kaifi aur Main is based on Shaukat’s book of memoirs Yaad Ki Rehguzaar as well as Kaifi’s writings and interviews. Scripted by their son-in-law, the well-known poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar, the theatrical collage traces the journey of Shaukat and Kaifi — their childhood in Mijwan, their unusual romance culminating in a marriage that lasted 55 years, Kaifi’s path-breaking poetry and film lyrics, and Shaukat’s unstinting support for her husband’s social and cultural activism even while finding her own space as a theatre artiste and writer. “It’s an opportunity to showcase the extraordinary lives of my parents. It is also wonderful to share with the world their thoughts, their dreams, their trials and their triumphs,” says the daughter.
The performance does not stop at being a personal account. It talks about the socio-political milieu of the time in a distinctly woman’s voice.
“Though fiercely independent, my mother never confused her rights and duties. She would always say, ‘Whatever you do for the man you love cannot be called sacrifices or compromises’. She came from a wealthy family but lived in complete harmony with my father in a 225 sq. ft room, where my younger brother Baba and I were raised. They led by example.” Shabana brought much of these values to her own marriage. “Javed is not very demonstrative. There is no traditional role play of a husband and wife at home. But we are extremely secure in each other’s company. Javed strongly feels differences cannot ruin a marriage if you are the best of friends.”
And what about the larger fraternity — Indian cinema — she has been part of for close to four decades? How does she evaluate it in its Centenary year? “Indian cinema is not just Bollywood. We need to go regional before thinking global. It’s time to look within. There’s immense talent and a rich art tradition. For instance, why should we be apologetic about our song and dance routine? It’s intrinsic to our culture. But I am definitely not for item numbers that debase and demean women with obscene lyrics. There is nothing wrong in women celebrating their sensuality as long as they do not surrender to the male gaze. Art should be used as an instrument for social change. I recently watched Talaash and thought how wonderfully the songs have been woven into the narrative. There’s clarity and beauty in words, music and singing. Believe me, we can acquire world class with honest Indian-ness,” emphasises Shabana.
Class act Shabana Azmi
Kaifi aur Main — Saga of a poet will feature Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar together for the first time on stage. The narrative will be interspersed with renditions of Kaifi’s poems and songs by the young singer Jaswinder Singh and will be supported by a live orchestra. The show will be held on December 22 at Sir Mutha Venkata Subba Rao Hall at 7 p.m. Tickets priced at Rs. 2,500, Rs. 2000, Rs. 1500, Rs. 1000 and Rs. 750 are available at www.indianstage.in and www.bookmyshow.com or call, 98409 55556/ 092437 77970.