Shabana Azmi on films and the IFFK

‘Believes art should be used as an instrument for social change’ reads Shabana Azmi’s profile on Twitter. Going by her repertoire and choice of roles in a career spanning nearly four decades, it is easy to see that Shabana, a five-time national award winning actress, is not merely mouthing words. Her choice of characters and her many roles as actor, activist and parliamentarian have made her a role model for many.

As one of the chief guests of the 18th edition of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), she was busy hopping from one venue to the other for interactions with the media and delegates of the IFFK.

The accent was on questions. The accent in which the questions were put did not really matter during ‘In Conversation’, a tete-a-tete with Shabana, held in Nila Theatre.

As questions in English laced with Malayalam, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Haryanvi filled the theatre, an animated Shabana spoke about a wide range of topics, ranging from when she decided to become an actress to her favourite films, her identity, and her father, Kaifi Azmi’s poetry.

After the session, in a quick chat with MetroPlus, Shabana talked about her TV avatar as Abhilasha Grewal in Anil Kapoor’s 24 and her work with Mira Nair in The Reluctant Fundamentalist among other things before she settled in to watch the film When Day Breaks by Serbian filmmaker Goran Paskaljeviæ.

Excerpts from the interview...

What was it about 24 that made you say yes to the project?

I did it because I knew Anil Kapoor would put together a well-knit and organised project. I knew that if Anil is producing it himself, it would be of high quality, which it is. It raised the bar of excellence in television. Abhilasha Grewal, my character in the television serial, who is head of an anti-terrorist unit, is a no-nonsense woman. She is a new character for me and I thought it would be interesting to act her on the small screen.

Have you cut down on you assignments in cinema?

No, I have not been getting interesting roles. Well, yes, not the kind of meaty roles that I would like to do.

You have done a much acclaimed role in Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. In fact Time critic Richard Corliss writes in his review of the film: ‘The reunion of Puri and Shabana Azmi, two great lights of Indian cinema, as Changez’s parents would be sufficient reason for celebration’. You and Om Puri had worked together in Mrityudand nearly 15 years ago…

[Smiles] I played Ammi, Changez’s mother. It is a small role but I felt it was an important film because of its theme and its relevance to modern day issues. Working with Om Puri is always nice. But I am hoping Mira and I will be able to work on other projects too.

You have acted with almost all the best women filmmakers from India. Is there a special rapport when working with them? And have one of them inspired you to direct a film yourself?

The answer to the second question is ‘no’. It is so much of hard work. Why take that up? It is so much more khushi being an actor.

Now, it always helps to have a good rapport with your director because I believe that cinema is a director’s medium. Aparna Sen is a good friend and then there is that ease that exists between two friends. But even with male directors like Shyam Benegal, Rolland Joffe [City Of Joy] and Mrinal Sen, I have had a fantastic relationship with them and that will only help a film. In the case of women, there is a comfort level and there is no denying that it enhances every character you do. Whether it be directors like Aparna, Vijaya Mehta [director of Pestonjee], Gurinder Chadda [It’s A Wonderful Afterlife] or Deepa Mehta, the comfort levels that I feel while working with them helps me in getting into the skin of the character, and, in the same way, they know how to tap the best in me and what are the characters that best suit me. But it is not as if they came seeking me with roles. It was for the character that they cast me.

Why have you not acted in films in any other language?

I am petrified about acting in a language I don’t understand. If my character is dumb, perhaps then I might consider acting in a Malayalam film! My sister-in-law Tanvi Azmi did act in a Malayalam film [Vidheyan].

New projects?

I am reading a number of scripts but have not decided on anything.

Your take on the IFFK…

I had visited Thiruvananthapuram in 2004 for the inauguration of the Indian package of the ninth IFFK. [Her film Morning Raga was screened for the fete] The enthusiasm and participation never cease to amaze me. The audience is so aware and enthusiastic to know more about cinema.

Style mantra

Shabana Azmi is as much known for her style quotient as for her acting prowess. And she did not disappoint. Dressed in saris, designer blouses and ethnic jewellery, she was elegance personified during her two-day visit to the city. A great fan of the sari, Shabana says she picks them up from all the places she visits in India.

“We have such a diverse and rich textile tradition, so it is not difficult to add to my collection,” she says.

And her hair style? “Well, my daughter-in-law Adhuna, Farhan’s wife, is my hair dresser. I enjoy being styled by her,” she says with a smile.

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