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The restless actor

If you thought that actor Shabana Azmi reads only Urdu poetry and movie scripts, hear this. “These days, I am relishing Andre Agassi’s book, Open. You see, I am not interested in sports at all. I know nothing about tennis. But this autobiography has so many twists and turns in it -- it feels like a Salim-Javed script.”

Apart from this, Azmi is also reading, Too Alone, Too Together, an exchange of letters between Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, edited by Sonia Gandhi. And she is revisiting Kiran Nagarkar’s magnificent novel, Ravan and Eddie, set in the chawls of Mumbai, hoping to adapt it into a screenplay. If three books were not enough, she is also dipping into short stories written by Saadat Hasan Manto.

Sitting at the Fox Star Studios office in Khar, Mumbai, Azmi tells me, “I can never read just one book at a time. I always need at least three to four of them. I think I am genetically programmed like my father. I get so tired but I just cannot rest. I have no time. I really need to get a life.” She adds, “My husband Javed (Akhtar) tells me, 'Tum lait jaao. Aaram karo. Har waqt kuchh karne ki kya zaroorat hai?' (Lie down. Rest. Read a book. Why do you have to be doing something all the time?) I want to take a vacation in my own house -- not go anywhere, just be in a holiday mood.”

It looks like the vacation might have to wait though. Azmi's film, Neerja, directed by Ram Madhvani, releases today and the actor is mega busy with promotions. That is one part of the job she does not like very much, especially when journalists ask her the same questions over and over again.

Azmi, who is known for being vocal on issues of freedom of expression, says, “People come up to me, and ask for comments on all sorts of things. Arre baba, if I haven't watched something, or heard something, how can I comment on it? As a society, we have more opinion than information. Har koi lagaa hua hai bas opinion dene mein! (Everyone is engrossed in giving their opinion.)”

In Madhvani's film, Azmi is cast in the role of Rama Bhanot, mother to chief flight attendant Neerja Bhanot who was murdered while saving passengers from terrorists on the hijacked Pan Am Flight 73 at Karachi Airport in September 1986.

Azmi had an opportunity to meet the woman she has played on screen. In July 2014, the Bhanot family had invited Azmi to present the Neerja Bhanot Award that is given to Indian women who have faced social injustices such as dowry and desertion with tremendous grit, and overcome their own suffering to support other women in distress. Azmi gave the award to Delhi-based Rashmi Anand who runs the Woman of the Elements Trust to provide legal aid to victims of domestic violence, and also works with the Crimes Against Women Cell of Delhi Police.

Azmi says, “Rama was a feisty woman. She spoke her mind. There was something about her spirit, and her mischievous remarks. I connected with her instantly.” Overcome by a feeling of nostalgia, Azmi adds, “I was at Rama's house one day, and one of her sons was trying very hard to get her to go for a walk that her doctor had advised. She was making all sorts of excuses to avoid going. I asked her why she wasn't going. She just laughed and winked at me. I remember that wink.” The real-life Rama, who was trained in classical music, and also worked as a telephone operator, passed away in December 2015. She was a pillar of strength for her daughter Neerja who decided to leave her marriage and come back to her parents after facing severe pressure from her in-laws who demanded dowry.

Azmi recounts, “The Rama you will see in the film is different from the Rama I met. The character I play is a mother whose biggest concern is that her daughter should eat properly, work less, and not end her marriage abruptly. Yet, the way she is able to cope with her loss, and take pride in her daughter's sacrifice, is quite amazing. She is a person of extreme warmth and love. The speech she gives at the climax of the film is my favourite.”

Apart from the creative fulfilment she got from this role, Azmi liked working on this film because of Madhvani's vision as a filmmaker. He got all the actors involved in workshops. Instead of just showing up on the sets for their scenes, the actors were required to live like a family. Madhvani insisted that they eat together, get to know each other, and build a rapport.

The only person Azmi already shared a close bond with was actor Sonam Kapoor, who plays Neerja in the film. She shares, “I have known her since she was a baby. Her parents, Anil and Sunita, are friends of mine and Javed's. In fact, we got married around the same time.”

Azmi recalls the time when Kapoor, as a teenage girl, had first expressed her interest in acting to her father. Though he was an accomplished actor, he did not want his daughter to become an actor. He immediately sent Kapoor to Azmi, and requested the veteran to “drill some sense into her head.” Azmi did the exact opposite. She told the girl to follow her dreams, and assured her of support even if her father dissuaded her.

On another occasion, Kapoor wanted to learn dance. Azmi recommended that her parents send her to Uma Dogra, a leading exponent of the Kathak form.

Azmi recalls, “There was this time when Sonam was really interested in books. She and I would spend hours discussing them. Anil looked at us, and said, 'Which planet do you people live in?' I don't blame him. You see, he has probably never read a book.”

Azmi has many stories to tell about her warm relationship with Kapoor. “Once, Javed, Anil, Sunita, Sonam and I were in Amsterdam for a film awards function. Sonam wasn't into films at that time. Javed and I were going off to see some museums, and Sonam came along. She said, 'Aunty, thank God, you are here! Nobody else wants to go to museums and galleries with me' “One hopes that this chemistry will light up the screen with impressive performances, and a memorable cinematic experience.

The author is a freelance writer who tweets at @chintan_connect


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Printable version | Oct 23, 2021 6:43:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/in-conversation-with-shabana-azmi/article8256363.ece

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