Shabash Azmi!

Shabana: Uncompromising integrity — Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.  

SHABANA AZMI has a spontaneous wit, unaffected charm, and a natural grace. Not to forget a passion that is indubitable, and, of course an ego that easily tends towards excessive. This imperious actress, activist, politician — all rolled into one — laughs as easily as she expresses her annoyance. In all these powerful roles, she is someone who cannot be ignored at all. Not merely because she has so much to say that makes sense, but because she is a person with a perspective. It is perhaps her forthrightness, her sense of commitment, and the courage of her conviction that has always left me with the feeling that she is real.

Shabana was here in Bangalore as part of The Spirit of Anne Frank team, recently. I set out to meet her all nervous. And soon realised that I had every reason to feel so. A visibly irritated Shabana, who despite a flight that was delayed by almost two hours, walked in on the dot to the press conference, while the rest of the star cast was busy freshening up. As I sat there waiting for my one-to-one to happen, I realised what a tough woman she was, perhaps one of the few actresses who could not be stumbled by any question. Even before a question was complete Shabana had her answer ready, and was also absolutely sure which question she cared to answer.

The measure of Shabana Azmi perhaps is in her willingness to say what most others are afraid of. As she herself admits in an interview: "The trouble with me is that I can never keep quiet." This personality trait has often landed the 51-year-old actress in serious problems. However, it has also made her the outspoken artiste espousing secular views in a nation torn by religious conflict. She has consistently and loudly rallied against injustice. She took up the cause of slum dwellers, became a forceful critic of the bloody riots between Hindus and Muslims in Bombay, and post-September 11, hers was the first voice to publicly condemn militant Islam. One may recall when the imam of Jama Masjid said Indian Muslims should join the jihad in Afghanistan, Shabana, on live television, urged him to go, and suggested that he be air-dropped, all alone. Time and again, she has reiterated her commitment to the world around her, tirelessly espousing the cause of religious tolerance.

In fact, when she tonsured her head for the film Water, the mullahs spit fire and wanted her to renew her faith. But she says: "I am a daughter, a wife, a woman, mother, actress, activist, Muslim, and an Indian. Each of these identities is important to me. And I don't intend to let anyone forget it."

In an acting career spanning over three decades, Shabana has taken up issues concerning women through most of the characters she plays. In acting these roles, it seems like she is unable to walk away from their lives. Unlike most armchair social activists, she has felt the need to vocalise her convictions, going beyond the intellectual realm of the film medium. Shabana attributes this to her background. "I was born to parents who believed that art should be used as an instrument for social change," she emphasises.

Shabana's father, Kaifi Azmi, was the founder member of the Progressive Writers' Association, and mother Shaukat was an actress with IPTA and Prithvi theatre. "With such a powerful influence I cannot help being what I am," says the actress, clearly proud of her lineage and poses a how-could-you-ask-such-an obvious question look. "Also, I worked in a lot of films where I played roles of women who are fighting various forms of oppression. And I think a time comes in an artiste's life, when you can no longer treat it as a nine-to-five job. Some of the residue of the part you play will be left behind. Sometime in the '80s when I did Paar and Arth, I realised that it had very strong resonances in people's lives. So it is both my background and the kind of films I did."

If Shabana strikes a chord in the likes of me, it is also perhaps because through most of her roles she has reinterpreted the modern woman's sensibility. The betrayed wife in Arth who gains courage to piece back her self-esteem and finally even sympathy for the `other woman'. Rukminibai of Mandi, whose cultural affectations to uphold the traditions of semi-classical music, poetry, and dance are no doubt sincere, yet calculated. The typical wife and mother of Masoom in an urban Indian setting, forced to mature with circumstances. The stoic acceptance of sexual rejection which makes way for self-knowledge in Fire, the barren wife in Mrityudand having an affair with a social inferior, and the prostitute in the Kannada film Kanneshwara Rama, who has to let go of the man she loves for her own inherent need to survive. Each of these roles could be termed feminist. Nevertheless, they all adhere to different brands of feminism. How then does one place Shabana Azmi? "I don't shy away from the term feminist. But today as groups working for the cause of women see, there are a plurality of voices."

For Shabana, feminism is not just another `ism' like socialism and communism. She is a firm believer in the fact that strength comes from multiple solutions to a problem. When women become empowered, they will transform the very notion of power, which is not wielding it, but sharing it.

Just as one dreams of such democratic possibilities, one is struck by the fact that the country today has reached a stage when political parties decide the films we should watch, the books we should read... Does this mean that there is now only one single definition of pluralism? "My worry is the attack on the freedom of expression," she clarifies.

According to Shabana, there has been a concerted effort to narrow down the definition of an Indian, and Indian culture. And this definition is the antithesis of what Indian culture is. "If we try to suggest that we will try and remove from it all strains which suggest that they are outside this definition, it would spell doom for the country whose greatest strength is her pluralism.

And, therefore, it is important not to fall into the trap of unscrupulous politicians who strive to divide. "During Moharram, the taazia of the Muslims is washed with milk by the Hindus in Hyderabad, and this is a very Hindu custom. There is a Muslim tailor in Mumbai, who stitches clothes for all the Krishna idols of the Iskcon temples in the country," she cites. Then what is the divide we are talking about? The divide is between Hindu extremists and Muslim extremists, and not between the moderates. "Isn't it a fact that there is a lot in common between a Kashmiri Hindu and Kashmiri Muslim than there is between a Muslim of Kashmir with a Muslim of Karnataka? Though the religion they share is common, their culture is different. This effort that is being made to compress identities into the narrow confines of the religion that one is born into, is not India at all and one should stand up to it," she says.

It is perhaps her ability to get under the skin of the roles she plays that allows suffering to touch her. Of course, her sense of values has much to do with her upbringing, wherein success was also measured in terms of commitment and courage. What perhaps is remarkable about Shabana Azmi is her ability to introspect and then share her feelings and beliefs with candour and integrity.