Indian society is in a position of transition: Shabana Azmi

On Her 66th Birthday, Subhash K Jha In Conversation With Shabana Azmi

Shabana Azmi who turns 66 on September 18 has been exceptionally influential to Indian cinema .As an actor and as an Indian citizen she represents the acme of achieved excellence. In person she is intimidating from far  but in reality, far from intimidating.  Having known her for close to 30 years I cannot think of a single iconic figure to have impacted Indian cinema and me with the same power as Shabana Azmi.

2016 has been a good year for you professionally,what with Neerja sweeping the nation off its collective feet. How do you view the year?
It’s been a good year. The appreciation I received for Neerja, particularly from my Industry colleagues,made me wonder if I had done anything worthwhile before! It was overwhelming. But fact is that the mobile telephone has made communication much easier. Earlier you called on the landline, first the operator, then the secretary then the intercom, and person was never available so after two attempts you gave up.

Are you saying you got more appreciation for Neerja than Arth because there was no cellphone back then?

Yes, kind of. Today an sms does the job.So one should not lose perspective even whilst remaining thankful
Do you see the challenging roles happening at the pace you’d like
I do think its a golden period for actors because all kinds of films are being made: mainstream, parallel, middle of the road, independent films m etc.I’m doing comedy , drama, negative roles Earlier I largely had dramatic ,heroic roles on my plate.At one point Aparna Sen said to me “Your offscreen persona is becoming so dominant that your choice of roles will get affected.” That remark set me thinking because I’ve been in the trained in the Stanislavsky  method that says an actor should be able to prefix the words “if I were..a queen, a slum dweller, a whore.. And be able to inhabit the world of the character with truth.”

Do you choose roles only when they match your own political aesthetic and moral sensibilities?
It’s a difficult choice.when I did Godmother feminists were annoyed with me “We want women to enter politics but if someone like you plays a woman politician who is corrupt you hurt our cause” I tried explaining that the directorVinay Shukla was looking at the film from the lens of caste politics ,not gender politics .Plus it was a layered part and a super role that doesn’t come ones way that often. From then on I decided that I would do a variety of roles provided of course that they didn’t promote patriarchy or communalism.

Which are the films you’re working on right now?

I’ve just completed Piyush Panjuani’s Idgaah based on Munshi Premchand’s story of the same name. We shot inGulmarg and I was so happy to be filming there after so many years. The place was teeming with tourists and it seemed normalcy had finally returned to the valley. Within days of our pack up the peace was shattered as if kisikinazar lag gayi.Heart wrenching..
I’ve also just completed an American production Signature Move directed by Jennifer Reeder and executive producer is the much loved actor Michael Shannon who played Elvis in the film Elvis and Nixon. Fawzia Mirzaplays the lead Zainab,who unknown to her mother ( me as Parveen Mirza) is a lesbian lucha libre wrestler! It has also been mentored by Robert Dr Niros Tribeca Film Institute.

What else?
What do you mean,what else? Aur kitna karoon? I’m carrying on with Theatre productions IPTAs Kaifi Aur Mainand Alyque Padamsees Broken Images written by Girish Karnad. I’m also doing a tv serial Amma where I play a mafia don.

As you grow a year older ,what emotional changes do you see within yourself?
I have mellowed and am interested in the solution, not in holding on to the problem and am willing to really listen to the others point of view. I believe that dialogue must remain the only option in resolving problems.I also party very little and prefer to hang out with my family and close circle of friends. In fact I’m becoming more of a ghar ghussad (home bound) than ever before because I travel so much that I have little energy for the social scene.

What changes do you feel around you in our society?
Indian society is in a position of transition.Women are coming into their own but violence against women has the tacit approval of societies all over the world. Men are mostly stuck in their sense of entitlement because we continue to be a patriarchal society. It worries me also that communalism is getting more deeply entrenched in our society because political parties continue to use it as a tool for vote bank politics.

You have always been one of the strongest voices of protest in our country. What is the one issue that bothers you the most among our many societal failings?
Social injustice. That people continue to be passive recipients rather than active participants of the democratic process. That the development model successive governments have adopted over the years has led to a greater divide between the rich and the poor. That after 70 years we still haven’t been able  to provide drinking water, housing ,education health services to all. That GDP continues to be the yardstick of progress rather than the human development index.

Do you see any national leaders of any stature emerging in the near future? If not, what makes heroes and role models so scarce in our country?
Heroes are created by either a great ideology or a great struggle. At present all over the world we see an absence of both. That’s why we dont have heroes like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela who used non-violence as the only alternative for freedom.Today Donald Trump is in the running for a position once held by Lincoln!They don’t make them like that anymore .Democracy as necessary as it is– and I wouldn’t trade it for any other system– has an inherent flaw . Electoral politics forces leaders to take short-term populist decisions that can get them re-elected.But real development can only happen when you plan 20 to 50 years ahead. It’s also necessary that successive governments do not reverse projects that have been put in place by previous governments.And please ,let history not become a handmaiden of the political dispensation of the day!

Both you and Javed Saab continue to be global citizens. How do you look back your marriage?
With satisfaction and gratitude. There is no person other than Javed that I would have rather been married to. He makes me laugh, he makes me think, he pushes me to push myself but basically that he and I share the same worldview. I cannot help but bask in the fact that he and I are the only couple who have won 5 national awards each ,with 3 of them in a row! Also that he and I are the only couple both nominated by the President of India to theRajya Sabha. Touch wood a thousand times over.

Finally, if you had to change one thing in your life what would it be?
That I could learn how to cook!!

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