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Shabana Azmi On Her First Colour-Blind Role In Halo



Shabana Azmi

Shabana Azmi On Her First Colour-Blind Role In Halo

As you  are one of  the  first major Asian actors  to go global  what  do you feel about the status of brown actors in the West?

The space for Indian actors  in the international  cinema is  increasing. I think the OTT has played a big hand in that.Also, it makes more  business sense for producers  to be inclusive   and  to involve  actors who are  recognized and celebrated  in their own  countries. What inclusiveness does is  to ensure that  the loyal fans  of  the actor would definitely  watch   your product. Nowadays I see  cinema , particularly  the  crew , as a micro-cosm of world cinema. In Halo the diversity  was mind blowing even among the actors: there was  Korean, African ,Chinese, Australians, Caucasians, Hungarians and  Indian(yours truly!). Diversity  and inclusiveness  is very  important to  cinema now.

Shabana  Azmi

Shabana  Azmi

You have spoken of playing a colourblind role in Halo.I find this notion a bit confounding.Are we to soon accept a white actor playing black and vice versa?For me Dave Patel playing Charles Dickens was ridiculous.

You know,the  struggle of Asian actors has been, why should only  the Caucasians be considered mainstream? And why  should the main parts go only to them? I mean, if  Sir Laurence Olivier  can play Othello, why not an Indian actor? Think  about it. You found Dev Patel  as Charles Dickens unacceptable. I found  the casting acceptable. I remember in a Peter Brooks play many years ago an African-American  playing a  brother  of  a Chinese,breaking  all barriers of ethnicity.As a powerful director  Brooks made us drop all our prejudices of casting.  I think it is all about a willing  suspension  of  disbelief.  I know  one can do it a little more in theatre  than cinema. But if we start the process  audiences will learn  to accept it. In Hindi cinema we’ve had ethnic diversity forever. I mean in my film Fakira  Danny Denzongpa played  the  the saga bhai of Shashi Kapoor(laughs).Why  should we  have a problem with it? I think colour-blind casting is a desirable goal  in theatre and  cinema . Of course  there  is  a  movement towards  more Asian actors being  represented in world cinema. But we still have a  long way to go.It will be a while before we become a  fundamental  part of  the international fabric. But in the independent films Asian actors  have a far larger  space.

Halo  is the  first  international film where  you don’t play an Indian?

Every part that I have played in the West in the last 34 years has been that of a South- Asian and they were not visible on the screen till very recently. I remember asking John Schlesinger as far back as 1988 that in the book Madame Sousatzka on which the film is based ,the mother was a Jew ,how come he decided to make her Indian ? I suppose Ruth Jhabvala who wrote the screenplay of Madame Sousatzka , had something to do with it but I remember John saying “ Indians are so much a part of the British fabric it  must result in the choices we make” .Asian actors have been saying why do all the best parts go only to the Caucasians and why are they presumed to be the mainstream? The struggle for Colour blind casting started about 40 years ago and finally we are seeing some results but I know its still a long way coming.

How did   you get  cast in  Halo?

It was quite surprising because I was not asked to do an audition. The casting directors saw a couple of my films and suggested my name.  My agent Geoff Stanton was in talks with the producers without letting me know. It was only after I got confirmed that I had my first facetime call with the director Otto Bathurst whose work I had loved in Black Mirror and Peaky Blinders.

How was it shooting  for Halo?

We had a bootcamp subsequently in Budapest ,did some readings and workshops and then on the sets at Korda studios that had entirely been transformed into the Halo world. . The first thing that strikes you is how quiet it is on set- nobody but nobody raises their voice.I loved working with Otto who was the show runner but did only 3 episodes.Then Jonathan Liebesman and another director after that , as is the wont in most series and their styles were completely different although they had different strengths but I guess you have no choice but to go with the flow.

 How was the experience of working in an adaptation of the megahit video game Halo? Did you watch the video game before the shoot?

I was at Seattle Film Festival when I got a call from Otto who had organised for me to visit the Halo world”s lab 343 Industries. It was such an alien world but so fascinating.

I didnt know the game but my 12 year old nephew Viraaj who had never before given me time of day was suddenly impressed and interested in his Shabana Bua!  Then suddenly all the Halo lovers descended upon me from all over the world ,madly excited that I was going to be a part of the world they were so fascinated by.  I tried to read a couple of Halo books but must confess I didnt reach too far with that!  So I decided to surrender to the vision of the filmaker.

Your role of Admiral Margaret Paragonsky, the head of the Office of Naval Intelligence in the series. Can you share something about her – the brief given, costumes, personality etc?

She is a hard-nosed no nonsense woman but I had to find her vulnerable spot  because you can’t play any character only on one sur. She is conflicted because she has been trained to abide by the rules and yet she allows the unscrupulous scientist to manipulate her,break all rules because she promises a panacea for Humankind.

Did  you make  any friends  while shooting?

The cast and crew are so diverse the film set was like a microcosm of the world. Natascha Mcelhone is an excellent actor and it was challenging to do scenes with her. We ended up becoming friends and still stay in touch.The costumes are done by Italian designer  Giovanni Lipari who is beyond amazing . .The costume department is unlike anything that I have witnessed They have everything that can be needed in costume including their own cobbler!

You had  a horrible road accident during a  break from  the shooting of Halo?

After my near fatal accident I went back on set in Budapest  twenty days after I was discharged from hospital ! My nurse and my friend Parna Patkar accompanied me.My husband  Javed Akhtar   was checking up on my progress on a daily basis. The production was very accommodating.  The first couple of scenes were tough because I had not regained my balance fully but the adrenalin rush that one gets on accepting a challenge saw me through ..

How long were you in Budapest  ?

We were meant to complete the work in July but Covid struck and we had to leave on 14th April 2020. We resumed work in February 2021 and the precautions that were taken were incredible . The entire unit did an RTPCR test every single day . We worked in a bubble . I was staying in an apartment building in which five other actors including Pablo Schreiber were living but we were not allowed to visit each other off set , even during our free days .  I tried my hand at cooking with disastrous results ! I would face time chef Vikas Khanna in New York  for simple things like how to make daal !I learned my lines , watched films , read books  ,arranged and  rearranged my cupboards,  enjoyed my me time .. It is a new learning to live on your own and I cherish it .

 Are you excited about the premier in Los Angeles on 23rd March?

Yes of course . I’m looking forward to meeting my cast and crew. Sadly I can only be there for a day because I’m in the middle of a hectic shooting schedule .My designer friends  all generously offered to dress me and I was   very touched .I finally chose  a  Banarasi silk sari specially woven with a real zari border and pallav , Manish Malhotra mithai-pink Benarasi blouseand an   antique phulkari shawl  for the Halo premiere.

You are looking stunning?

I find all this emphasis on what is going to be worn is media created hoopla .. what should matter is the performance .The cast is catching up with each other over the phone and I’m really looking forward to catching up with all of them.

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