By Brian Hieggelke
You might not know this, but Shabana Azmi is one of the most famous actors in the world. She’s made at least 141 feature films, most in India, the world’s second-most-populous nation, where she’s managed to star in big Bollywood films while also making some of the most important films outside of the mainstream, notably in India’s Parallel Cinema movement, which began in West Bengal in the 1950s. You also might not know this, but Shabana Azmi is one of the greatest, most acclaimed actors in the world, having won more National Film Awards in India than anyone else in history, male or female, and was singled out by the great Satyajit Ray at the beginning of her career. You might not know this, but Shabana Azmi is also an activist on women’s issues and on poverty, and not in a dilettantish celebrity way, but as someone who’s also served in Indian parliament and as a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations.
I did not know any of this until she was cast to play the mother in “Signature Move,” the movie that Newcity co-produced and that we shot last summer in Chicago. Among a cast of outstanding Chicago actors, Azmi was the only outsider and by far the greatest celebrity, even if almost completely unknown to mainstream American cinema audiences. Each morning, fellow producer Eugene Sun Park and I would drive to the western suburbs to bring her to set. We took advantage of this rare intimacy with a screen legend to interview Azmi about her career.
Talk about your family and your family history.
My father was an extremely well-known Urdu poet called Kaifi Azmi. My mother Shaukat Kaifi is a theater and film actress. I was raised in a sort of commune because, at the age of nineteen, my father—who was basically from a landlord family, rebelled from the family, and became a member of the Communist Party—moved to Bombay and started working for the party full time. They strongly believed, because of their association with the Communist Party and also the Progressive Writer’s Association—of which my father was a member—that art should be used as an instrument for social change. There were two influences on me when I grew up. I was four months old when my mother would strap me on her back and take me to her rehearsals at the theater, which was Prithvi Theater, a professional theater group. During my vacations she would inevitably take me with her on tours. They had made little costumes for me, so in group scenes I would be taken up on stage. That was one distinct influence. On the other hand my father, who was working with a lot of the laborers and workers, would take me with him to all of these demonstrations and all the work that he was doing as an activist. Obviously, I had no idea what was happening. I just thought that red flags meant party time because all the workers would really fuss over me and carry me on their shoulders, etc. Another distinct influence for my brother Baba Azmi, who is a director of photography, and me was that we would be taken to Mushaira, which is special to South Asia, where poets recite their own work. This used to be held to large audiences 10,000 strong. How you recited your poetry was of great consequence. My father was an extremely good poet, but he was also very good at the way he recited, so he was a very popular poet. He used to take us to these Mushairas when my mother was away, and we would inevitably go to sleep on the stage behind big posters. Then we would wake up to thunderous applause and we’d know that it was our father’s turn to be reciting.
Talk a little bit more about the Communist party in India. In the United States, very famously, there was massive suppression of Communists. Was it the same kind of an environment? Was it a dangerous thing to be a Communist?
When the party was banned, after independence, my father had to go to what was called underground, but this was before I was born. My mother continued to live with his brothers and people like that, but often she didn’t even know where he was going to be. But it was not of the same extent that you had in the McCarthy era over here. And that was for a short period, after which it sort of became all right.
As a poet, was the emphasis on publication or mostly performance?
Both. I think publications were always important because that’s how people got to know about the poetry. But the daily bread was earned by recitation, because you got paid for that. Now remember that when he was a member of the Communist Party, everything that he earned he had to give away to the party. He was given a very paltry sum to look after his family. So my mother had to go out. She’d never worked before. She was from a better financial family. She fell in love with him at a Mushaira, in fact, in Hyderabad where he had gone. She’d heard much about him. She was quite struck by him, particularly by his poem—which is very famous even today—called “Aurat,” which means “Woman.” At a time when everybody—this is almost seventy years ago—said that it was the woman’s business to sit at home and look after the kitchen fires while the man went out and earned, he instead said, “Arise, my love, and walk. March shoulder to shoulder with me.” It was a very progressive poem. It continues to be today a very remarkable poem of its times. I think that’s what made her fall in love with him. She was willing to sacrifice a great deal to be with him. Because, after the age of nine, I lived in what was a sort of large flat in which only one small room was given to every member of the Communist Party, which was just 225 square feet. We were eight families that lived like that with just one common toilet and one common bathroom. The children, in a sense, were commune children because they belonged to everybody. Everybody was working. In fact, it was probably the happiest period of my life. Although we didn’t have any money at all, I don’t think that mattered in the least bit.
So your mother was an actor. How long did her career stay active? Did you ever perform with her?
I did a play, which was an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle.” She had a very small part in it. My husband always says that she came and stole all my thunder, because she’s basically a theater person and she has a very, very good voice. In fact I learned a lot of my acting just by being around her. I remember many mornings getting up to see my father give my mother her cues and help her rehearse her lines. I remember particularly that there was one play that she had to do where she was playing a madwoman and she had a very short fifteen-day period to learn it. It was in the Maharashtra State Theatre Competition. So she would start speaking her lines anywhere. She did that in the kitchen one day, and she [started babbling unintelligibly] and the cook ran out of the house. “She’s gone mad! The lady has gone mad.” I was very little and I went running to my father and I said, “Mom’s gone mad, and the cook has run out of the house.” My father was writing at that time. Normally you would say, “Hush, child. It’s okay. She’s not mad or anything.” He put down his pen and said, “Okay, let’s go for a walk on the beach.” And he walked me on the beach and said, “You know she’s not gone mad. She has to do this play, and she’s doing it very, very sincerely and in fact it is our business to be supportive of her and help her so that she wins the award.” He calmed me down and said that I should be really, really proud of her that she’s such a sincere actress. Of course, when she won the award, then I completely believed it was for the support that I had given her as an eight-year-old. I’m saying this in such detail because it was a family that was very inclusive of the children. The children mattered a lot. It was not the typical Asian family where children just have to do what the parents said. You asked me for how long did my mother continue; she continued for a long time. We worked in some films together. You would remember her in a film by Mira Nair called “Salaam Bombay”! She was the madam of the brothel in that. But she did less cinema and much more theater. Then she gave up about twenty years ago. I used to see that many days before the show she would dress up in the clothes of the character and then walk around the house in those clothes. Her voice would change and her gait would change. Then I saw almost by a process of osmosis that that’s what I do as well.
So you learned acting technique from your mother; you didn’t study Stanislavsky or—
Oh, yes, of course. I was a student at the Film and Television Institute of India, passed with a gold medal. I did study precisely in Stanislavsky’s method.
Your brother, is he older or younger?
Younger. He’s younger by three years.
He followed you into the cinema, in some respect. Did you both decide at some point that that’s where your future would be?
No, no, at one point my brother was doing absolutely nothing and there was another cousin of mine who was a director of photography. My mother was very fed up with his not doing anything, so she said, “Why don’t you just take him on as an apprentice?” and he found his calling. Then he became a cinematographer.
When did you decide to become an actor? Was it something that was organic?
I think organic, except when I was in school; I was always acting. I was acting when I was three years old, and all through school. But every time somebody said that I would be a Hindi film actress, I used to feel that that was their way of putting me down and saying I wasn’t good for anything else. So I would say, “Of course that’s not the thing.” But of course, that’s where my heart was. Then when I went into college—St. Xavier’s College in Bombay—along with another fellow actor, Farooq Sheikh, we formed the Hindi Natya Manch, which was the Hindi theater group. Inevitably we would win all of the awards. We would win best actor, best actress, best production, etc. That’s where I realized that this is something that I really enjoyed. I joined the Film Institute thinking that I would really go to theater but before I knew it, I was signed up for two movies. I graduated on the thirtieth of April 1973 and I was already shooting my first film on the first of May. It was really about being at the right place at the right time. Then the films became successful, so then there was no looking back.
Your early films were more of what we might call an art-house film, as opposed to the big mainstream Bollywood films. Is that correct?
Not really. My very first film was definitely an art film, and in fact marked the Parallel Cinema, as it came to be known. It was a film called “Ankur” (1974) by a director named Shyam Benegal. It became a huge artistic success, but it also became a commercial success. It also won me the very prestigious National Film Award as best actress. So it sort of became the film that propelled the entire Parallel Cinema forward. But very soon after that I did a mainstream film, which also became extremely successful, called “Fakira” (1976). So I did both. I think in hindsight I don’t think I should have calculated it like that. The two worlds were entirely different. They belong to different planets, because the art-house films had small budgets. They had a script. They had a time schedule that had normally to be done in about thirty-five days, Regular commercial film could take as much as two years to be made. So there was a period when I was doing something close to twelve to fifteen films at one time. It’s inconceivable! Later I remember when I went to London to do a film with John Schlesinger called “Madame Sousatzka” (1988), he just couldn’t believe I was doing so many films together. He said, “How can you possibly do that?” Because the only way I could work in “Madame Sousatzka” was that I had to go back thrice during the shooting. So Shirley MacLaine had to adjust to my dates and he thought it was just completely terrible. But that’s the way we worked.
You’ve made 140 films [as of last summer], which is more than three a year on average. How do you choose your projects?
The priorities keep changing. The reason I thought that I should go ahead and do mainstream cinema—it’s quite mad because there was just a germ of a story idea. There was no script. The scenes would be written fresh. There have been times when I have shot the first page of a scene not knowing what the second page was going to be, because the writer was sitting in another studio writing the scene. At that time we didn’t have faxes. We didn’t have email; nothing. So then somebody would physically bring it. It was quite crazy. There were times when we were also doing two films on the same day. One was from 7am to 2pm and the other was from 2pm to 10pm. It’s inconceivable. Even the kind of acting that was expected from the actor in mainstream cinema was what I call representative acting, which is basically if you raise your eyebrows, you’re surprised and, if you smile, you’re happy, and if you cry, you’re sad: just representation of the emotion. It didn’t require anything more than that. You just remember your lines. Take the marks and take the light was what they wanted from you. But I thought that it was important for me to do that because I figured that if I became a star in the commercial sense of the term, then maybe audiences would also be persuaded to watch the smaller film. So there was a huge gap in the price that I charged in art film and what I did for mainstream cinema. There’s no comparison whatsoever. That used to make my manager really mad. He used to say, “Here you’re giving thirty days at a stretch and you’re getting no money, and here…” So it was all that. But that decision, I think, was what ultimately held me in good stead to do both. Because had I not done commercial cinema, then I would not have become a star. And that would not then be viable and wouldn’t help the art film, in terms of being able to sell it.
You’re very much ahead of your time in that way, because that’s become a thing in United States cinema where very big stars will do very small films in order to express their craft in a more personal way.
I think it’s inevitable. Because as an actor, it’s all very well being a star, but the actor in you craves for challenges. Those challenges are largely more available in the art cinema. I think it’s also healthy. You’re getting something that’s a win-win situation for both, because you’re getting something that you believe in. You know I’ve done films because I felt that this is a story that needed to be told. I did films with raw newcomers. I did films with people with productions that were so tiny that people would say, “Oh, my god. What are you up to?” I was also warned that I was trying to put my feet in two boats and I would probably sink. But it didn’t happen. You’re right: at that time it was very unusual. Now, so many years later, in Hindi cinema and Indian cinema, you’re seeing that a lot of the stars are also willing to sacrifice their money and time to do films which are challenging.
It’s about the art ultimately, right?
Another thing that I need to say, which is that I think the fact that I came from the kind of background that I did shaped many of my decisions; although I was not conscious of them. Because I think for an artist, life has to be your resource base. You have to pick up questions from life around you and then try to find the answers. Now what happens in the process of becoming a star—particularly in Hindi cinema—is that you get further and further away from real life, because you get so cushioned by a whole army of people around you that it becomes almost impossible to reach the star without the manager, without the makeup artist, without all of that. Then obviously a star can’t take the train, can’t take the bus, can’t go out. They get mobbed and stuff like that. So then where are you getting your resource? And because I came from the kind of background that I did, I think that was something that I felt was very necessary. I was speaking to Kevin Spacey recently and I asked him exactly this question and he said, “You won’t believe it, but even today I take the train in New York. And I sort of disguise myself so people can’t possibly believe that it will be Kevin Spacey. But it’s important to have that connection with life.” Although it’s very cushy being a star, and obviously everybody likes creature comforts, I think for the artist in you, you need to be connected in life. Because I came from a family that believed art should be used as an instrument of social change, imperceptibly, the residue of the films that I was doing kept sort of staying with me. I think a time comes in the period of an actor or an artist when you can’t treat your work like a nine-to-five job and say, “All right, I’ll play this character who’s standing up against social injustice; and then after six o’clock they have no access to me and I’m going to live in my air-conditioned comfort.” A period comes when that is bound to affect your choices.
I remember two distinct influences in my life. One was a film in the early eighties called “Arth” (1982). It was made by a director named Mahesh Bhatt. It was a simple story. It was about a woman who gets abandoned by her husband for a very glamorous woman. She’s completely shattered; the wife is shattered. Ultimately, she’s able to sort of find herself; at which point the husband comes back, having been rejected by his girlfriend. He says, “I’m sorry. I want to come back.” She says, “If I had made the same mistake, would you have taken me back?” He’s honest enough to say, “No.” So she walks away from him. At that time, when distributors watched the rushes, they said, “It’s a very powerful film. It’s a very good film, but there is no way that an Indian audience would accept a wife rejecting her husband after he has said sorry, so you have to change the end of the film.” Mercifully, the director and I dug our heels in and said, “No. This is the reason we made the film. We’re going to stick by this.” So the distributors thought that this film was going to sink because of the ending. And, of course, they were wrong; because it worked for precisely that reason. Oftentimes, audiences are much more ready than producers in their heads are. The film became a cult film. What happened personally with me is suddenly I had hordes of women walking to my house—not as fans to star, but in sisterhood, expecting me to resolve all of their marital problems. I was this young girl and I was frightened because I didn’t even know what to do with it. It made me aware that there is a responsibility that actors have, because people so often confuse the actor and the character. That’s, in fact, what started my involvement with the women’s movement.
I want to talk at length about that. Before we do that though, we haven’t talked about your marriage. You got married, I’m guessing, in India, even a little bit older in life.
Yes. My husband and I come from such similar backgrounds that we actually should have had an arranged marriage. Because his father was a member of the Communist Party, his father was a poet, his father was a lyricist—like my father was. The backgrounds are absolutely similar. He used to come to the house a lot, but he was the great Salim-Javed [the screenwriting team of Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan]. They were the best-known scriptwriters—the star scriptwriters—of that time. Javed would come, largely, because he had started writing poetry and he would come to my father for mentoring. I’d see him in and around the house. Then, when I got to know him, I was really taken by him because he is the most intelligent man I know: very, very bright. He was married at that time. Obviously, it was a struggle, but ultimately he got divorced and we got married. The thing with Javed is that, although he is shaped by mainstream cinema—a huge writer—I was very cognizant that he was an extremely sensitive person and had this great ability to respond to human situations in a way that I was familiar with. Ultimately, to me, he helped me understand who my father was. He took me back to my roots. Because they were so similar, particularly in their worldview. And they were similar because they had very good senses of humor—all of that. Because my father has been my hero, and I think it was a tall order for any man to sort of match up to that. But Javed really turned out to be that. Javed is one of the biggest feminists that I know.
What’s your life together been like, in terms of—because you’re both very successful artists in realms that probably take you traveling apart all of the time. Do you collaborate? Or is it more just shared support? What’s the nature of that sort of artistic relationship?
Firstly, we have a very good marriage because we never meet. That goes without saying. So we have so little time together that there’s no time to fight. Secondly, we share a common worldview. We share a common background, although he comes from mainstream cinema and my heart is in the smaller thing. Unfortunately, as a scriptwriter, I’ve done just one role that he wrote for me. He wrote a film and I was in that film, called “Main Azaad Hoon.” But he’s done a lot of lyrics for films that I’ve been in. But we definitely influence each other’s choices. He respects my work a lot and I respect his work a lot. I think the nice thing about the relationship is that we’re very good friends. In fact, Javed often jokes that “Shabana is such a good friend of mine that even marriage wouldn’t ruin our friendship.” That’s how it works. Now his children are extremely successful filmmakers in their own right. Plus Farhan [Akhtar] is also a big movie star, he’s a director and a producer and Zoya, who is the older, is a writer-director and very reputable and very, very respected.
You’re often referred to as a film family, right?
We certainly have film families in the United States as well. Is it a bigger phenomenon in India?
Normally what happens is, if you belong to a film family, then your entry into films gets facilitated, whether you’re an actor or a writer or director or something. But that’s about it. Beyond that, you have to prove yourself on your own terms. I suppose it’s a thing that happens. From the outside, it looks like a very glamorous thing to do. It also makes young girls and boys think, “All right, they don’t have to study anymore. They can just get in and become actors.” I always say, “Do not even think about going into movies until and unless you feel that you’ll die if you didn’t.”
I wanted to ask you a little bit about the films you’ve made—obviously, with 140 films, you can’t talk about all of them—so speak to the memories that stick with you.
That’s a tough one because there really is a big list. Let me begin with saying what my experience was on “City of Joy,” which was directed by Roland Joffé. It had Patrick Swayze and Pauline Collins in it. It was a big Hollywood production. They came to India to shoot this film based on the Dominique Lapierre novel “The City of Joy,” which is about a doctor from Los Angeles who comes to India—to Calcutta—and then gets involved with a slum there; and how he manages to sort of get into the nitty-gritty of the way the slum works. He learns from them and they learn from him, basically. And the respect he has for this rickshaw driver, played by a very popular Indian film actor named Om Puri—and I played his wife. Firstly, there was a lot of trouble filming, because some important people from the city decided that this was a film that was showing India in a very poor light and so came up really hostile about it. Every time we were trying to do some outdoor sequence, things would happen and we couldn’t go forward with it. I intervened and I said, “I can go in and speak to the chief minister and try and find out what’s happening.” They were shocked, because I don’t think they were used to actors taking on at all what they thought was the role of the producer. Anyway, I went and I spoke to the chief minister and said, “This is really a misconception, because they’ve also taken on board a Bengali author: the greatly respected Sunil Gangopadhyay.” Finally, we managed, but it was very difficult. That was really a big Hollywood production. What I realized is when we work together, it’s really a learning process for both film industries because in India, at that time at least, we were not so high on systems. A lot of it was ad hoc and about making do. It’s called jugaad, which is supposed to be a special Indian trait where, when disaster strikes, you somehow manage. Which of course is completely different from here because it’s so stratified; and you have this department and you look after that department and nothing else. For instance, I found it very surprising that if I had to seem like I was sweaty, then the makeup artist would come and spray water on me only up to my neck, and neck downwards it would be the dress department that would come and wet me. I would say, “By the time the dress person has finished, the makeup…” I mean, that kind of thing, which I used to find extremely hilarious! On one of the last days of the shooting, the rain machine that they had transported all the way from Los Angeles just conked and they couldn’t produce any rain. The production went completely mad because Patrick Swayze was meant to wrap up and leave in two day’s time and they thought it was going to be a complete disaster. While all of this was happening, two really young boys—about nineteen or twenty—were just sitting around and saying, “What’s the big deal? What is it that you want?” They said, “We need rain and our rain machine is not good.” They said, “That’s all right. We’ll create the rain.” And they just took some hose pipes and they really created very beautiful rain. When you see the sequence now, you see that all of those very important sequences have been done by these two boys. It was such a huge learning that, oh my god, this can actually happen.
As an aside I’ll tell you that I almost fainted on the set of “Signature Move” because there was this makeup artist. I wanted her to put some eyedrops in my eyes. She said, “I’m sorry. I can’t do that.” I said, “Well, why not?” She said, “Because I’m not an ophthalmologist.” I almost collapsed and bent over to laugh or to cry. This kind of stratification that you have here in the West is important to some extent because that’s how systems have to be put in place, right? Because on something like film, I don’t think it can work because all kinds of things happen and they go wrong and unless everyone is willing to pull in a little bit… If you just stick by the system, I don’t think it’s going to work. Also I’ll tell you there were sequences where Om Puri, who was a well-known actor and myself, well known, had to cross the street as slum-dwellers. Earlier I had done a film in which I had worked on the streets of Calcutta and on the station, which is an almost impossible exercise. We did it with hidden cameras—guerrilla—and nobody knew we were filming and we managed some really amazing shots on that railway station. But over here there were forty trucks that came in, and they wanted to block the road. It was a disaster. They just couldn’t do it, because you cannot get these two actors and have forty trucks over there and get these actors to cross; because the whole world and his brother stands to watch. We had to tell them, “Listen, I’ve done this in a film just two years ago, and we did it really, really very unobtrusively.” Ultimately for them it took so much talking and back-and-forth before they said, “All right. Let’s do it with a hidden camera.” They were very, very different systems of working. On the other hand, I must say, that I was really, really taken up by the fact that there was a sequence in which there was a woman giving birth to a baby, and I was going to be birthing that baby, because I was sort of a quasi-nurse kind of thing—helping Patrick Swayze with it. Now, before the director came on the set, I saw his first A.D. The makeup artist had done a really good job of creating an almost lifelike stomach. It was beautiful because it looked like the skin was breathing. And he was very proud of it and showed the girl with this big stomach to the A.D. He said, “Yeah, it’s good but, you know, knowing Roland I think that he would like to come very close to the stomach. Somehow the stomach is looking not alive. It’s not looking live.” So the makeup artist said, “All right. Give me some time.” And he went and created a little contraption. Then he opened up that prosthetic stomach and he put that contraption in and then got a switch in his hand. When he pushed the switch, it would look as if this baby is kicking from inside. All of this happened even without the director being on the set. For me, that was like so amazing because in the kind of art-house cinema, etc., I’ve seen directors sort of getting up and putting nails in the wall and all kinds of things done when that’s not available. This kind of total commitment I find very fascinating. Now it’s become like that in India, I must say. I’m talking about the nineties, where everybody gets a script and so everybody has divided their work and they know exactly what is required. So, when the director comes on the set, the director doesn’t have to concern herself with whether the things that are asked for are there or not. That wasn’t so in India. I told you: it was ad hoc. It was doing the first page of a scene without ever knowing whether the second page was going to come our way or not; or whether we needed to film it twenty months later or something like that. I think this kind of interaction in cinema is very important. What I like about film productions is more and more the crew is very international. So you have people from different sensibilities, different cultures coming together and making it a much more wholesome experience, rather than we are the West and we know everything and the way it works. So I think that is changing, and that’s very good.
Talk a little bit about Deepa Mehta’s “Fire” and your decision to make the film, and what happened after you made it, because it does have some connection—on some level—to what we’re doing here.
When Deepa Mehta first showed me the script of “Fire,” I read it and I liked it very much. But I also work in the slums of Bombay as an activist, and I work with women. I wasn’t sure how my working in this film would impact on my work as an activist; because, even in my work with women, I speak outside the sphere of religion. I speak on a secular platform, which sometimes for very religious people becomes very difficult. Because their husband says, “But she’s not a believer. You shouldn’t be with her.” I thought that this would impact my work. But I kept revisiting the script. Ultimately I spoke with my husband, who is a scriptwriter himself—Javed Akhtar—he said, “Do you like the film? Do you like the script?” I said, “Yes, I like it very much.” So he said, “Do you think you will be able to defend it because, obviously, it’s going to upset people. Then, if you’re going to be able to defend it, then you should do it.” I wrestled with myself because remember—this was 1995, many years before now—then I figured because I was very sure that Deepa was going to handle it with great sensitivity, that I was sure of. Then I thought that India is not a monolith and not everybody would react in the same way. Some would be enraged, some would be sympathetic, some would be deeply moved, and some would be very puzzled and start questioning. And I think that’s the maximum that a film can do. A film can create awareness in you that you can start a process of questioning. So we made the film. Then when it was released, it ran perfectly well the first week or so, with mixed responses, but full houses. Then suddenly, this right-wing political party called the Shiv Sena started protesting against the film and tearing down posters and burning down chairs and doing all kinds of things, saying that this is un-Indian. It is against Hindus. Nothing of this kind happens, etc. Now this was really to gain political mileage. So the film had to be stopped. But what happened was very heartening because civil society responded in a way that I hadn’t expected it to, which was basically saying, “Well, who are you to dictate any terms to us about what we can watch and what we can see? Particularly the only authority that has any say is the Board of Film Certification, and they’ve certified the film.” So it was some spontaneous reactions from civil society and, obviously, others from feminists and all of that making a big huge cry about it. Then an extremely respected film actor Dilip Kumar—a very senior actor—and my husband Javed Akhtar and Mahesh Bhatt—who is another director with whom I made the film “Arth”—took it to court. They said that this was illegal. In that process, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting redirected it to the Board of Film Certification and said, “Do you know in view of these protests what to do?” It was quite amazing because the boards said, “No, we have no problems with it at all.” So the film came back into the theaters. After that, it really and truly became a cult film. In India it was embraced. Some of them were offended, but largely people embraced it. Then, after that, so many years later in the world, I’m remembered for my work in “Fire” and for what the film had to say. So it is an extremely significant film.
Did it open up the Indian cinema to more films with this content or was it one of a kind?
I think what it did was open our society’s response to this entire issue. We have the draconian law, Section 377, which criminalizes homosexuality. The fact that this film came about started discussion on that, and how wrong it was to have Section 377. In India, the law is silent on lesbianism. It exists for homosexuality.
Yes, for men. After that, many years later, they did make a couple of films, but they were crass. They weren’t sensitive films at all, which crashed. But now what is happening increasingly is, in mainstream cinema—and I think that’s significant—they have started talking about gays and relationships amongst men in a way that is not pejorative, that is not making fun of them, but actually accepting that. That to me is huge. That has also happened because there are some young mainstream filmmakers who themselves are gay and who found it necessary to slip this in. I think, at the moment, Indian society is far more open on this whole issue, and it is largely to do with “Fire” being the flame that actually ignited it. For me, “Fire” was important because I felt that, if through “Fire” you could create a sense of empathy for these two sisters-in-law, then that empathy could be extended to the “other”: the other religion, the other race, the other gender. Because a normal response to people or things we don’t understand is to shun away from it or to be frightened of it. I think that if you’re included and if you’re allowed to process whatever it is that you feel, then it can be taken a step further, rather than brushing it under the carpet, which was our standard response.
Are there any other films that you want to talk about that you feel are very memorable and important that you’ve made?
I do want to talk about a film called “Paar,” which is “The Crossing” (1984), directed by Goutam Ghose. It is a film about two villagers who are ousted by the village and come into the city in search of work and can’t find any work. The wife is four months pregnant. They try to look for work. They don’t find it. Ultimately they want to go back to the village but they don’t have the money to go back. So they are given this horrible task of herding thirty-six pigs across the Ganges. While I was working on that film, how I normally work is try and find a character as close to the character as I am playing. While we were filming, we were staying in this very fancy colonial guesthouse. There was a sweeper woman there, who I started observing to see how she sits, how she walks, how she eats. In the process, we became friends. A couple of days into the shooting she said, “Would you please come to my house?” I said, “Of course,” because we’d struck up a kind of friendship. When I went to her house, I saw poverty of a kind that I had never seen before in my entire life. It was a little, tiny hut, just about 180 feet, I think. Eight people were living there. There was no air. There was no water. It was really, really dire circumstances. It really surprised me that somebody living in such dire circumstances had the generosity to become my friend. I don’t know what it triggered in me, but it was a very strong response where I felt, if I go back to Bombay without doing anything for the kind of person I was portraying—Rama in this case—then it would be a travesty of the trust that she had placed in me when we became friends. I couldn’t just say, “All right, I’m going to use you to maybe win an award in the bargain,” which I did. I got the National Award for best actress for “Paar.” “And then not concern myself at all with what happens with you.” I was completely seized by that. I came back to Bombay and saw a film called “Bombay, Our City” (1985) by a very important documentary filmmaker named Anand Patwardhan. I think it was the right film at the right time because what it did was bring into sharp focus for me that demolitions serve no purpose. They only create worse slums out of already-existing slums, because people don’t go back to the village. They come from the village in search of work, and when they come to the city they get work but they don’t find any housing. By demolishing, all you’re doing then to the person in the slums living with at least water and electricity and then goes five kilometers away from there where there is no water or electricity also, but has absolutely no choice but to go back to the city. That began my involvement with an organization called Nivara Hakk, which means The Right to Shelter. My involvement with Nivara Hakk clearly became the politicization of my work because then we started participating in agitations. I got arrested three times. We went on a hunger strike for five days. I parked myself in the middle of a very busy road in Bombay, along with four slum-dwellers and the filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. It was completely unheard of at that time. People couldn’t quite figure what was happening and whether this was a stunt, a publicity gimmick. I figured that the only way to counter all of that was to really consistently, continuously keep on working. I think it’s my work and involvement with the slums that created a lot of awareness of what this issue is and how demolitions impact women. Ultimately I think that’s what we have to our credit, that we have made homes, tenements for 50,000 people for free in Bombay. In that process, there was a period in my life when I was getting so involved with my activist work that a friend of mine, who is also a filmmaker—Aparna Sen—said that, “You know, your image is now going to come in the way of people casting you.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Because if you’re going to be in a film, people will know that there’s going to be a strong anger of rebellion to it.” As an actor, I’ve been trained in Stanislavsky’s method, and I’ve been trained to believe that an actor should be able to prefix the words “If I were” to Queen Elizabeth or a slum-dweller or a prostitute or anything and be able to do it. But if your off-screen persona is going to overwhelm the character that you are doing, that isn’t necessarily a good thing. I struggle with that. I must say I struggle with that, because also I am an actor at first. I enjoy acting very much, and I didn’t want to sacrifice it. But I also found it impossible to do films in which women were shown as subservient to men. So there were a lot of films where I felt that this is not good, and I didn’t do those films. In the process, I think because it was entirely true to myself, people started believing that, yes, there is something here; and I ultimately became a member of parliament because of all this work that I did. I still struggled because feminists with their points of view can be looking at the work only through a keyhole. Sometimes there are other issues. Also because there are grays, which are interesting for an actor to do. So I’ve sort of come out of that a little bit, but I’m absolutely one-hundred-percent certain that I wouldn’t do a film in which a woman was shown as subservient, until and unless it was done in a way where, by the end of the film, such a sense of outrage would be created in the audience that you would say, “It’s wrong.” Either that or if there has been a transformation.
Let’s talk a little bit about “Signature Move” and your decision to make it. Have you made other films in the United States, and what attracted you to this? What’s your experience been like in the two days you’ve been here so far?
I didn’t know Fawzia Mirza at all, but I think she wrote me an email. Then I was in Chicago. I had come here to do a play. I asked around, and people knew about her. I said, “All right. Let me come and meet her.” And when I met her, I found that there was a certain passion in her and a commitment to this film and that it was really important for her to make this film. That always attracts me about people, when they’re completely sold on an idea and they feel that they want to give their everything to it. I think what struck me was the fact that she says, “We need to tell our own stories. The South Asian voice is invisible here. The South Asians are so much a part of the American fabric and yet we don’t see them, particularly in cinema. It is important for us to be telling our own stories.” Now that thing I think also stuck with me, because I think in present-day times this whole issue with what is national needs to be reinvestigated. In America to a large extent it was considered that identity was about being a melting pot where you submerge all identities. Instead I do feel that identity should be like a colorful mosaic in which the smaller pieces also are significant. At present, if you look at the political situation in America, I think it’s very important that what is defined as being American is revisited. That can only be done if you’re telling your own stories, and stories that will break taboos. There are still taboos. My part: I liked the fact that she seemed like a typical South Asian woman, and yet her accepting of her daughter’s desire is respect-worthy. It is a very, very tiny film. I have worked in America before, of course, but this was a really tiny film. I had to figure out if I could fit it in within my schedule, as something that I did because I felt that—I don’t know. I don’t know if my being in the film will help the film gain some visibility or not. But I felt struck by Fawzia’s need to make this film and that I felt that my part was not of an austere or typical South Asian woman. Having come here and worked for these two days, it’s a tiny little crew. At one point I almost feel like it’s a student film, but there is an energy on the sets. I think the director is equally passionate. There’s also a feeling of great collaborativeness on the sets and the various departments that I’m enjoying.
Can you talk about what you’re doing in the area of women’s issues and what you see the issues are, especially in India, but also in other parts of the world?
I think that India is unique because it lives in several centuries simultaneously. We have people living back-to-back from the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and her people at any given time and place encapsulate all the contradictions that come from being a multi-religious, multicultural, multilingual society, so it is with the position of women. So on the one hand you have—I believe we were one of the first countries to have a woman prime minister—we’ve had a woman president, we have women in very important positions. But on the other hand it’s also true that female feticide is practiced even today. That to me is completely horrifying and I cannot believe that not enough is being done about something that is a systematic massacre of girls, and their only crime is that they’re born as girls. When you look at it, you realize that basically all over the world we live in patriarchal societies. It is a patriarchal mindset that privileges the boy from his birth for being boy, and girl is penalized for being girl. Things are changing and they will continue to change but until and unless we revisit this whole notion of patriarchy entitling the man over the woman, there will be problems. So there are various ways in which you can talk about empowerment and obviously education is perhaps the most important. But not enough attention is paid to the kind of education. Sometimes education ends up reinforcing gender divides. So what I have done with an organization that was founded by my father called Mijwan Welfare Society, which is in a tiny little village in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh. My father believed that if India is to make real progress, we really need to go back to our villages where eighty percent of the population lives. And the girl child should be the focus of development. So we’ve got school and college and computer centers in a really tiny village, and also employment generation activities.Change is a very, very slow process. The whole business of transformation is a very slow process, because ultimately it is about mindset change. That takes time. So the kind of work that I am doing in India, whether it’s entering through women’s health through maternal mortality, through child health, education, empowerment generation is actually allowing women to negotiate more space for themselves. I’ve seen now that these women are earning well for themselves. It is changing the equation between the man and the woman, because suddenly this woman who was looked on as a liability is being looked upon as an asset. That is giving her leverage and the ability to think of herself in a more positive way. So when we look at issues like violence against women, I know that India’s coming in for a lot of criticism in recent times because of the horrendous gang rapes that have been brought to light. I think violence against women has the tacit approval of society all over the world. It comes from regarding women as a commodity and as an object. All the various places in which we can change that, and I do think that movies or the media are a very important way in which we can bring about this change. I think that will also impact on society. You see, I have no quarrel with the fact that some people want to make films for entertainment. That’s perfectly fine. That’s a valid reason for making a movie. But if you believe that art has the capacity to be an instrument of social change, then it is very important what we are saying and how we are saying it. A film cannot automatically lead to a transformation, but all works of art can create a climate of sensitivity in which it is possible for change to occur. That’s what I’m looking for through my work as an actor or as an actress.
Shabana Azmi will appear at a special preview screening of “Signature Move” on Thursday, September 28, at 7pm where she will join other cast members in a post-screening Q&A. (Tickets at musicboxtheatre.com/events/signature-move-special-preview-screening.) She’ll also make several appearances at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival, including Saturday, September 30, where she’ll do a Q&A following the screening of her newest film, “Sonata.” On Friday night, the festival will present her with their Lifetime Achievement Award. (Tickets at www.csaff.org/)