If you asked Shabana Azmi for a copy of her resume, it would include an enormous array of achievements: film, theatre, and television actress; a member of one of India’s most talented families; wife to India’s favorite poet; step-mom to one of Hindi cinema’s coolest film directors and social activist. This may explain why Time Magazine deemed her as an Asian hero and a “crusader for justice.” A top-notch actress in parallel and mainstream cinema, she seems to be only getting better with time. Making her performances look effortless, she also managed to create a niche for herself and other actresses who believe in offbeat cinema. After receiving critical acclaim for her role in The Loins of Punjab Presents, she will next be seen in Onir Anirban’s Sorry Bhai!. Our writer, Stacey Yount, was lucky enough to grab a few minutes with Shabana Azmi while she was in San Francisco for the premiere of The Loins of Punjab Presents and she was gracious enough to answer a few questions.
What drew you to the character in Sorry Bhai!?
Many things really. I play a bossy wife and mother, and the challenge was to not sacrifice her bossiness and yet make her likable. She’s different from the characters that I normally play in Hindi films: very strong, very moral, and very good women. Sorry Bhai! is a very gentle, sweet film, but its characters are spunky. It takes relationships in Hindi cinema and explores them on another level, but all done very gently and with great dignity.
How was it working with Onir, the director?
We enjoyed the whole process. All of us got along very well. This was the second film I was doing with Boman Irani straight after Honeymoon Travels, and he keeps spirits up of the unit. We were constantly playing games such as dumb charades and word games and everyone was in a good mood. Onir – we used to tease him mercilessly that it is very difficult to ever extract a compliment out of him. We would look at each other and say that there is no chance in this lifetime that our director was going to let us know if he likes anything. We would tease him about that. He’s a very sweet, nice, and gentle but very firm about what he was looking for.
What was your favorite scene in the film?
I think there are two favorite scenes in the film. The first is when I am with my hone-wali daughter-in-law whom I really don’t like, where I tell her about my relationship with my older son, who’s the boy she’s engaged to be married to. And in that particular scene there are many changes, because it starts with her being nostalgic about her son. In India he used to take his mother out to dinner twice a month, and this is the warm relationship that has gone away because he’s settled abroad now. Suddenly, out of the blue, she turns around and asks her daughter-in-law, why don’t you people come and get married in India at home? It turns into an unpleasant scene, so starting from one, it goes into another, and then it gets completed in another scene in a tent. I go into her tent, and find out what kind of person she is and then a bond is formed between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law to be. So both these scenes are very nice.
When you started out in the film industry, did you think you would be as critically acclaimed as you are today?
No. (Laughs) I didn’t think so. I mean, in spite of the fact that I was a gold medalist from the Film Institute; I had no idea which way my career would go. I had no idea. I was very fortunate that I happened to be at the right place at the right time.
What was it like to win a national award for your first film?
I didn’t even register it properly – I think because it happened so suddenly! There was the national award, the film was chosen for the Berlin Film Festival: it had so much success that I don’t think I even registered that I actually won the national award in the first place.
And now you’ve won five so far, how does that feel?
Good. I mean obviously good. So far it’s a record, and it’s also interesting because my husband also won five national awards. I won three in a row, and Javed also won three in a row. So it feels nice.
So what has been your favorite role so far?
It’s difficult to say really. I enjoyed Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth because at the time that it released, it became a cult film for women. And so many years later, I still see women still reacting to the film and drawing strength from it.
Would that be your favorite film too?
There are several favorites really. Different favorites for different reasons: Ankur, because it was my very first film; Arth, because it got me involved with women’s issues; Paar because it got me involved with the slum dwellers, Nivara Hakk, which is an organization I head and have been associated with for the last twenty-odd years. And Nivara Hakk has just built 12,000 homes roughly for slum dwellers in Bombay. It is the largest single rehabilitation project in the whole of Asia.
Amazing! You are known for your social activism; which causes are close to your heart?
Well, for the last twenty years, I have worked as the president of an organization called Nivara Hakk, and this works with slum dwellers in Mumbai and like I mentioned, we have just built 12,000 homes. We believe that the problem of slums cannot be resolved unless people get employment in the villages so that they don’t have to migrate to the city in search of work. But once they come into the city, they find work but they don’t find housing. In a city like Bombay, seventy percent of the people live in slums and unless you can provide housing for them, this problem just going to continue.
What would you say to inspire people to get involved with social causes?
I think a lot of times, people are sensitive and they want to help but they don’t know how to start. They also feel that ‘the problem is so large, and there is so little means, so what can I do to change things’, and I would encourage them by saying, even if you can make a difference in the life of just one person, it’s better than not doing anything at all. At least one drop can make an ocean. Don’t undervalue the effort that you can make a difference.
Has it ever been hard to come out of a character after a film is done?
Sometimes the character stays with you, lingers with you. More often it’s individual scenes that stay with you. But because I come from a family of artists, I am given my space and I am allowed to recover from it. But more interestingly, I think my involvement with both the women’s issues and the slums came from the fact that I come from a family where my parents believed that art should be used as an instrument of social change. Along with that working in films that are talking about social justice, and so a point comes when some of the residue of what you are playing gets left behind in your personal life and that is how you get involved.
When making a film, is there ever a point when you know if it is going to be a good film or a bad film?
Bad, I don’t know. But you can sense largely when a good film is going to come out.
Who is your favorite director to work with?
I’ve enjoyed working with Shyam Benegal, Mahesh Bhatt, and Deepa Mehta.
Who do you feel is one of the best actors in the new generation?
Hrithik Roshan, and I was very impressed with my son’s work in the film Rock On!! Although that was just his first film, I thought his performance in Rock On!! was pitch perfect.
What do you feel makes a good actor?
That’s a difficult question to answer really, because there are so many things that make a good actor. I think sensitivity to receive the scene, and the imagination to be able to communicate it.
What is something that no one knows about you?
That I like to be lazy!
You’ve performed in theatre, films and on television. Which do you feel is the most difficult medium, and which do you feel the best working in?
I feel the most comfortable working in films. I consider myself a cinema actor, basically. Theatre and cinema are both challenging in different ways. The key thing in theatre is how do you perform night after night, yet keep it alive and stop it from becoming stale. In theatre you do not get a second chance, and in film you can always go for a retake. But in cinema you cannot afford to lie, because your face will be caught in a big close up, whereas in theatre you are not necessarily feeling the emotions one hundred percent and yet you can give the impression. So, both have their own challenges.
Is it hard because in theatre you go from scene one to scene two and in cinema you go from scene two to scene seven and so on.
I think that it is definitely difficult and that’s why my training at the film institute has helped very greatly.
So do you think all aspiring actors and actresses should get training?
I am a firm believer in training. I know that there are some people who, without any training, have done very well, but I feel with the talent that they have, if they would have received training, they would have been even better.
Name three things that make you decide to do a film.
Different things. The script sometimes, because I feel it is an important film that needs to be made and I need to support it, and at other times because the money is good.
Do you think that there is anything lacking in Bollywood film these days?
I think there is a whole range of Hindi cinema which is made, and it is an exciting time as an actor to be there, but I really do think that within mainstream Hindi cinema I would like to see greater representation of strong women and more visibility for working women.
Do you think there is anything lacking in Hollywood — Western cinema?
I don’t know what exactly you mean by the word “lacking” – it’s a very hard term for an entire industry and it’s also a very sweeping term. You can’t say it for a whole body of work.
So since Hindi cinema is becoming very well known outside India, do you think there are any tradeoffs being made with regards to the way movies are being made?
Well, I think we have arrived. India has a new confidence, and new confidence in our culture, and I think it’s good that we understand that if the world is going to get interested in our cinema that they have to do it without stripping us of our basic strengths. Song and dance is part of the routine and even though it may seem alien, that’s what it is. I think what we need to do is to cut down on the length of our films a little bit.
What advice would you give to an actor or actress who is just starting out in Hindi cinema?
Learn to find the truth. That’s important.
What are some of your exciting upcoming films?
Sorry Bhai! is my next film up for release. I am in the U.S. for a film called The Loins of Punjab, which released yesterday, and at the moment I am doing a film called Mukti (release) and the second film is Kalpvriksh, which means The Wishing Tree. I’ll be doing Deepa Mehta’s and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children.
Do you think there is a divide between offbeat and commercial cinema?
I think it’s getting reduced day by day, and I think a healthy mix, because actors in mainstream cinema are working in art cinema and art cinema people are moving to mainstream cinema and I think that is always healthy.
What has been your favorite movie so far this year?
And my last question: Do you have any messages for your fans?
No. I am not a guru; I don’t see myself as a guru at all.
After her honest and sincere responses, she signs off. Shabana Azmi lives up to her larger than life image and yet stays as humble as possible. Her performances are always packed with versatility and dignity, and while Sorry Bhai! seems to be ‘zara hatke’ from her usual more somber roles, we’re sure this one is going to be a yet another highlight of her illustrious career – definitely not one to be missed. Sorry Bhai! releases November 28th.