More Than Just An Act

Photography: Evern Dsouza

More Than Just An Act Shabana Azmi

Shabana Azmi’s filmography is a compelling reflection of her beliefs and her social standpoint. While her first film, Shyam Benegal’s Ankur, won her the National Award, Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth reformed her perception of her role as an actor and the responsibility bestowed upon an artist as an instrument of social change. An actor par excellence, a social activist who continues to defy her critics and a woman of many attributes - Shabana Azmi, a five-time National Award Winner and Padma Shri recipient, epitomizes an almost enviable trajectory in Hindi cinema. In  a candid conversation, she reveals her feelings towards the emancipation of women. Excerpts follow:

Apart  from  films,  your  work  as  a  social activist  is  not  only  inspiring  but  has given direction and hope to many people, women in particular. What do you think is the way forward for Indian society? 
It’s no secret that India is a patriarchal society  where  girls  lack  equal  access to  education, health, employment  and control over their own decision-making ability. I think it’s time for each segment of society  to  look  within  themselves, instead  of  portioning  blame  on  others-the police, the law makers, the justice or films -and see what is it that we can do to change this mindset. Having said that, I believe that art has the ability to create a climate of sensitivity in which it is possible for change to occur and so movies,  literature,  drama  and  theatre - all  have  this  possibility  that  should be utilized. There are some people who believe  films  are  only  for  entertainment,  so  let’s  redefine entertainment. It is much more in the subliminal messaging that we need informed choices.

More Than Just An Act A film still from The Reluctant Fundamentalist

A film still from The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Do  you  think  the  female  actor  has  the capacity to bring about a change in the way women are portrayed in films? 
Absolutely.  Nobody  else  but  the  actor can initiate this change. Because, when you  accept  a script,  you  accept  that you are happy with the way the girl is portrayed. Beedi  jalaiyle  jigar  se piya,  I think,  is  really  robust  and  celebrates a  woman’s  sensuality.  It  shows  her  in control  and is  based  in  our  folk  tradition and is fun to watch, but if you say, Mein  toh  tandoori  murgi  hoon yaar, ghatka  le  saiyyan  alcohol  se you  are actually inviting the man to come and attack  you.  So my  plea  is  that  vulgar lyrics  and  vicarious  camera  angles  do not empower a woman, it commodifies her and girls need to be aware of that. In the past, I have done films in which I  wasn’t aware  of  what  the  ultimate message  was  and  I have  been  corrected and I stood corrected and after that I made informed choices.

Do  you  think  in  order  to  bring  about an  informed  change,  the  film  industry needs leadership, and do you think it should be a woman?
Yes, but it does not necessarily have to come from a woman, it will be great if it’s a woman. I think many leaders can emerge from within the film industry. The actual soul searching though, I hope will come from the young generation. The younger  generation  is  not bound  to mainstream  cinema.  They are making different kinds of films. For instance Vicky Donor is a perfect example  of  excellent  subliminal  messaging. It’s written by Juhi Chaturvedi, a woman,  and  I  think many  of  those  scenes, particularly  the  relationship  between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law, beautifully paints a realistic image of a woman.

In your career in films, are there things  that you wish  you  had  done differently?
There  is  one  film  that  comes  to  my mind  that  was  an  eye  opener  for  me. In  the  early  ‘80s, I  was  working  on  a film  called Thodi si  Bewafaii and  I  was really  satisfied  with  myself.  The film was  a  silver  jubilee  and  I  was  quite happy having scored a substantial role, until  at  a women’s  conference  it  was brought to my notice that the ultimate  message  of  the  film  robbed  a woman of any choice. My character is a woman who walks out on a bad marriage but ultimately comes back to her husband with  her  tail  between  her  legs.  The realization of this message was a revelation for me and made me aware of how important it is to make informed choices as an actor. 

This article initially appeared in our 2013 Fashion issue and is a part of our extensive archive.

Text Akanksha Gupta