"Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does"
~ William James

Faces of India
Shabana Azmi

Romola Butalia paints a vivid sketch of Shabana Azmi, social activist, actor, and above all, a human being worth meeting.

Shabana Azmi reiterates on a television program, "The Big Fight" that she is more than willing to be 'used' for several causes that she believes in, like women's issues, the plight of slum dwellers, etc.

Watching her speak, I am reminded of a series of interviews I had done with several women including Shabana Azmi, Kishori Amonkar and Medha Patkar. That particular introspective television program for Doordarshan was about how women achievers feel about themselves, their sucesses and failures, their responsibilities, conflicting social and personal roles, their driving passions, their perspective of a woman in a changing society where men have long dominated.

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Shabana spoke with the sincerity, forthrightness and commitment that has always left me feeling, she is for real. She is a delight to interview: intelligent, incisive, with the courage of her convictions, remarkably able to draw into herself and introspect and then share her feelings and beliefs with candour and integrity.

In the course of my professional life, I have met a large number of interesting names and faces from the Hindi film industry. I cannot think of a person there whom I would prefer to interview than Shabana. Not merely because she has so much to say that makes sense, but because I find her a multi-faceted personality with enormous depth and perspective. She has a ready wit, an unaffected charm and a natural grace. She laughs as readily as she expresses irritation and annoyance. She has the strength and confidence to allow her vulnerabilities to surface.

Shabana does not believe in half measures. When she acted as the paan-chewing whorehouse madam in Mandi, she put on weight to play the robust, lively role with delightful crudity. As the tragic protagonist in Khandaar, Shabana plays the tragic Jamini where she superbly portrays her lot in life by the very resignation of her stance. In Masoom, playing the typical wife and mother in urban Indian society, who is forced to mature with life's changing circumstances, Shabana catches every inflection of mood and feeling. Graduating from FTII in 1972, she will be remembered always for her powerful national award winning performance in Ankur in 1974, as the betrayed wife in Arth for which she received the filmfare and national awards in 1982, for her award winning roles in Bhaavna, Paar and Swami.

On stage, as Amrita in "Tumhari Amrita", Shabana proved her mettle in live performances, in a play which ran five long years to packed audiences and immense critical acclaim. She went on to do a month-long tour with The Singapore Repertory Company, in Ingmar Bergman's adaptation of Ibsen's Doll's House, directed by Rey Buono.

At the end of a long morning spent interviewing her on camera, she invited me to the first private screening of Deepa Mehta's Fire. Her controversial role as Radha later earned her international acclaim with the Silver Hugo Award at the 32nd Chicago Film Festival. As the lonely childless Radha who confronts her own lesbianism in the developing relationship with her sister-in-law, through conflict, pain and turmoil, she makes impossible choices to celebrate her own sense of self. Surely Shabana is one of the few Indian actors who has the range and talent to sensitively portray this character and leave audiences momentarily speechless.

It is true that having watched most of her films, I can readily identify her facial expressions, a certain manner of speech, with emotions she has brought alive through her films. And what makes her a very special person is that off screen she does not hide behind an inscrtutable mask of unreality as many actors do. Here is a woman who has explored her mind and her feelings and emotions so thoroughly, she is always willing and ready to challenge herself.

The sensitivity of her portrayals on film, her ability to get under the skin of any character, her unerring sense of timing are part of her personality, which allows suffering to touch her. That is what made her years ago commit herself to championing the cause of the underpriveleged. Acting out their roles in several films, she found herself unable to walk away from their lives, and felt compelled to draw attention to their plight, by actually vocalising their needs, well beyond the intellectual realm of drawing attention to it through the medium of film. That she is now a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha is a recognition of the fact that hers is not an arm-chair social activism, but is an apolitical voice that demands to be heard.

Of-course her sense of values has much to do with her childhood and upbringing. Her early years hold fond memories of the idealism of her parents, of the influence of communism and a fierce activism, as much as of the arts. Her father, eminent poet and writer, Kaifi Azmi and her mother, stage artiste Shaukat Azmi brought up Shabana and her cinematographer brother, Baba Azmi in a liberal atmosphere of intellectual growth. Shabana remembers her home as constantly throbbing with activity and people. Childhood was not about materialism, but about human values, success was measured in commitment, passion and courage as much as laurels and accolades. She maintains close family ties, and the ideals of her childhood continue to dominate the choices she has made in later life.

Her husband Javed Akhtar, acclaimed lyricist, poet and writer shares her values, provides enormous intellectual stimulation and gives her both the support and the space to grow and develop. Javed's keen mind, seemingly easy-going nature and delightful sense of humour can only add balance and proportion to the intense and earnest Shabana. It is a pleasure indeed to talk to either of them separately, or both of them together. Their home in Juhu is no glittering designer house, but a home in the real sense of the word which so clearly reflects their personalities - with plenty of light, air and space, with warmth and easy informality.

Shabana is one of the rare few in the public limelight, who have not got caught up in the magic web of a larger than life image. Obviously, she has found much more meaning in life, than her mere public image, where she carries herself with poise and dignity. Here is a woman who is in touch with herself and who is in consonance with an India of a billion people - she knows how they live, she walks their reality, she does not merely act out their roles.

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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.