“The show must go on”—Shaukat Azmi has always subscribed to the motto and has always expected her daughter Shabana to do the same. So when, in March, Shabana twisted her leg just before a performance of the one-woman play Broken Images, Shaukat didn’t see any reason why she shouldn’t carry on with the performance. By the time the play was over, the foot had fractured. A month later, Shabana is radiant and relaxed in her hotel suite in New Delhi, ahead of two back-to-back performances of Broken Images. Her right foot is bandaged and she walks with a slight limp. She will take painkiller injections before the show begins. The complete transcript of a conversation with Shabana about, among other things, her latest film It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, directed by Gurinder Chadha:
It’s a Wonderful Afterlife has been accused by some of pandering to Western stereotypes of Indians. Is that a fair comment?
Not at all. Tell me how many instances there are of Indian mothers killing suitors who have rejected her daughter. It doesn’t pander to any type of stereotype at all. In fact it is completely wacky. It is brand Gurinder Chaddha in all her glory. And it’s actually in a genre that is pretty well loved in the UK that is called the Ealing comedy – which has comedy plus an element of horror in it. Mrs Sethi is a widow living in Southall with a single point agenda of getting her 30-year-old daughter married.
Leading lady: (above) A scene from It’s a Wonderful Afterlife; and Shabana Azmi.
So what was it like working with Gurinder Chaddha?
Gurinder Chaddha to work is very much the kind of person you would expect when you would watch her films. She is happy, she laughs a lot. She doesn’t get neurotic when things don’t go right. She keeps the atmosphere light and happy. But because she is also the co-writer of the film she had very clear views of how it ought to be made. Actually, when I read the script I had no idea how it was to be played; it had absolutely no precedent to be played here. And in fact I told her you’ll just have to take my little finger and guide me through this because I have no idea.
Because of the unfamiliarity of the genre?
Yes, because of the unfamiliarity of the genre…and I really was guided by her a lot.
It would be an understatement to say that you are an established actor... Do you have a problem with the term “actor/actress”?
No, I was in fact the one who started the term “actor” in India.
So you prefer “actor”?
Actually, I learnt it from Deepa Mehta. It was based on a conscious choice—why should the profession be identified with the male? Because, you don’t say “doctor and doctors” and you don’t say “writer and writeress”. The gender is not an automatic given there. So that’s why one started using it as a conscious choice and now I am really glad that it has sort of trickled down and everybody is using it. But now that it is clearly established, I don’t have problem with using either.
As an established actor do you like to do things your way? I mean what new thing can a director tell you now after all these years?
You know a film is such a collaborative process—and the director is really the captain of the ship. Theatre that way is much more an actor’s medium, because you have control. Once you are on stage—never mind whatever directions you got—that moment you can change things around and nobody can do anything about it. But for film, to me it would make no sense to agree to work under the direction of somebody and then say, “I am not going to listen to you, I am going to do it my way.” To me it just cannot happen. You have to listen to your director. If you have problems with a director, then it should be part of the decision-making whether you want to do a film or not. But after you have agreed to work with a director—then of course there are bits where you feel that it should be interpreted differently and you can work it out. But ultimately, I think as an actor I think it is your business to surrender to and submit to the vision of the director.
In theatre though the director can come back and say “look this is how I expect you to do things”.
That’s right, it can vary. But ultimately, if I want to cock a snook and say, “No, I want to play it this way today” (I can do it). Because, there is a certain live energy and live quality (to theatre) that gets determined by other things. So, in that sense you have far greater control over what you do in theatre than you do in films. Thing is, film is an extremely collaborative medium—the actor gets a lot of the focus simply because she is in front of the camera. But the fact is that if you give a good performance, it is because it is very well written, because it’s been directed, because there are whole series of technicians working behind the screen to enhance all your strengths and to reduce your weaknesses. And then, you get all the glory. Itne saare log aapki madad karte hain tab aap kar sakte ho decent kaam. (It is only after so many people help you that you can do decent work.)
As an actor when you have to depict an Indian character, is it different in English films than when you depict a character in a Hindi film?
Depends on the language—when the language is different then it works differently. I think it came as a huge surprise to me—many years ago, when I did a film with Shirley McClain called Madam Souzatska. I think of myself as an English speaking person—I think in English and I am very comfortable with the language. And yet I remember when I had to speak dialogue in English, it seemed so strange—my English seemed so strange to my ears. Because, I could see it in contrast to the English that was being spoken by the English people. It kept jarring in my years and I felt I had a very strong Indian kind of accent. It troubled me because I couldn’t own words in the same kind of way that I owned Hindustani words. In India when you are working, like when I am doing Broken Images which is in English, I don’t have any problem with it because everybody around me is also speaking it in the same manner.
When Indian actors play or act in films overseas—is there a pressure to portray a stereotype? Does one automatically slip into an image of what someone else expects an Indian to be?
In fact, it is completely the opposite. You know because we keep saying that the world is becoming a global village. Nowhere is that more evident than in a film unit. Because, I remember when I was doing Madam Souzatska, I was the odd person out. I was the only Indian then. So, I felt self-conscious about who I was. But today, on a film set you’ll find a Polish person, a Chinese, a Kenyan, an Indian. You’ll find an American. The set it is really like a global village. And within the film structure, I think that there is no attempt at all (to portray stereotypes). Unless the film is deliberately about stereotypes. Then it is different thing all together, but otherwise no! It is so uninteresting to play a stereotype. I couldn’t be engaged in something that reinforced a stereotype, unless it was done in humor.
One cannot always be choosy about the film role one is offered? So, does one have to do roles one is not very thrilled about?
I always say that my career has been about being at the right place at the right time. I have been very fortunate in that because I started with my very first film Ankur—(and with that) the whole parallel cinema started. I was amongst the first actors who worked in mainstream films and in art cinema. Then I worked in the West very early on and now I am at this wonderful happy state where all kinds of films are being made with all kinds of roles being available for actors of all ages—something which was unthinkable just about ten years ago. I mean, if you look at my career graph, the roles which I have done in the last 5-6 years are possibly the best roles of my career. You know, 10-15 years ago, once you were 30 then it was the end. There was no way that you were going to get anything that was pivotal. You’d get the token suffering mother, the supporting wife—all that kind of thing. But that’s completely changed now.
Why do you say that the last five years have been the best in terms of the roles you have played?
But just look at the films—starting with It’s a Wonderful Afterlife in which I have played the pivotal role. Look at Godmother, at Saaz, look at Morning Raga—these are wonderful parts.
The play Broken Images written by Girish Karnad, in which you are currently acting, explores issues of writing, kinship, language and deception. That is quite a contrast to the relatively light fare of IWAL? (Azmi plays the lead character in Broken Images and she also plays the character that is on a television screen onstage. The play revolves around a dialogue between Azmi onstage and Azmi on the television screen.)
In fact (the play’s director) Alex’s interpretation of Broken Images is far more intense than the Hindi version, and more dramatic. And that’s a choice he made deliberately. For me, it is challenging not only in terms of technique—because you have to get your timing exactly right, because the person you are playing off against (is fixed and pre-recorded on the television screen and) cannot adjust to you. If you miss something, how are you going to retrieve it with no help from that image at all? It is a big challenge. Then, the entire shot of the (television) image, which is 44 minutes long, I did in one take. If I had gone wrong in the 42nd minute, we would have had to redo the whole thing again. And the fact is that not for a minute did I believe that I would get it right. So there was a certain relaxed quality to me, which I think suddenly worked and then suddenly towards the 40th minute I started saying, “Oh my god. This is getting over, it’ll actually work.” So that has been very challenging. Then the cleverness of the writing makes you shift your sympathy constantly—so you don’t know who is the victim and who is the victimizer. At times you feel it is the image, at times you feel it is (the protagonist) Manjula. So all of that has been interesting—I have always resisted doing a one-woman show. I have been offered it many times and I have always found it not something that interests me. And yet, the minute I finished reading the script, I said yes I’ll definitely do it.
So any comments on doing something weighty like Broken Images and doing something very light like IAWA?
How do you judge who is a very good actor? It is not like a horse race in which one who runs the fastest in the shortest period of time comes out a winner. It is perfectly possible that somebody who plays a wonderful Hamlet can play a disastrous Othello. So it is perfectly possible that you do a dramatic role very well and then you fail entirely in comedy, or the other way around. So, if you have to mark who is really good actor, I would imagine that versatility should be some kind of a benchmark. And so there can be nothing more delightful than to do these two completely different genres and try to inhabit them in a way that they become believable.
Many hold theatre to be superior to films any day. As an actor intimate with both mediums, what would you say to that?
I am basically a cinema actor. I have been trained professionally as a cinema actor. But I find the medium of theatre very exciting. It requires different disciplines; it requires different abilities. I think it is very rewarding for an actor to be able to do both. To hold one above the other, I wouldn’t agree with that. Because like there are certain compulsions in one medium, there are in the other. There are different constraints; there are different strengths. The process of inhabiting a part is essentially the same. Maybe in film you get less time and in theatre you get more time because you get such a long period of rehearsals. But how you go about exploring the character, finding out what is in the subtext, looking for meaning within the words and the silences—all of that is basically more or less the same.
But it is said that actors especially find it much more fulfilling to do theatre.
Not necessarily. See, (in theatre) the obvious thing that an actor has to do is, when night after night you play the same part how do you imbibe it with any freshness. But look at the kind of neurotic demands that are made on the actor in cinema. Now I am in silhouette and the camera is watching me in silhouette against a sky in which the sun is about to sink. Now, precisely the moment before which the sun is supposed to set, a tear is to drop from my eye. Now can you imagine how difficult that is and yet for us it is part of our technical skill to be able to do that. And also be able to do it in public. You know, suppose I am required on the beach to do this. I am surrounded by a crowd who is whistling, doing all kinds of things. And so I have to create this atmosphere of public solitude where I am completely oblivious to anything but what is required of me. It is a very special skill that Stanislavsky talks about a great deal. So film also has its own challenges. Aisa nahinh hai ki theatre is infinitely superior. I don’t believe that at all. Look at the close up. In the 75 mm lens there is no way you can tell lies; the camera will catch it instantly. You use your body in a different way in theatre. But I think both have their challenges and I like both.
Is there any difference between working in Hollywood and in British films that strikes you?
I think there is a lot more money in Hollywood. The systems are now beginning to be more or less the same, but there is lot more money in Hollywood in the films that I have done. I did a small part in the Son of Pink Panther. For which, if you please, I was flown from India to London and from London to Milan for a day to be dressed by (Giorgio) Armani himself. Now that’s as glamorous as it gets. And then we shot in Amman and we shot in London and we shot in Delhi. And then, Julie Andrews was the wife of (the director) Blake Edwards and they had their own plane parked in the studios. And on Friday evenings, after warp, they would fly into Switzerland from London and stay there over the weekend and come back. So it was all very huge and big and things like that. In comparison films produced in the UK have much less money.
You debuted with Ankur and were closely associated with the parallel cinema movement? Do you miss the good and meaningful roles and the directors you worked with?
They are right here. I am still working with Aparna Sen and Shyam Benegal—with all the people I have so much respect and love for. There are all there, raring to go. Shyam has just made a lovely film called Well Done Abba; Aparna sen made a beautiful film called The Japanese Wife. People keep thinking that parallel cinema has disappeared, but I think that’s not true. I think it has taken on a different avatar, because look at all the independent films that are being made today. Okay they are not dealing with rural issues. They are dealing with the small town and they are dealing with the city. (Basically) dealing with the background that are familiar to the filmmakers themselves. Because we have now got a whole lot of very young filmmakers—Western educated, English speaking, urban India ko belong kartey hain, which is fine. Because, India is a country that lives in several centuries simultaneously. The only thing I find worrying is that the village seems to have disappeared from the Hindi film altogether. Now 70-80% of India lives in her villages. And to completely make that section of society invisible in your films is a matter of concern.
But that focus of looking at issues of social relevance seems to have gone?
That space has shrunk. But other things are also happening—I mean all of these films about small town India which were not being seen earlier are being seen and explored in interesting ways. I grew up in an atmosphere in which I believed that, because of the way my parents were, that art should be used as an instrument for social change. And that space is definitely shrinking. I don’t believe that cinema can actually bring out real change. I mean you don’t go and watch Gandhi and from the next day start behaving like Gandhi. So, I don’t think it is an instant reaction. But I think all art has the possibility to create a climate of sensitivity in which it is possible for change to occur. And that space, I think, the creative artist should never give up. Although I have no quarrel with making films purely for entertainment, except that I feel you need to redefine that entertainment. Some of the stuff that goes in the name of entertainment is really just boring, bland and vulgar.
Can you suggest a way out for making socially relevant films?
Unless funds become available to filmmakers who want to make films like that, it is just not going to happen.
But then people don’t watch such films?
I am not very sure that people don’t watch it. I think they aren’t marketed correctly. It’s a skewed situation. A mainstream film which has a top star and a top production house doesn’t really need too much marketing. All you need to do is announce that the film is coming and everybody will want to see it. But crores of rupees are spent on its marketing. Along comes a little film that nobody knows anything about and doesn’t even have stars. But you get absolutely no money for the marketing. By the time people realize, “Accha yeh picture hai, its got good reviews, chalo chal ke dekhein”, it is already out of the theatre. And then we say we don’t have audiences for it. There is group of people who are doing precisely that (trying to make socially relevant art films viable). They are putting together an equity—these are Harvard educated young boys who are doing that to take money to socially relevant films and, within the budget, earmarking a strong amount of the budget for marketing. It is good that they are not “bleeding heart” people. They are actually management professionals—business people from Harvard who think it is perfectly possible to work within this niche. Thing is, for this (type of) film the audience will be smaller; it won’t compare with audiences of mainstream cinema. So if you can control the budget and if you can make that work, then I am pretty certain that the monies can be recovered.
Do you like Hindi films you see today, made by Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap and Diwaker Banerjee?
All three of them I find very interesting. I also find my own son and daughter Farhan and Zoya very interesting filmmakers. They are not really catering to the mainstream cinema.
Any thoughts on this trend?
I find it heartwarming because I think that Anurag Kashyap and all are also experimenting with form, which is very important. Because cinema (in India) has traditionally been done in a particular way and that has gone on and on and on. Whereas, I think that cinema as a medium lends itself to being explored greatly. And what people like Anurag and Vishal are doing is interesting to watch and stimulating.
Couple of years and it’ll be 40 years in the industry for you.
I just tripped before I had a show of Broken Images and I went on to do that. (As a result I) fractured the foot. And it was my mother, by the way, who said the show must go on. Because she is a theatre person and she is the kind of person dedicated to theatre which is completely unbelievable. I remember I was once doing a performance of (the play) Tumhari Amrita in Bombay and I had been arrested along with 16 slum dwellers. We were falsely accused of creating a riotous situation, whereas we had actually gone to stop that riot from happening. So, I absolutely refused to take bail. My mother and my father, and my husband Javed and Firoz and Farooq all came to the police station. And my mother went onstage and said, “Shabana is an actor but also an activist and she has been arrested and we are trying to get her out, but if you want your ticket reimbursed (you can).” No one stirred. And this was at the NCPA in Mumbai! She came back and she told the police, “You know she has a commitment. She is an actor. There is an audience waiting for her. Please just allow her to go for this one and a half hour and then you can bring her back and put her behind bars. I have no problem.” So that’s the kind of commitment, that’s the kind of school they come from. “The show must go on.”
At some point from the leading lady you have to play the leading lady’s mother?
It is all a very natural process, and what I find most comfortable. Because, what I would find very pressured and very difficult to do is try and play (a role) much younger than my age. That, I think can work in theatre but definitely not in cinema. But if you look at my career graph even within the mainstream cinema, the parts that I was playing were not merely that of a leading lady. It was substantial character parts—if you look at Masoom, if you look at Arth, if you look at Avatar—these were character parts who happened to be the leading lady. So slipping into the older age group has been a natural process, because I wasn’t at any point just a leading lady who was depending on glamour and running around trees to be successful. So this has been absolutely natural for me. And I embrace it completely.
I guess it parallels changes in real life—you age and you make mental adjustments accordingly.
What I would not want to do is play inconsequential parts, simply because one has to work. That I would not do. Today, I do everything and anything without worrying whether it would run or not run—it is for the pleasure. And do it for different reasons. You know, I’d do a film because I feel the director is new and bright. And has something nice to offer, and somebody who I feel needs to be supported. Sometimes the money is good. There is a kind of freedom that I didn’t have earlier, that I enjoy. When you are a leading lady, then there is pressure that you have to work in such a number of films that also must run at the box office. Unless your films run at the box office, no one is going to watch the films that (aren’t mainstream films)—that are trying to say different things in a parallel language. So it is conscious decision to match both the streams. That position in mainstream cinema which gave me the position of a “star” encouraged people to come and watch the other films as well.
The resource base for an actor must be life itself. Because only then can you be connected and stay emotionally responsive. For an actor, jaise abba kehte the ki “artist ke liye uski mittii gili honi chahiye.” So how do you stay in a state of sensitivity unless you are also connected with life? What happens in the process of stardom is you start getting removed from life—surrounded by concentric circles of people who are protecting you and protecting your privacy. So right up from your bodyguards, to you manager, to your hairdresser, to your makeup artist, to the spot boy—it is almost impossible to reach you. So you get cocooned in this kind of ivory tower and lose your connection with life, with real people. How then will you make your mitti gili, unless you make a conscious decision to move away from this paraphernalia and actually feel the earth. That’s very important for an artist—not just for an actor but any kind of artist.
I got involved with Nivara Haq, which is an organization that works for slumdwellers in Mumbai. “Nivara haq” means “the right to shelter”. I head an organization called Nijwa Welfare Society in UP in Azamgarh, in a little village where my father was born. These connections with real people is also due to the fact—apart from the background that I came from, and my father and mother being who they are—it is also because when you are an artist it becomes impossible to treat your work like a nine to five job and say that I’ll play people who will fight against social injustice and six o clock come back to my air conditioned comfort and just switch off. You know a time will come when some of the residue of what you have played will filter down into your real life as well. And then you start getting connected and start getting involved. And that is how I got involved both with the slums and with women’s issues.
It’s a Wonderful Afterlife released in theatres on Friday.