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Shabana Azmi in Shyam Benegal’s ‘Mandi’.
Shabana Azmi in Shyam Benegal’s ‘Mandi’.

Shabana Azmi | The grande dame

A bridge between the New Wave and the formulaic, Shabana Azmi's acting oeuvre is full of risks, contradictions, variety and excellence

Think of Shabana Azmi and images of her roles in off-beat Hindi cinema come to mind. What are today called indie films were those days known as parallel cinema or, in the spirit of the French La Nouvelle Vague, the New Wave. Low budgets, realistic stories and treatment, directors from outside the mainstream roster and relatively new actors, more often than not from among the alumni of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune—these were the foundational pillars of the Indian New Wave. Azmi, a freshly minted FTII graduate, was a leading light of such films and indeed, made her debut in one—Ankur (1974)—immediately capturing the attention of both critics and discerning audiences alike.

What is less acknowledged is the fact that along with the Shyam Benegal films, Azmi dived into commercial cinema right off the top. The same year as Ankur released, Azmi showed up as one of the many sisters in Dev Anand’s monumental flop Ishk Ishk Ishk and followed it with Fakira (1976) and then Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) in quick succession. Another film she acted in during that period was Shaque (1976), a middle-of-the-road venture by Aruna-Vikas. She played the wife of a middle-class man (Vinod Khanna), whom she begins to suspect as a murderer.

This switching between art cinema and the big world of masala films, or potboilers, was not as easy as it sounds. The New Wave directors wanted to break out of the stultifying conventions of the formula and choosing unknown faces was definitely part of that strategy. At the same time, the makers of big blockbusters were clear that the indie world, which made only “rona-dhona" (sentimental) films, was beyond the pale. Those actors were not glamorous and would not click with the masses, who wanted curvaceous beauties rather than intense-looking, independent-minded women. Azmi not only broke through this barrier, but she was clear she wanted to do so.

She had come into the industry to act and would accept any good role; if she at all felt that masala films only used women as props, she did not seem to mind. During that period she worked in Manmohan Desai’s films (Amar Akbar Anthony, and Parvarish, 1977) and played an ideal Indian wife to a philandering husband in a tear-jerker, Swarag Narak (1978). She brought sensitivity to the role of someone who is dealing with a visually impaired love interest in Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh (1980), and to that of a mute, the second of three sisters, unable to speak out what’s in her heart, in Gulzar’s Namkeen (1982). She also got prestigious projects like Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), where she shone in a small role in a firmament full of supremely talented actors. And there was always Shyam Benegal, who cast her again in Nishant (1975) and Mandi (1983).

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Shabana Azmi with Rajesh Khanna in ‘Thodisi Bewafaii’.

It is no contradiction then, either for her or for film-goers, that alongside Arth in 1982 she would also appear in Ashanti—a kind of Indianized version of Charlie’s Angels—along with Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi. They saw her perfectly etch the role of a distraught wife going to pieces because of her husband’s affair in the former, and dance the lavani in a Maharashtrian nauvari (nine-yard) sari with gusto in the latter. No other female actors of her time, barring Patil, who was gone too soon, managed that crossover so effortlessly.

Around this time, Azmi was getting interested in social causes too. The child of Communist parents, who had been part of Leftist and progressive politics in the 1940s, she gravitated towards activism, fighting for the rights of the homeless, even going on a very public hunger strike. This was another first in the industry, since actors usually tended to associate themselves with safe social issues and that too, from a distance. Azmi was not content acting in films that dealt with such issues, she wanted to participate. It couldn’t have been an easy decision—the Hindi movie business does not particularly like its stars to rock any boats that could affect a movie’s commercial prospects.

Azmi has been doing “woman-centric" roles long before the phrase became popular. The audience knows that it will get a strong performance, full of subtle touches and sly references in every role she essays. Loins Of Punjab Presents (2007) has her as a pushy and vindictive Rrita Kapoor out to inveigle herself into the front in a community singing competition in the US—her smarminess is to be savoured. On the other hand, in Godmother (1999), she is a fiery widow who turns into a gangland boss.

On stage, in Tumhari Amrita, she moved from a young girl to an older woman, flirty but in control, as she read her letters to her long-standing friend/lover over a prolonged period—all while sitting at her desk. Anyone who has seen a show will know it is a heartfelt performance, in which she and the late Farooq Shaikh played off each other in perfect harmony.

An Azmi retrospective today—though she still has a long career ahead of her—would contain a wide range of films, attesting to not just her ability but also willingness to take on all kinds of risks. While her work in the pioneering art films of the 1970s is important, it is equally crucial that her presence in commercial cinema be recorded. She was never serious competition to Hema Malini or Rekha in the glamour department, but then they couldn’t match up to her as a versatile actor, switching smoothly between Benegal and Desai.

Azmi is very much in the game, capable of putting up great performances in the likes of Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd (2007) and acting in many foreign projects. Clearly, she is well on the way to becoming the grande dame of Hindi cinema, a kind of Indian Meryl Streep, who is reliable and convincing in anything she takes on.

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