Shabana Azmi, who will be one year older on September 18, talks about life, cinema and more
Do you like cupcakes and gifts?
Cake cutting is a practice that I don’t like. When did it start in India and why I don’t know. At school, we were only allowed to give the whole class two candies each. It was a great leveler because it kept the richer girls from being lavish and showing the less rich in a bad light! I am not a big fan of giving or receiving gifts for birthdays, anniversaries, etc. I prefer to give a gift without an occasion if I feel it’s something a friend will like.
But surely you like something?
I must admit that flowers are my weakness and I love to receive them especially the fragrant Indian flowers Mogra, Rajnigandha. Sontakka etc.
OK. What’s the most memorable birthday you’ve ever had?
My 50th birthday. All of my friends came from various corners and Abba (poet father Kaifi Azmi) sat quietly during the loud celebrations in a sherwani and topi resembling the person who is celebrating himself !! Javed was wonderful too, but it’s too personal to share the details.
Looking back, what do you think of your accomplishments so far?
I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time! But the best is yet to come. Of all the things I do, acting is what I love the most. I have the chance to do a job that I love.
If I ask you to name 5 incidents that marked turning points in your life, what would they be?
1. When I joined FTII. 2 Ankur 3 Arth 4 watching Anand Patwardhan documentary Bombay Our City 5.when I protested the murder of theater activist Safdar Hashmi at the Delhi International Film Festival where my film Madame Sousatzka by John Schlesinger was featured -first
Who are the people who have most influenced your thought processes and your overall personality?
My parents Kaifi and Shaukat, my husband Javed, Shyam Benegal, Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kapoor. And then there are all the women I work with in the slums and from whom I learned resilience … imagine living under the threat of your house being demolished at any time and yet able to function! Also, the women of Mijwan.
How do you give yourself so many varied roles in life?
For an actor, life should be your resource base because you can enrich the character you play by tapping into the depth of your own experience. In the process of becoming a star, you isolate yourself from life because you are surrounded so much by a concentric circle of people around you that you start to live almost in a bubble,
How do you stay grounded despite all the adulation?
Kevin Spacey told me it was a choice he made to travel on the subway, to shop, etc. Can you imagine what would happen in India if Shah Rukh Khan decided to do this? !! I wanted to travel by tube to my room while in London. But I was advised against.
64 … is it just a number or does it really mean coming of age?
I am at peace with my age. I have embraced life at all stages. I remember people were horrified when I turned 50! “Do not announce your age”, I have been advised! How stupid.
As an Indian actress, do you feel limited by your age?
This is the best time to be an actor. Many pieces are available for all age groups. No longer the stereotypical mother in a white saree and a terrible wig sacrificing everything for her family!
I would have loved to play the piano! Alas! It’s too late now.
If you had to change one thing in your life, what would it be?
It’s too personal to answer
Generations of actors see you as a role model. What advice do you give them?
Never get complacent, work hard. Embrace life!
You have accomplished more than any actor I know. Unrealized dreams?
Contrary to what some people think of me, I never planned for my future. I have already said it. I think I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time and so my life and career took a course as I went along.
So nothing more to achieve?
I hope this is not the end of the road for me and that greater challenges lie ahead. Barbra Streisand’s lines are my favorite “Ask What I Want and I’ll Sing I Want More Everything, Everything!”
There was a time when there were no meaty roles for actors beyond a certain age. Does this change?
Yes, that has changed considerably. Powerful roles keep coming my way, touchwood. The ecosystem has changed. The heavy reliance on young stars to carry a film on their own shoulders has abated. Inevitably, these stories are filled with senior actors in important roles.
Don’t you think OTT platforms have opened up a whole new perspective for talented actors?
OTT platforms have made us realize that content is king. Responding to the lowest common denominator is no longer the reason for making films. The film industry has finally realized that there is an audience for all kinds of content.
Do you think the star system ends in Bollywood?
It is the marketing that must be pushed more for the film without stars. The opposite has been true. Big budget movies have huge marketing budgets. The smaller film finds little visibility and is handicapped because of it. But if we want to push the bar and become relevant in the world, we will have to remember that it is The Disciple by Chaitanya Tamhane who wins the award for best screenplay in Venice!
Which contemporary actresses do you find interesting?
Tabu, Vidya Balan, Alia Bhatt are very good actors. Vidya also has a beautifully modulated voice. I find that today’s generation is investing their time in getting the perfect body that looks the way it should, but needs to pay more attention to voice modulation. And please can someone teach them how to place the nukhtas in the right places? !!! Bevkoof is not bevaqoof, khoobsurat, khushboo, khayal have nukhtas, it is mizaaj not mijaaz, etc. etc.
Your brother recently became a director. And you?
Jaane do na! Bahut mehnat hai usmein .. So much easier to be an actor !!
Your message to the nation on your special day?
Kaifi Saab ka ek gaana which he wrote for IPTA (Indian People’s Theater Association):
“Todna apna kaam nahi hai
Hum hain dilon ko jodnewale
Hindu kya aur muslim kya
Kaise gore kaise kaale
Ek hi mala ke sab daane.
Image source: SpotboyE archive, Instagram / azmishabana18