The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 25, 2003
Lead Article

Honour for Bollywood’s thinking actress
Asha Singh

London’s National Film Theatre recently honoured Shabana Azmi
London’s National Film Theatre recently honoured
 Shabana Azmi

THE tribute extended by London’s National Film Theatre (NFT) to Shabana Azmi is the latest in a series of international honours showered on India’s leading actress-activist. Six films have been chosen for the occasion: Ankur, Khandahar, Anjuman, Immaculate Conception, Fire and Mrityudand.

These are supposed to be representative of a richly varied career, spanning three decades and over 250 films in half a dozen different languages. Not represented though, is her work in mainstream Hindi cinema, such as Parvarish, Doosri Dulhan, Arth and Godmother.

To many film lovers, this is understandable for one who has risen above the trappings of glamour and glitz and pursued her chosen craft with commitment and conviction. Her father, the late Kaifi Azmi and husband Javed Akhtar are renowned poets, who have straddled both art and mainstream cinema with poise.

Shabana herself laughs at her tryst with run-of-the-mill potboilers, but this self-mockery is deceptive. Some of her most popular films had originally set out to be ‘different’ and her role, always one of a strong-willed, traditional woman, who overcomes her vulnerabilities with grace.


In Kamla, she played a self-righteous educated woman whose conscience is roused by her journalist husband’s questionable ethics. In Paar, she was a low-caste Bihari peasant crushed by an uncaring system while in Junoon, she stood out as the sulking, neglected wife of 19th-century Muslim aristocracy.

She has also been the introverted daughter of the Bengali bourgeoise in Ek Din Achanak, the conniving second wife of a renowned Urdu poet in In Custody and the contemporary Muslim woman who galvanises embroidery workers into asserting their rights in Anjuman.

Whether it was Satyajit Ray (Shatranj ke Khilari) or Mrinal Sen (Khandahar). Aparna Sen (Sati) or Deepa Mehta (Fire), Prakash Jha (Daamul) or Gautam Ghosh (Paar), Shabana has always been the chosen vehicle for a well-defined woman protagonist and a narrative’s central metaphor.

However, it is with Shyam Benegal that Shabana has been able to put in her most and very best. In their debut film, Ankur, she played a village maidservant who willingly enters into a liaison with the young landlord even though she is genuinely attached to her deaf-mute husband.

With a nice mix of sexual languor and peasant cunning, she emerges as a feminist who does not deny her femininity. She gets the pregnant woman’s waddle right, even as she lets us into conflicting feelings of rage at the cowardly landlord’s injustice and the protective husband’s simple goodness.

Benegal’s Mandi (a take-off from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) is another noteworthy film in which Shabana comes up with a power-packed performance. The film is thoroughly Indianised because of the Islamic ambience of Hyderabad with its unique patois of earthy, localised Urdu.

Shabana gained weight for the matronly amble of Rukminibai, the amoral Madam who plays an ageing coquette-cum-solicitous mother to her ‘girls’, whiny and gutsy, bawdy and pious — a character in the round. She smokes beedis, mutters choicest cuss words and tries to seduce the fastidious aristocrat who wants her to bear his child.

There are several other memorable performances in films like Arth, Sati, Mrityudand, Doosri Dulhan and Log Kya Kahenge for other directors, which stand out as landmarks in Indian cinema. But the film in which she really pushed the envelope was Deepa Mehta’s Fire.

At one level, it is about same-sex physical intimacy in traditional Indian households, where husbands leave their wives seething in sexual frustration. The director fastforwards the easy intimacy into a lesbian relationship. What finally rescues the uneven narrative is Shabana’s performance.

Like all great actors, Shabana is both subtle and flamboyant, intuitive and intelligent. Radha’s stoic acceptance of sexual rejection unfurls into self-knowledge and fulfilment, catching fire from her young sister-in-law’s spirited rebellion and finally, attaining a state of liberation.

That is Shabana Azmi. MF