A feminine feminist
M. L. Dhawan
on the multi-talented artiste Shabana Azmi, who has been 
conferred with the Padma Bhushan 

Shabana Azmi, who has been awarded the coveted Padma Bhushan for her contribution to the development of purposeful cinema this year, richly deserved this recognition. With her power-packed portrayals, the roles performed by this multi-talented artiste became a voice for women in Indian society.

In her debut film Ankur in 1974, the audience scoffed at Shabana’s ordinary looks but as an exploited maid servant, Shabana’s acting was penetrating. With a mix of sexual languor and pleasant cunning, she enters into a liaison with the village landlord.

Shabana’s forte has been the re-interpretation of a woman’s sensibility with the courage of contradictions. In Shaque, as a suspicious housewife, her sullen face revealed her emotions.

In Arth, Mahesh Bhatt pitted two icons of Indian cinema, Shabana and Smita Patil, against each another. Shabana played the betrayed wife, who finally finds courage to get over her hurt and even sympathises with the guilt-ridden other woman.

In Shekhar Kapoor’s Masoom (1982), Shabana’s dilemma over her husband’s infidelity touched a chord with the audience. When her husband tells her about his extra-marital affair, her expressions reveal her stony resolve to keep her family together. Shabana was stunning in depicting the predicament of a betrayed wife.

With every film, Shabana expanded her oeuvre, acting with finally nuanced precision. In Mandi as the amoral Madam Rukmanibai, she plays an ageing coquette-cum-soliciting mother to her girls. She smoked beedis, muttered cuss words and tried to seduce the fastidious aristocrat, who wants her to bear a child.

In Log Kya Kahenge, Shabana played an adulterous Medea, who is driven to murder her son because he catches her with her lover. Frustration, followed by sexual exultation, ends in the guilt of a trapped animal.

The most difficult part of acting is to convey the sense of inner change but Shabana did it in many films with a subtle shift of emphasis. In Aparna Sen’s Sati, as a mute orphan, ritually married to a tree, Shabana’s child-woman was like a cornered animal but slowly we saw an individual emerge. Frustration, sexual awakening, anger and anguish expressed through eloquent eyes and calibrated body language — was mind boggling and heart-rending.

Deepa Mehta’s Fire depicted the lesbian relationship between two women as the only possible form of rebellion in a world where their very existence is overlooked and negated by men. Radha’s stoic acceptance of sexual rejection unfurled into self-acknowledgement and fulfilment, catching fire from her young sister-in-law’s spirited rebellion.

In another powerful performance in Vinay Shukla’s Godmother, the shy widow Rambhi turns into a dreadful ‘godmother’, manages to get elected in local elections. She adopts men’s ways to extend her power and transforms herself into a skilled player of the political game, who finally rediscovers her integrity and courage to act on it.

Shabana has also been involved with the uplift of people in the slums and riot victims. She continues to remain an embodiment of what Shyam Benegal had once called her — a ticking battery.