Shabana Azmi: India's greatest contemporary actor turns 72-Entertainment News – Firstpost

How do I write about Shabana Azmi? The name evokes so many streams of thought, personal and professional. I have known her closely for more than forty years. An incomparable powerhouse of an actor and individual, unflinching in her beliefs and never willing to compromise Shabana Azmi says she has been lucky to be at the right place at the right time. She doesn’t rate herself as high as the world does.
Shabana was trained at the Film & Television Institute Of India to look for truth the in every performance. She in all humility feels she has managed once in a while to find that truth
We all know Shabana through her celebrated performances. But there are the ones where she came closest to the truth of her character. La Nuit Bengali (1988) based on the Bengali litterateur Metreyi Devi’s own amorous experiences, is one of the unsung gems of Shabana Azmi’s career. Just the joy of watching her team up with the legendary Soumitra Chatterjee is worth the ticket. Shabana and Soumitra play a couple whose daughter Supriya Pathak has a torrid affair with her Romanian house guest played by the affable Hugh Grant. Maitreyi Devi objected to the film and it never got released in India.
Another fabulous underrated Shabana Azmi performance was in Ek Pal (1986). Shabana plays a lonely wife in Guwahati who gets impregnated by her ex-flame(Farooq Sheikh) while her husband (Naseeruddin Shah) is away. Director Kalpana Lajmi who died young and largely unsung, allowed the woman to keep her extra-marital baby.
B R Ishaara’s Log Kya Kahenge (1983) saw Shabana play the vilest character of her career. Shabana’s Roma is forced into a loveless marriage with a widower (Sanjeev Kumar). When her stepson sees her with her lover (Navin Nischol) Roma strangles the little boy. Shabana told me she was frightened when she saw that murderous look on her own face while killing the child. This shocker was completely rejected by the audience. But hell, so was Kagaz Ke Phool.
In Aparna Sen’s Sati (1989) being married to a tree was not easy. Shabana played a mute woman in the 19th century married to a tree, as the horoscope predicted death for her husband. Shabana and director Aparna Sen did a number of films together. None as evocative and seductive as Sati. Most of the film was shot in torrential rains where the loveless luckless woman rages against her bad fortune. Shabana was seriously ill with pneumonia after the shooting Sati. We have no information on the fate of Shabana’s leading man. You could say it’s a Miss Tree.
My favourite Shabana performance is in Pravin Bhatt’s Bhavna (1983). I’ve watched this story of a deserted wife who turns a sex worker to fund her son’s education, umpteenth times. Every time I sob like a child. Shabana as the sacrificial mother is comparable with Nargis in Mother India.
Amidst the torrent of epoch-defining performances, Shabana admits she has also done mediocre work, especially in mainstream cinema. She is refreshingly open to an honest appraisal of her work and she listens carefully to criticism provided it comes without an agenda.
It is said life for Indian actresses ends at 40. Shabana has never been short of challenging work. She was working through the pandemic in Budapest for Steven Spielberg’s web series Halo and then in London for the feature film What’s Love Got To Do With It, in very tight bio-bubbles.
She sees the difference between the way Hollywood and Indian films function as fast diminishing. When Shabana worked in John Schlesinger’s Madam Sousatzka in the late 1980s the director couldn’t believe she was working simultaneously in twelve films. Today it is inconceivable for any actor to be doing so many films. “We’ve become far more organized as an industry,” she says.
Shabana is a source of inspiration for generations of women and men. She pays very close attention to the young generation. Shabana grew up in a democratic family where due consideration was given to both her opinion and her brother cinematographer Baba Azmi’s. Shabana feels the growing need to have less hierarchical and more interactive relationships with the young. She names Tabu, Vidya Balan, Alia Bhatt as good actors.
How does she rate herself? “Well, if Donald Trump thinks Meryl Streep is overrated then maybe so am I.”
Contrary to what her fans believe Shabana has never planned her future. “I think I’ve been lucky to be at the right place at the right time and so my life and career have taken a trajectory as the flow goes .”
As her parting shot she quotes lines from her father Kaifi Azmi:
Todna apna kaam nahi hai
Hum hain dilon ko jodnewale
Kya Hindu aur kya Muslim
Kaise gore kaise Kaale
Ek hi mala ke sab daane.” (To break is not what we do, we unite hearts, no Hindu no Muslim,fair-skinned or dark, all beads in the same necklace).
Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.
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