On June 11, 2013, Shabana Azmi – graceful, poised and engaging – took part in a discussion with Sanjoy Roy at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre campus and centering on Shabana’s career of art and social change. Shabana spoke on her early childhood influences, growing up in a commune, with her father, mother and nine other families, including many leftist intellectuals and artists of the day who celebrated the diversity of India and the ideal of social equality.
While studying acting at the Indian Institute of Film and Television in Pune, Shabana recalls being influenced by Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godart and Fellini. She entered social activism soon after her film Arth. The success of the film, Shabana recalls half-jokingly, brought many women to her door asking her for help with their marital problems (the film dealt with infidelity).
Her interest in the rights of the poor also came through her art. To learn the character of a poor woman, Shabana studied the mannerisms of a woman who cleaned Shabana’s home. The woman one day invited Shabana to her own home, a 180 square foot tenement with no air, running water or electricity. The woman did her all to host Shabana. And Shabana says, it would have been a travesty of trust for her not to do something for that woman. She set up Nivara Hakk, an organization that provides support and services to Bombay’s slum dwellers (http://www.ektaonline.org/nivarahakk/).
On the question of women in cinema, Shabana noted the “confusion” amongst many filmmakers who sought to sexually “liberate” women from the roles of the dutiful wife, understanding mother and sacrificing sister. That “liberation” instead resulted in the commodification of women under guise of celebrating their sensuality. And as an audience member later pointed out, popular item numbers such as “Munni badnaam hui” somehow find it past the censors and into the ears of seven year old girls whose parents enter them into TV dancing contests.
On breaking taboos, Shabana spoke about her role in Fire where she played a woman in a same-sex relationship in a traditional Indian household. Despite violent opposition from the Shiv Sena in Bombay, the film notes Shabana set in motion a process of questioning and marked the beginning of a change in attitudes of some towards sexuality and same-sex relationships in India.
On contemporary Indian cinema and its future, Shabana was ambivalent. She pointed out that whereas films following independence critiqued the feudalism of India’s villages, contemporary films largely ignore the rural areas where the majority of India still lives. On cultural borrowing in cinema, Shabana stated that there are certain aspects of Indian cinema which resonate in the cultural DNA of South Asia and which should be cultivated if India wishes to occupy any meaningful place on the stage of world culture. Lastly, Shabana expressed enthusiasm on the new directions being taken by new filmmakers and new actors like Vidya Balan; but only time will tell, if the new generation produces a socially-engaged artist quite like Shabana.
Written by Randeep Purewall