Shabana Azmi is an actor whose choice of subjects always takes you by surprise and reinforces her versatile genius every time. And when it comes to opinions, whether it’s on people or politics, she always speaks her mind. Currently ruling the OTT space with her debut series, The Empire, streaming on Disney+Hotstar, Azmi gives a glimpse of her upcoming movies, and more. Excerpts:
Who was your muse for the character of Esan Daulat in the The Empire?
I was intrigued by Esan Daulat. She has many layers to her, but there is very little reference on her except for one painting. So, we had to take from whatever was offered in the book (Alex Rutherford’s Empire Of The Moghul: Raiders From The North), and build a back story for her.
She is the kingmaker who puts Babur on the throne when he is only 14. Obviously, there is intrigue and machinations associated with her, yet we had to explore the vulnerable side to her as well. It has always troubled me that in Hindi films we base all historical performances on ones that have been done before, the main template being Mughal-E-Azam for instance. I had to find both a public and private persona to her. I didn’t base Esan on any one character, but Cate Blanchett in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth had a perfect balance of both and I took some inspiration from that.
Given that you had just one painting for reference, how did you work on her look?
I put in a lot of effort, cutting my eyebrows into half because I feel eyebrows change the expression on a face. I also put a mole on the nose and some others on the face and neck to give her a more tribal look.
Mitakshara [Kumar], the director, has a keen eye. She used colour palettes exquisitely, helped greatly by the production designer.
I pulled out a lot of Central Asian antique jackets from my personal wardrobe and Sheetal Sharma (costume designer) selected many from them. We decided to refrain from the usual emeralds and diamonds associated with kings and queens and opted for silver and beads instead. I feel this choice has worked really well given the many compliments I have been receiving.
What was it like to shoot during the on-going pandemic?
It was challenging because despite all the precautions that were taken, Nikkhil Advani (producer) tested positive for Covid, and so did Mitakshara’s sister, Shama, who is also her right hand. There was considerable anxiety, but then the ‘show must go on’ spirit took over.
I enjoyed it very much. An OTT series is different from doing a film, but for an actor adapting to any medium, whether film, TV or theatre, is part of the game.
Strangely, I’ve been shooting continuously during the pandemic. Even though we had to halt the shooting of Halo (the Steven Spielberg web series) in Budapest in April, we resumed in November.
And you kicked off Shekhar Kapur’s British cross-cultural romcom, What’s Love Got to Do With It? in January...
Yes, it was during the time the pandemic was at its peak in the UK. I was told by everybody that I would be sent back in two days. We completed the film in a record 38 days. We were tested every single day on both projects and a strict bio-bubble was adhered to. I think everybody was working on a high adrenalin rush!
How was your bonding with your What’s Love Got To Do With It? co-star, Emma Thompson?
In Emma I think I’ve found a lifelong friend. She was all that I expected her to be, and more — warm, generous, socially conscious and funny.
You are also a part of the Karan Johar-directed Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani, featuring Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh. Tell us a bit about this film.
We start shooting in 15 days. It’s always exciting to work with good actors and I look forward to doing some good work together. Karan has been coming to our place as a podgy teenager who was working with his father Yash Johar in the Salim-Javed films. It will be interesting to watch what happens when two people from two different worlds work together.
The film also features Jaya Bachchan, with whom you are working for the first time, while Dharmendra and you have done a few films together...
Dharamji also did an incomplete film directed by Sai Paranjpye called Bichchoo. He is respectful of my father Kaifi Azmi and has always been affectionate towards me. So, I envisage a healthy working relationship.
Over the years I’ve had a cordial relationship with Jaya. Even though in the film we don’t particularly care for each other, I think we should be able to pull it off.
The last time we spoke, you had taken it upon yourself, along with the Mijwan Welfare Society, to spearhead the vaccination drive in places like Azamgarh, Balia, Chaundali, Buxar and Ghazipur. How successful have you been?
We have also been working in Ambedkar Nagar, Jaunpur, Mirzapur, Lucknow, Bareilly and Ayodhya. As of September 1, 2021, the total Covid vaccination facilitation stands at 1,21,738, with 3,69,053 having received information, 1,23,448 having registered for vaccination, 98,501 having got the first dose and 23,237 the second dose.
We are also supporting 30 female-led rural set-ups in the area, and have provided livelihood assistance to 1,270. The Mijwan Welfare Society sends monthly ration kits to 521 families. We still have a long way to go and we will keep the momentum going.
Babur came from Kabul and what is happening today in Afghanistan is heartbreaking. Given how strongly you feel about women empowerment, is there something that can be done for the women there?
The international community as a whole must rise and insist on the rights of women so badly mauled by the Taliban to be restored. The Prophet said that if you have to travel to China in pursuit of education you should do so. This was at a time when undertaking such a journey would be full of perils. How can the Taliban ban the education of girls in complete contradiction of what the Prophet says and yet claim to be the true followers of Islam?