After having spent over four decades in the Indian film industry, Shabana Azmi is currently making a splash on the OTT with her debut web series, The Empire. And Azmi, who made her acting debut with Shyam Benegal’s directorial debut, Ankur (1974), has no plans of slowing down. With several Bollywood and international projects in her kitty, the veteran actress takes a look back at her career. Excerpts:
How do you plan to celebrate your birthday?
Till yesterday, I was supposed to be shooting on my birthday for Karan Johar’s film, Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani. But now I’ve got the day off, so I will be having close friends over for tea, which I love.
What special gift would you like to receive?
During the pandemic, my friends and I decided we will not buy presents. Instead, we will part with something from our closets to consciously work towards a more sustainable lifestyle. I would advocate that for those who have an excess of material things. I have personally never been compelled to give presents on special occasions. Rather, if I come across something that will be liked by someone, I pick it up without needing an occasion.
How do you look back at your illustrious career?
I have been lucky to be at the right place at the right time. I do not rate myself as excellent. I was trained to look for truth in performance and have once in a while managed to achieve it when the script and the director were great. The film is a collaborative medium and no actor can rise above the script.
How do you handle criticism?
I am open to an honest appraisal of my work and I listen carefully to criticism, provided it comes without an agenda. I hope I never become smug about my work because acting is about learning something new every day.
The pandemic has created havoc in everyone’s lives. How are you coping with it?
I was working almost all through the pandemic. First, in Budapest for Steven Spielberg’s Halo and then in London for What’s Love Got To Do With It in tight bio-bubbles. Also, we spent a lot of time at our Khandala home. It was peaceful there. The whole family got a chance to be together, which was wonderful. I was also managing the relief and rehabilitation efforts of my NGO, Mijwan Welfare Society.
A life lesson you have learnt from the pandemic?
What the pandemic taught me is to live in the moment, and to distinguish between need and want. Covid-19 was not only a health disaster, but also a social disaster where the difference between the haves and have-nots became even more clearly defined. It has been a time of giving till it hurts.
You have worked extensively in Indian and international cinema. Are there any differences in their work styles?
The difference between the way Hollywood and Indian films function is fast diminishing. I remember when I worked in John Schlesinger’s Madame Sousatzka in the late 80s, he couldn’t believe I was simultaneously working in 12 films. When I told him forget actors even a director like Manmohan Desai was working on two different films in the same studio on different floors and would hop from the set of Parvarish to the next door set of Amar Akbar Anthony, he all but fainted.
Today, it is inconceivable because the ecosystem has changed a lot for the better. Actors give cues to each other off-camera, which was previously done by an assistant rendering lines flatly as cues. Even the way films are shot is more mise-en-scène.
Could you give us an example of the same?
When actors are not pressed for time and don't have to rush off to another shoot, it becomes more organic. Shyam Benegal used to book his actors for 40 days even if they had a week’s work because he always likes a leeway for improvisation. I was so impressed that during the shooting of Halo, Pablo Schreiber and Natascha McElhone did 18 takes of a very long scene perfectly off-camera for my silent reaction shots being filmed from various angles.
I do not complain about sometimes waiting for hours for my shot to be taken because that is the nature of the work. My mother, Shaukat Kaifi, who was from Theatre used to say, ‘Your time is your producer’s and you have to live up to the demands of the profession. You must be an asset to the director, not a liability.’ It’s a lesson I learnt early on in life.
You have been a source of inspiration for generations of women and men. Any advice you would like to share with the youth?
I am not a teacher to give anybody any sort of advice. I think we have a lot to learn from the younger generation. They are wired differently and instead of listening to them, we keep lecturing them. I grew up in a democratic family where due consideration was given to both my opinion and my brother, Baba’s (cinematographer, Baba Azmi). We need to have less hierarchical and more interactive relationships with the young. My father never advised without being asked. My mother and I did so quite freely and frequently, and I’m now learning to curb it.
Any unfulfilled dreams and desires at 71?
I don’t want much, I just want more! Ask what I want and I will sing I want more of everything... Just like Barbara Streisand says in A Star Is Born.
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