Shabana Azmi: ‘I feel the most alive when I am acting...’

Shabana Azmi: ‘I feel the most alive when I am acting...’

She gets candid about her role in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani and playing varied characters with panache

Yogesh PawarUpdated: Saturday, August 19, 2023, 07:31 PM IST
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While her character of Jamini Chatterjee in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani has struck a chord with audiences, getting under the skin of varied characters is nothing new to five-time national awardee Shabana Azmi. The actor-activist talks about her ability to make the universe of her characters her own.

Excerpts from the interview:

What do you make of the huge response from audiences for Jamini Chatterjee?  Was it expected?

I think it was so unexpected for the audience to have the Kanwal-Jamini track that it took them by complete surprise. I am pleased by the response and rather overwhelmed by how it seems to have made an impact on people of all ages. I had gone into the film telling myself that Jamini’s character has to be played with a willing suspension of disbelief but Karan (Johar) kept saying trust me and I’m so glad I did.

Have you had any feedback about your role from your friends in the Bengali film fraternity? Could you share anything they said after watching Rocky Aur Rani... that moved you?

A message from Javed’s (Azmi’s lyricist-poet spouse Javed Akhtar) Bengali friend comes  to mind: “Do convey my compliments to Shabanaji for Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani. Her Bengali accent was bang-on. She even let that accent seep into her English, which was an utterly masterful touch!” I’m very chuffed that she noticed the Bengali accent when I spoke as Jamini in English and Hindi. It’s not really difficult to speak a language. What is difficult is to let it filter into one’s regular dialogue with the right inflection and accent. For instance, as Jamini I say: ‘ees baat ka aafsos nahi hai’ instead of ‘iss baat ka afsos nahi hai’, etc. What appears to be minor thing makes a bog difference in giving credence to one’s character on screen. To have a Bengali notice that is a compliment.

Wasn’t your character in Mrinal Sen’s Khandahar (which got you a National Award) also called Jamini?

Yes but there is nothing similar in the characters. Please don’t look for any meaning in that.

This wasn't the first time... You've played a Bengali character in Swami, Apne Paraye, Sonata etc. Did the experience of those films make slipping  into the skin of a  Bengali character more easy?

Each character, the film, the filmmaker and the film's sociocultural context make things different. One has to approach a new role with a fresh slate.

What was Karan Johar’s brief to you? How did you prepare? Did you work on speaking Hindi specially with a Bengali slant?

I had a very good dialogue coach Husne Shabnam attached to my hip almost. So much of the credit of me coming across as a convincing Bengali also goes to her.

In the past, Naseeruddin Shah has told me you were the sole point of contact on the sets of Shyam Benegal’s Mandi for getting the Hyderabadi Dakhni inflection and accent right. Did that happen during Rocky Aur Rani... too?

As a filmmmaker Shyam Benegal is sensitive about using a language without reducing it to a caricature. He was himself born and raised in Trimulgherry, Secunderabad and even pursued his college at Osmania University, which must definitely have helped in him being able to use the language he grew up listening to, intelligently. I was not only acting in Mandi but also for all practical purposes an assistant to Benegal.  Anyone who struggled with the language came to me. My mother, Shaukat Azmi, hailed from Hyderabad and spoke the language very fluently, and I had  picked it up quite well. That’s how I had become the go-to person for any issues with how to say a certain line, in Mandi. 

That wasn’t the case in Rocky Aur Rani... because both Tota and Churni are Bengali... So they also served as our additional dialogue coaches...

You have variously played a Bombay Christian (Stella in Albert Pinto...), a Kannadiga (Malli in Kanneshwara Rama) , a Telugu person (Rukminibai in Mandi, Gauramma in Susman and Swarnalatha in Morning Raga), a Maharashtrian (Sarita Jadhav in Kamla), a Sikhni (Rama Bhanot in Neerja and Satya Maasi in Kaali Khuhi...), a Gujarati mafia don (Rambhi in Godmother) & a Bihari villager (Chandravati in Mrityudand) among so many other characters... Which was the toughest to crack/play & why?

Morning Raga undoubtedly. In order to pull off the swarams I had to learn them in all of 18 lessons! As an MP I would be in parliament all day and then practice from 7 pm onwards daily. Ranjani, my tutor, was actually a violinist but her mother is a Carnatic vocalist. She developed a unique way of teaching me. For example, for Se SA re SA re SA sa sa ni dha sa... I would learn the tune easily but couldn’t recognise the notes so she made me learn it as se sari sari sa — Now sari I am familiar with so it became more recognisable and easy to learn. Javed had insisted that if I didn’t do the swarams in one shot I would regret it forever. He really really pushes me. I used to give up in despair crying that I would never be able to do it and suddenly the next morning I would go running to Ranjani’s room singing because suddenly in the night I had miraculously got it! Rajeev Menon the DOP was extremely sceptical about a North Indian playing the part of Swarnalatha. Carnatic music is very different and almost mathematical — but when he saw me sing Maha Ganapatim Manasa Smarami — he came and apologised because in his view I had got it so right. My ultimate compliment came when Bharat Ratna sitarist Pt Ravi Shankarji called me to say I had convinced him I was an actual Carnatic singer! So did Shankar Mahadevan and a whole host of singers.

Have you had to play two completely different characters in different movies being shot simultaneously? How do you switch modes from one to another?

In the 80s as you know it was the norm to be doing several films simultaneously. In mainstream cinema very little was expected of us .As long as we could remember our lines everything was fine. Time was very precious because the heroes would sometimes give as little as 2 hours in an 8-hour shift! 

But I was once doing Goutam Ghose’s Paar in Naihati, a shanty town near Calcutta and Raghavendra Rao’s Kamyaab with Jeetendra in Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh . I would shuttle between the two films - it was quite schizophrenic. I would drive 3 hours to Calcutta, catch a flight to Hyderabad, take an overnight train to Rajahmundry and be transported into the world of dhakkam dhakka hua, pyar bada paka hua!! (Laughs)

I’m a trained actor in the Stanislavsky method. He believed an actor should be like water, taking the shape of the vessel it was poured into. I don't think Stanislavsky had any idea how mainstream Hindi films were made!! (Laughs)

Do you pick up things like gait, mannerisms, styling and the way your character carries herself from real life people or do you just play them by the director’s vision?

Observation becomes a subconscious trait in actors. While prepping for Mandi I visited three different brothels in three different cities — one in Peela House Bombay — for some strange reason I was taken there by my colleague Farooque Shaikh and the famous qawwali singer Aziz Nazaan.

The second one was on GB road in Delhi, Amrita Singh’s mother Rukhsana Sultan took me there and the third in Hyderabad where I accompanied Shyam Benegal. The character Rukmini Bai is an amalgam of that plus imagination and in large part from the script.

I have different ways of approaching the world of the character that I inhabit. Sometimes, I only peer in through the window, sometimes I stand at the door tentatively, sometimes I just rush in to the living room directly. When your emotional core is touched the choices that you make as an actor become truthful.

Have you encountered directors who don’t give you a brief beyond the absolute bare minimum and expect you to figure it out yourself?

I was once working with a director who explained a scene to me in graphics. The first frame is square, then it becomes horizontal and finally a vertical. I scoffed at him in front of my mother, who turned around and said: ‘How limited of you to expect the director to always explain in your terms? He is a painter, the frame speaks to him and you have to assist the director in reaching his goal.’ I was dumb-founded because she was a traditionalist. She used to believe that when an actor is playing a character on stage — even if s/he were stabbed with a knife, the blood that pours out should be of the character. Not of the actor. I was astounded at how modern she was being.

You are one of the most respected actors who has proven her mettle time and again to much national and international recognition. At a time when most would want to rest on their laurels what makes you want to take on diverse roles?

After all these years I have realised that it is acting I enjoy the most. I would like to die with my boots on. At present so many diverse parts are being written that I can only look forward to more exciting roles. I feel the most alive when I am acting. 

How important is it, according to you, for actors to keep challenging themselves and their craft?

There is nothing more boring than watching an actor whose every pause , every reaction you can predict. An actor can never afford to be smug or rest on conquered laurels. But we are dependent on writers and directors to offer us challenging work . 

Which of your characters thar you watched on screen felt like you were bang on? Is there any character you felt didn’t make an impact?

Anu in Aparna Sen’s 15 Park Avenue. She is a lot like Aparna and me. I could tap into my own urbanity and was happy to be playing a character close to the bone. The character I didn’t get right is Uma in Aparna Sen’s Sati. I had thought of Uma as a bull, doggedly doing her work in a mechanical way... But, Aparna had conceived her as a fox, which threw me off completely. Although Aparna tried every way to handle me, I will continue to feel guilty all my life that I let her down.

Who among the younger actors do you think has this chameleon-like ability to embody diverse characters with ease?

Directors cast mainly according to type. It’s a rare director who will think out of the box and indulge in the luxury of an actor playing against type. Even Anurag Kashyap once said to me: “We get trapped in our own stereotypes inside our heads. Give it to Karan that he gave you a romantic part breaking the mould.” After watching Ghoomer in Melbourne he exclaimed: “Bhai aap kaun ho? Main toh aapko Godmother ke roop mein hi dekhta tha... Rocky Aur Rani... and Ghoomer are two ends of the spectrum.” That to me is the biggest compliment.

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