Indian actress Shabana Azmi uses her celebrity to effect social change

Shabana Azmi, queen of Indian film, sees her art as an agent of change

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 February, 2015, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 February, 2015, 10:49pm

Shabana Azmi isn't one for sitting around. The star of India's big screen took time off from shooting a crime thriller last week to spend a couple of days in town supporting Hong Kong's first festival of Indian culture, India By the Bay.

Seemingly undaunted by the overnight flight, she had already been shopping ahead of our interview and had big dinner plans. "I keep saying I have to slow down, I have to take a break," the actress says. "My husband says that I am genetically incapable of taking a break."

Family comes up a lot in conversation: they are Azmi's absolute rock. It is not only a tight-knit family, but also one that is unusual in that everyone is involved in the arts: her father was a member of the Communist Party of India, a poet and writer, her mother a theatre actress. Her brother is a cinematographer, her sister-in-law an actress and her husband a writer. And in the Azmi household, art comes with a message.

"I grew up in a family that believed art should be used as an instrument for social change. It was something that I just imbibed by a process of osmosis," says the 64-year-old star.

That process didn't happen immediately. As with most young people, there was a period of rebellion. "There was so much politics discussed at home that there was a time I said I didn't want to have anything to do with it. I'm an artist, that's it. And it was to my father's credit that he never pushed it," says Azmi.

I think a time comes in the life of an artist when you can’t treat your work just like a 9-6 job and go home and forget about the character you are playing

She made her screen debut at 24 and by the time she was 33 had won the National Film Award for best actress for Arth, the story of a woman's search for her identity. She went on to win the top film accolade the next two years and again in 1999. And along the way politics crept in - as she suspects her father always knew it would.

"I think a time comes in the life of an artist when you can't treat your work just like a 9-6 job and go home and forget about the character you are playing. Some of the residue of what you've played remains with you," she says.

Azmi dates the change to Arth, in which she played a woman who is devastated after her husband abandons her for another woman. The woman pulls herself together and becomes independent, which is when her husband returns and says he wants her back. Would he have taken her back if she'd done the same thing, she wants to know? He admits he wouldn't and she walks out on him. Film distributors loved the movie with the exception of the ending and tried to talk director Mahesh Bhatt into changing it.

"The director and myself dug our heels in - and lo and behold we realised that audiences really loved it. Then I had hordes of women walk into my room not as fans but in sisterhood, expecting me to solve all their marital problems. I decided I would get involved with women's issues and with slums," she says.

Working with the Mumbai government, Azmi says she has helped resettle 50,000 slum dwellers over the years. It's a longstanding cause that has seen her arrested a number of times and go on a five-day hunger strike in May 1986. Along with three slum dwellers and a filmmaker, she staged the strike in the city's most upscale neighbourhood, demanding alternative accommodation for the displaced slum dwellers. Her mother supported her and chanted slogans and her father sent her a message - "Best of luck, comrade". The protest succeeded.

As Azmi became a committed social activist, her reach extended. She has been an ardent supporter of people suffering from Aids and social injustice. She played a madam in a brothel in the 1983 film Mandi and a lesbian in 1996's Fire.

After 40 years on the big screen, Azmi - who has been described as "Meryl Streep of India" - says she is happy the world appears to be finally taking a real interest in Indian cinema. Not just arthouse cinema that has earned a niche international reputation thanks to directors such as Satyajit Ray, but mainstream Bollywood film.

"The world is shrinking and becoming a global village, and we are now finally recognising the need to understand cultures within their own parameters, in their own paradigms, without this necessarily being the view of the West looking at the East," says Azmi.

And she sees the inaugural India By the Bay festival, that ran from Tuesday to Friday last week in collaboration with the Asia Society, as a product of this shrinking world, an opportunity for cultural exchange so we can all better understand each other. She was especially pleased to see that the India represented at the festival was from a broad perspective and included longtime Indian resident author William Dalrymple and French performer Gilles Chuyen, who incorporates traditional Indian dance into his shows, as well as Sonam Kalra and the Sufi Gospel Project who performed music and poetry.

"This festival is a test because it's the first of its kind and I hope it will reach out not only to the Indians settled here but to a wider audience," says Azmi.

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