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INTERVIEW: Acclaimed Indian actress Shabana Azmi on women, cinema and democracy

One of the guests of the India by the Nile festival, renowned Indian actress Shabana Azmi speaks to Ahram Online about women, India's film industry, and Egypt's transitional process

Yasmine Zohdi , Thursday 17 Apr 2014
Shabana Azmi
Shabana Azmi during discussion in Cairo, 11 April 2014. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
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In 1974, Shabana Azmi made her acting debut in the film Ankur by director Shyam Bengal, and since then has taken Indian cinema by storm.

Azmi was born into a house of art and intellect: her father, Kaifi Azmi, was a poet, while her mother, Shaukat Azmi, was a famous stage actress. They were both members of India’s Communist Party. Azmi grew up with a deep respect for social and human values.

Today, not only is Azmi an icon of Indian cinema, she is also a social activist, a leading feminist and a member in India’s upper house of parliament. Her husband, Javed Akhtar, is one of India’s most renowned poets and screenwriters.

Azmi’s career is filled with unique roles that have left their mark on India’s cinematic memory. She is considered a pioneer who helped change the portrayal of women in Indian films by choosing avant-garde roles that were at the time frowned upon by many. For example, her role in Ankur (1974) is that of a married villager who becomes involved in an affair with a college student. Before Azmi, several leading actresses had refused the role for being too bold.

Azmi has her fair share of controversial roles in independent Indian cinema as well. Her portrayal of a woman in love with her sister-in-law in director Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) drew severe protests from many conservative groups in the country.

Legendary Indian auteur Satyajit Ray has said of Azmi, “Her poise and personality are never in doubt … she pulls out the stops to firmly establish herself as one of our finest dramatic actresses.”

The second edition of the India by the Nile festival brought Azmi to Cairo, where she spoke to Ahram Online about women in cinema, Slumdog Millionaire, and her passion for the theatre, among many other things.

Ahram Online (AO): You started your acting career by accepting roles that were very untraditional for a woman in India back then, and you were often criticised for it. Do you feel it has become easier for actresses today to break free of the stereotypical roles that are often written for them in film?

Shabana Azmi (SA): I think it’s become much easier today, absolutely. You see, Indian cinema is divided into two kinds of cinema: mainstream cinema, which is referred to throughout the world as Bollywood, and independent or art house cinema. Today, what’s really interesting is that it’s become possible for women even in mainstream cinema to play roles that are unconventional. Vidya Balan, for instance, is an actress who has taken many unusual parts in films that have been commercially successful. I’m not saying that all Bollywood films have changed, but there is definitely more space now for women-oriented films that are untraditional.

AO: How would you say you managed to achieve that in India?

SA: Well, I will have to give the credit to the writers and directors who broke the barriers and wrote daring and honest films about women. Filmmakers like Shyam Benegal, for example.

AO: What would you say are the remaining limitations?

SA: It’s very rare to find a big budget film with a woman in an unconventional role at its centre; most of the time you must keep your budget controlled. However, we’ve recently had a film called Queen, about a girl who travels alone on her honeymoon after her marriage gets canceled. That was a big production and also a box office success, so it's actually very heartening.

AO: Indian cinema has played a significant role in the formation of cultural consciousness in Egypt throughout past decades. Now, however, that is not the case. Indian films are no longer aired on television, nor do they make it to Egyptian movie theatres. What do you think went wrong?

SA: I think the Egyptian government decided at some point that it should no longer bring Indian films to Egypt. But I think the time has come to change that. In India, there was a time when we were no longer showing Hollywood films in cinemas. It was thought that American productions would harm Indian cinema; that a lack of Hollywood films in the market would boost the local industry. Needless to say, that perception is incorrect. What actually happens is when you are exposed to world cinema, your own standards improve and it reflects on the filmmaking industry in your country. I do hope Indian cinema finds its way back to Egypt.

AO: Well, a few months ago, Chennai Express, a big Bollywood blockbuster, was released in cinemas here, and some satellite channels occasionally show Indian films. However, the very few movies that reach us are always commercial productions. How can film enthusiasts in Egypt and elsewhere be exposed to what parallel or independent Indian cinema has to offer?

SA: In India there are many films we do not get to see in the cinema, like most European productions for instance. They are only present in the film festival circuits and that’s it, because at the end of the day distributors are only interested in money. But what any film fan does when they want to watch a film they can’t see in the cinema is that they order the DVD online, which has become fairly easy today.

AO: Or they pirate the films.

SA: Oh, no, piracy is unacceptable. I am totally against it. I do not think films should be pirated under any circumstances. It’s very harmful for the artists.

AO: A few years ago, India was celebrated in the international film community when Slumdog Millionaire, a British film about a poor Indian boy, won several Oscars including Best Picture. Many thought it was a victory for India, while others thought the film wasn’t a real portrayal of the country but just another Western underdog story. What did you think?

SA: I know the slums of India. I’ve been working in the slums for years and years now, and I do not think Slumdog Millionaire is about poverty in India. I think it is simply a story about people in very adverse circumstances who in spite of everything manage to rise above the difficulties. I liked the film because I think it’s a celebration of the human spirit.

AO: You are identified as a film actress but you have also worked extensively in theatre and TV. Which of the three would you say is closest to you?

SA: I am a professionally trained film actress, so I would have to say acting in film. However, my relationship with theatre goes way back to when I was only four months old and my mother would strap me to her back and take me with her to her rehearsals.  She was a very famous stage actress, my mother. My father was a member in the Communist Party and all the money he earned went to party-related activities, and so we couldn’t afford a maid and I was always with my mom in the theatre. In a sense, love for the theatre runs in my blood. I find theatre extremely challenging, but if you ask me how I see myself, I would say as a film actress.

AO: You once said, though, that you think the theatre is the actor’s medium while cinema is the director’s medium.

SA: Yes, that’s right. Onstage you have the space to do whatever you want as an actor. If you disregard the director’s instructions, there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s just you and the audience, and it’s live. In film, meanwhile, if you do something differently, the director will cut right away and make you repeat it.

AO: On a more political note, how can Egypt benefit from India’s transition? India faces a lot of challenges but it is still considered the world’s biggest democracy.

SA: Well, first it’s about democracy, and that’s the most important thing. The world drew great strength from what happened in Tahrir Square. It was the biggest thing millions of people around the globe had ever seen in their entire lives. We hope Egypt builds upon that and we hope your transition to democracy is smooth and inspirational. India and Egypt have enjoyed very strong ties of friendship since the days of Nehru and Nasser. We truly wish Egypt the best.

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