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September 18, 2000


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'I live the life of a common man'

Lata Khubchandani

Luck. She certainly has smiled on Shabana Azmi. Not to mention talent. Shabana Azmi

The actress has had a remarkable run in the film industry, with the creme of roles to choose from.

As she once candidly admitted, "I attribute it to being at the right place at the right time."

But that might be because Shabana has always believed in going after what she wants. Life, for her, is only for the taking.

She took. And emerged a renowned actress. True, it probably could not have happened had parallel cinema not happened. For what commercial cinema didn't give her, parallel cinema did -- in terms of exploiting her talent and, as a result of it, winning her acclaim.

Shabana has been known to say, "Acting is a very narcisstic profession and I'm tired of looking at myself."

Perhaps that is what took her to the grassroots, fighting for women's causes, fighting for the downtrodden and giving them a voice in the Parliament. A brilliantly articulate voice, too.

Here, Shabana articulates about her life, career and herself:

Shabana Azmi MY earliest memory is of performing a nursery rhyme on stage. It was Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon.

I was the cow and was supposed to jump over another three-year-old, who was playing the moon. I jumped on her by mistake.

She slapped me hard; I slapped her right back...

I studied at a girls' school. But, on stage, I always got the boy parts. In fact, my brother, Baba, always had a tough time with me. We were always fighting.

We had these two desks at home. Whenever I returned from school, I'd throw my bag on his desk. It upset him no end -- and I loved irritating him!

One incident I'll never forget is my mother handling one of my tantrums. One morning, we were having breakfast and Mummy picked up a piece of toast from my plate and fed it to Baba, who was getting late for school. That was it. I was convinced she loved him more than me.

I started howling, threw my plate down... She ignored me.

Once Baba was off to school, she told me, "Listen Shabana, I'm your mother, but I'm also a human being who appreciates good behaviour and dislikes bad behaviour.

"Baba is an extremely well-behaved boy. So it gives me joy to be with him. It gives me no joy to be with you because you're rude and badly behaved. Just because I'm your mother doesn't mean I'll take any nonsense from you!"

I couldn't believe Mummy was saying this to me... since then, I started behaving myself.

Shaukat Azmi I have always had an extremely talkative relationship with my mother. Whenever I returned from school, my first question would be, "Where's Mummy?"

I didn't talk too much with Abba (Kaifi Azmi), unless there was a crisis of some sort. He was always an objective person.

Though I never understood why Abba didn't dress in the conventional shirt and trousers and go to work like other daddies. Abba is one of the few men who practise what they preach -- there is no dichotomy between his words and his actions.

WE lived in a small cottage crowded with things -- Mummy has all these artifacts all over the place.

I think houses should be done according to people's moods and changed around when necessary. I'm always changing things, much to the irritation of my husband (Javed Akhtar). And it's thanks to Mummy that I've inherited this love for cushions and bedspreads.

If I had to choose, I'd veer towards the ethnic rather than the modern. I'd never pay exorbitant sums for designer wear. But yes, I wouldn't mind picking up something classic which I could wear for the next 20 years. And when I go abroad, I wear Indian clothes -- that's more because I want to make a statement that I'm Indian.

I must confess I can't figure out the MTV brand of music. I like Pakistani ghazals Kishori Amonkar, Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

I love food, but I'm the world's worst cook. I take down recipes meticulously, then never use them. Or I end up cooking something totally different from what I'd imagined!

WHEN I entered the film industry -- in the 1970s -- the parallel cinema movement was just taking shape. So I had the privilege of working with directors like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Sai Paranjpe, Kalpana Lajmi, etc.

Shabana Azmi

I was slotted as an actress of substance because I was a product of my environment. I grew up in an atmosphere where creativity and social commitment went hand in hand. My father was part of the CPI and both my parents were members of IPTA -- so I was exposed to International cinema at the FTII. That was deeply rewarding.

I was fortunate that I'd signed up two films while still at the Institute: Parinay and Ankur.

With Ishq Ishq Ishq, I branched out into commercial films. I was lucky that way. But it was only after Amar Akbar Anthony that I realised how hopeless I was as a regular film heroine: I looked ghastly, couldn't dance and people were horrified that I'd acted in it.

I graduated to Swami and Masoom, and such like which, within the commercial genre, gave me something to do.

But if I were to consider, my aesthetics as an actress has been shaped by FTII and Shyam Benegal.

In fact, the first three festivals I attended were with Shyam Benegal. He was the one who chose the films that we watched. It was also the first time that I had travelled abroad with him. I learnt so much just by being with him...

Shabana Azmi THEN I gained international experience with City Of Joy, Madame Souzatska, Side Streets, Bengali Nights and Immaculate Conception.

I learnt systems management from the West. But do you know what? If their system broke down, they hadn't a clue what to do. True, they are very professional.

But here in India, we are better off. We can turn our hands to anything. We're not relegated to helplessness if our system breaks down.

I took up Tumhari Amrita as an experiment. Soon, Doll's House for the Singapore Repertory followed. Recently, I also worked on The Waiting Room for the Royal National. It was a truly enriching experience.

NO less enriching is my work for the common man. I'm very concerned about the common man. And I live the life of the common man as far as possible.

Usually, people from the film industry are protected, cocooned, because they have no contact with real people. But I make a conscious effort to do things myself. And I come back so defeated.

It amazes me how the common man is treated. And working with women has only been immensely gratifying. I think we haven't recognised that a silent revolution is taking place in India -- there are as many as one million women in local Panchayats!

This participation has boosted women's morale tremendously. I believe it is important that women address themselves to problems that are of concern to them rather than let men find solutions for them.

WHICH is why my foray into Rajya Sabha. It is an extremely serious business and a pity that it has been reduced to a lightweight charade.

Shabana Azmi But then, unless you apply yourself, you cannot do justice to your post. I 'm glad this gives me the opportunity to voice out the concerns of the people who I work with at the grassroots level to the floor of the House.

LIFE wouldn't be the same if I couldn't relax with my family and friends. My family -- Abba, Mummy, Baba and his wife Tanvi -- and I love meeting up and exchanging tales. Actually, Mummy is a fabulous raconteur and can keep us all in splits.

In fact, that is my idea of a holiday -- to have lots of people over to chat and eat...

Also read:
'There is no longer that pain in her'
'She is number one!'
Check out the Shabana Azmi slide show!

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