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'Marriages are going out of fashion'

February 16, 2023 13:16 IST
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'The point about arranged marriages is -- because I come from a progressive family -- the idea was completely alien.'
'But I have realised over time that there are instances of assisted marriages working very well.'
'If you look at it, really, in a microcosm, it is the same thing as Tinder, isn't it? I mean, if you are trying to meet -- yes, no, yes, no, no.'

Photograph: Kind courtesy Shabana Azmi/Instagram

Most actresses, at least in India, start to make retirement plans in their 70s.

But Shabana Azmi does not seem to be slowing down.

Her first film, Ankur, released nearly 50 years ago, but the 72-year-old actor continues to ride the various waves of Indian cinema.

She even has a successful career outside India.

Her latest film is an international project What's Love Got to Do with It?, directed by Shekhar Kapur. The film also stars Lily James, Emma Thompson and Pakistani actress Sajal Ali, who played Sridevi's daughter in Mom.

The film is set in London and Lahore, although all the Pakistani scenes were shot in studios in the UK.

The film is written by Jemima (Khan) Goldsmith, ex-wife of the retired Pakistani cricketer and politician Imran Khan, and daughter of the late British tycoon James Goldsmith.

What's Love Got to Do with It? is a cousin of rom-com films like Love Actually and Notting Hill.

The film focuses on an arranged marriage between a young girl from Lahore and a Pakistani-British doctor, who also has feelings for a white British girl he grew up with. But the film weighs on whether arranged marriages (or assisted marriages as referred to in the film) have much relevance in the current times when many young people are falling in love and finding their own life partners.

What's Love Got to Do with It? premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and has since then traveled to a range of festivals across Europe and the new Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah.

Writing from Toronto, The Guardian critic preferred Azmi's performance to that of Thompson's: 'It's far more rewarding to watch Indian star Shabana Azmi as the other more layered matriarch, an astute actor avoiding cliche as a woman embracing both tradition and modernity and she sells us on the difficulty of that wrestle.'

Shabana tells long time contributor Aseem Chhabra, "Women's roles are becoming layered. They can be negative, go wrong, they can be vulnerable. They are no longer like Nirupa Roy."

Shabanaji, you have been acting for so long and now, have started playing mother roles. How does it feel to transition into a mother's role?

It's very natural. When you learn to embrace your age, rather than fighting, and then play according to that, it's very heartwarming.

It's a fortunate time because the screen space is opening up to older people, particularly to women, which was unimaginable 10 years ago. I think it would have been very frustrating.

But now look at the diversity of roles that I am getting.

I mean I never imagined in my life that I would be playing Admiral Margaret Paragonsky in a show (Halo), executive produced by Steven Spielberg, that I would be working with Emma Thompson in a film directed by Shekhar Kapur.

How much more diverse can it be?

How does the equation change when it comes to working with Shekhar Kapur, especifically from Masoom to now?

Not only just Masoom, I worked with him as an actor in Toote Khilone and in a couple of other films.

Also, while Shekhar and I weren't really in touch with each other, it was heartwarming to come back to his film because Shekhar has always been very gentle with his actors.

He is a fine director for his actors because he doesn't tell them what to do.

He creates the space to let you be your best.

Somehow, we immediately connected in a way where I felt we were on the same side. So that was lovely.


IMAGE: Shabana Azmi in the scene from What's Love Got to Do with It?

You have been once again cast as a Pakistani mother. How do you feel about that?

Pata nahin kyun mujhe British projects main Pakistani mothers ka hee role milta hai? Is se pehle maine teen-chaar TV serials main kaam kiya hai, un sub mein main Pakistani mother play kar rahi hoon.

London main to aise believe karte hain jaise koi Hindustani maa hoti hee nahin (laughs).

Many years ago, you acted in a film set in Pakistan with Zia Mohyeddin and James Wilby.

That was lovely. A film called Immaculate Conception (1992), directed by Jamil Dehlavi.

That was the first time I played a Pakistani character.

You have acted opposite Shirley MacLaine in Madame Sousatzka (1988). How did that experience compare to you acting opposite Emma Thompson in this film? You seemed to be having a lot of fun in both the films.

I did. Except what happened was when I acted in John Schlesinger's Madame Sousatzka, I was the only Asian on the set. So I felt a bit alien because everyone else was British.

Today, it's becoming so international.

On the same set, you have black, white, Chinese, Polish and Asians actors. It's changing completely.

Earlier, the technicians were more international. But Asian actors have been saying for a long time ke bhai colour blind casting karo.

Why are we put in a particular role only because we come from Asia? That is now changing.

Women's roles are changing, even for older women. You are getting to play the lead and being your age. And this is a beautiful space even for the audience.

Earlier, only young girls in their 30s were cast in older roles. They were made to put on so much powder and make-up.

Also, women's roles are becoming layered.

They can be negative, go wrong, they can be vulnerable.

They are no longer like Nirupa Roy. Somebody said about Nirupa Roy, that she was such a careless mother.

If you gave her 100 children in the morning, by evening she would have lost all of them. (Laughs)

IMAGE: Shabana Azmi with husband Javed Akhtar. Photograph: Kind courtesy Shabana Azmi/Instagram

What is your opinion about arranged marriages -- assisted marriages, as referred to in the film?

The point about arranged marriages is -- because I come from a progressive family -- the idea was completely alien.

But I have realised over time that there are instances of assisted marriages working very well.

If you look at it, really, in a microcosm, it is the same thing as Tinder, isn't it? I mean, if you are trying to meet -- yes, no, yes, no, no.

You are trying to meet them because you feel let's see, if I can put myself out there.

In arranging a marriage, they are not telling you have to go. Rather, they are just helping you.

But isn't the world changing? I think in India, there's a lot of change. More and more people are selecting their own partners.

Well, marriages are also going out of fashion.

Older girls are resisting the idea of marriage.

I think it's coming from the fact that there has been a shift in the man-woman relationship.

The woman is much more confident and knows what her rights are. And she is demanding them.

But the men have yet to change.

What do you have to say about your own life, your marriage to Javed Akhtar?

We come from such similar backgrounds that people say we should have had an arranged marriage.

I think in future, people should get married, and then men and women should live separately.

I feel women should live together and men should just visit them. It would be the best. So much nicer to be with your own gang.

IMAGE: Director Shekhar Kapur with Sajal Ali and Shabana Azmi. Photograph: Kind courtesy Shabana Azmi/Instagram

I think one sees a similar vibe between your character and Emma Thomason in the film.

We had so much joy with each other, right?

What was it that you found fascinating about this film's script, apart from the fact that Shekhar was directing it?

I mean, the whole package deal.

It had Shekhar Kapur.

It had Lily James.

And for Christ's sake, it had Emma Thompson! I have been a huge admirer of hers.

You are also a big star. Emma Thompson must be saying that acting with Shabana Azmi was a plus point.

If she says so, she is very generous. But the fact is that she turned out to be a lovely person, along with being a lovely actress.

I think what attracted me to the project was the fact that in today's world, when it's becoming so divisive, and everything is full of strife, along comes a film that celebrates love and says, 'Let's not sit in judgment of each other's cultures. We are different but we are equal.'

Celebrating differences is very important.

Why should one person become exactly like the way other person is?

What was it like shooting the film during the pandemic?

The shoot was at the height of COVID. When we went, my family said you are going to be back in three days.

So it had to be very strict protocol and we couldn't meet each other after the bubble of the shooting. And every day, they would test us.

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