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The Very Best Of Shabana Azmi

September 17, 2022 12:42 IST

Filmmaker Sai Paranjpye shares an amusing anecdote of Shabana Azmi's perfection in her memoir, A Patchwork Quilt: A Collage of My Creative Life.

While filming Sparsh, the actress wished to know if she should cry during a certain scene.

Paranjpye agreed to one 'rebellious' tear.

Her leading lady wasn't done yet.

Left eye or right, she further inquired.

Left, said the director.

As the camera zoomed in on the actress, one precise tear, not more not less, rolled down her left cheek.

In an era of instant validation and hyperbolic appreciation, just about anybody with reasonable success is lauded to the skies.

But only a solid few like Shabana Azmi, whose stardom stems from her intellect and an astute understanding of her art, are worth heaping praise on.

Be it as an influential figure of parallel cinema or mainstream rebel, Shabana's enviable resume of cutting-edge roles and philanthropic efforts has set the bar for new talent to live up to for over four decades.

On her 72nd birthday on September 18, Sukanya Verma gives three cheers to the legend and lists 20 of her stellar performances.


Ankur, 1974

Ankur marked the beginning of a fine and fruitful collaboration between Shyam Benegal and Shabana leading to memorable works such as Mandi, Nishant and Junoon.

High on graphic aggression and psychological torment, Ankur tells an uncompromising tale of feudal exploitation and double-standards through the eyes of Shabana's Laxmi.

Ankur earned the actress her first National Award. She would go on to win four more.


Nishant, 1975

A school teacher's wife is abducted, raped and forced to live the life of a mistress by a tyrant zamindar family in pre-Independence India.

Shabana's soul crushing depiction of a relentlessly persecuted woman across moments of pain as well as unexpected humanity at the hands of the wife of one of the culprits (played by an equally brilliant Smita Patil) provide some of the most unique facets of female bonding on the silver screen.


Shaque, 1976

A wife oscillates between steadfast idealism and crumbled faith after discovering some unsettling truths about her husband.

Shabana Azmi and Vinod Khanna capture the intimacy and complexity of the man-woman relationship with such intense urgency, it lends director duo Aruna Raje and Vikas Desai's urban thriller an edge its writing otherwise lacks.


Shatranj Ke Khiladi, 1977

It's not a lengthy part but Azmi is superlative as the sulking Begum of a chess-obsessed significant other (played by Sanjeev Kumar) in auteur Satyajit Ray's reworking of Munshi Premchand's short story.

Applying her innate sophistication to slyly seduce a disinterested spouse, the actress succeeds in making the viewer feel sorry for her state of affairs.


Swami, 1977

Long before Woh Saat Din, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Manmarziyaan, Shabana Azmi showcased her trademark pluck in Basu Chatterjee's adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's coming-of-age story.

As the girl who follows her heart before her head and learns a lesson or two about romance and relationships outside the books, Shabana is both real and riveting.


Junoon, 1978

Against the mutiny of 1857, an impossible love story brews at the forefront of Shyam Benegal's fiery classic based on Ruskin Bond's A Flight of Pigeons.

As the one getting the short end of the stick, Shabana shows her mettle in the role of the bitter Begum, irked by her husband's obsessive attraction for an English girl, especially when her inability to provide an heir is pointed out in a cruel moment.


Sparsh, 1980

Not many films can boast of this level of sensitivity and restraint as Sai Paranjpye's Sparsh.

Although Naseeruddin Shah, playing a visually-impaired school principal, has the obviously challenging part, Shabana's dignified response to his apprehensions conveys her affection and concern without being overtly schmaltzy.


Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai, 1980

Shabana Azmi's quiet grace as a Catholic working girl in 1970s Bombay while enduring the rants of her angst-ridden boyfriend and keeping her presumptuous boss at bay highlights her flair for understatedness in Saeed Mirza's exploration of minority struggles.


Arth, 1982

Most actors are inclined to play victim by overstating their grief over a betrayal. Not Shabana Azmi.

In complete contrast to colleague Smita Patil's fiercely neurotic avatar, Azmi portrays a deeply hurt and humiliated wife, ill-equipped to handle a looming divorce or the reality of being dumped for another, with tremendous vulnerability in Mahesh Bhatt's autobiographical Arth.


Mandi, 1983

In Shyam Benegal's compelling drama based on a short Urdu story by Pakistani author Ghulam Abbas. Azmi plays a self-absorbed, unrefined madam running a brothel and evoking the wrath of the neighbourhood moral police.

Her relationship with the fellow members of her tribe as well her exploits are conveyed with such racy audacity and spunky Hyderabadi touches, we are fans for life.


Masoom, 1983

Masoom'S Indu is far more complicated than meets the eye, but Shabana Azmi skillfully balances the tricky role of a deceived wife and hands-on mother in ways that makes her not only high-minded but human too.

Brilliant that she is, the actress smoothly alternates between relatable: When understandably cross, clammed-up and exceptional, while also demonstrating an unusual capacity to forgive and accept.


Khandhar, 1984

Mrinal Sen's National Award-winning drama appreciates Shabana's poignant aura to the core.

In Khandhar, she paints a picture of heart-breaking solitude and haunting melancholy inhabiting a delipidated, abandoned home in ruins where waiting for a promise never to be fulfilled.

Looking after her bedridden mother is the only fate she can expect.


Paar 1984

Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi's onscreen interplay is always a treat to watch.

Goutam Ghose's stunning adaptation of Samaresh Basu's short story is no exception.

As partners-in-despair in the family way trying to flee their rioting village and survive the big bad city, they not only reveal yet another stirring facet of their chemistry but immerse themselves to the point of becoming unrecognisable.


Pestonjee, 1988

Vijaya Mehta's fascinating study of dysfunctional relationships within the context of the Parsi community finds its heart and hysteria in Shabana Azmi's rapid decline as Jeroo, the heroine who marries the hero's best friend.

From lovely to loony, the actress has her pulse on the character, her stifled emotions and inevitable meltdown down pat.


Fire, 1996

One of Azmi's most controversial roles to date, her portrayal of lesbian love in Deepa Mehta's Fire invited the ire of Hindu activists.

Disruptions notwithstanding, the actress convincingly progresses from a submissive, lonely housewife exploring her sexuality in socially forbidden ways by realising her feelings towards her brother-in-law's young wife.


Saaz, 1997

The alleged rivalry between siblings Lata Mangeshkar-Asha Bhosle is said to be the inspiration behind Sai Paranjpye's Saaz, which gently explores the close ties and clashing egos between Shabana Azmi and Aruna Irani's fiercely competitive singer sisters.

Where the latter surprised with a surprisingly nuanced performance, Shabana shows strength of character in moments of resilience and reconciliation.


Godmother, 1999

Vinay Shukla's Godmother, said to be inspired by the real-life story of Santokben Jadeja, fetched Shabana Azmi her fifth National Award following Ankur, Arth, Khandhar and Paar.

Hailed for her straightforward, sharp presence, the actress is in complete element conveying the steely grit and persistence of her on-screen alter ego.


Makdee, 2002

Vishal Bhardwaj's directorial debut Makdee sees the actress in a never-before-seen avatar.

As the hideous looking witch sporting pale, crumpled skin and ghastly make-up in a children's film, Azmi is unforgettably daunting and terrifying. Not to mention the long hours she put into that creepy look.


Morning Raga, 2004

Coping with past horrors to enjoy a new, improved present through the fusion of traditional and modern music forms the metaphorical crux of Mahesh Dattani's Morning Raga.

A thorough perfectionist, Shabana took lessons in Carnatic music to grab the finer nuances for her portrayal of a singer.

Though the film met with mixed responses, everyone came out singing praises of her emotionally fragile Swarnlatha.


Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, 2013

Vishal Bhardwaj's whimsical anti-capitalistic statement is an acquired taste resisted by some, relished by others.

But even its worst critic will vouch for Shabana Azmi's deliciously wicked turn as a greedy, power-hungry politician promoting a political marriage between her son and a madcap businessman's daughter for purely monetary gains.