Cover Story: Shabana Azmi on her dream role: 'I will hold my husband's collar and demand him to write it!'

Shabana Azmi gets candid about working in the Steven Spielberg backed Halo, cinema then and now, life with her lyricist husband, Javed Akhtar and why she doesn’t mind being compared to Meryl Streep
Shabana Azmi interview
Shabana Azmi interview

She is fierce, she is bold, she is progressive and she is unapologetically opinionated. She is Shabana Azmi — often credited as the Meryl Streep of India and the country’s only actress to have won five National Awards for best actress, the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan and even a seat in the Rajya Sabha! She also recently won the best actress award for her role in LGBTQIA+ themed film Sheer Qorma at the India Film Festival of Boston 2021. At the age of 71, the actor has helped redefine the kind of roles women portray in Hindi cinema and more often than not, she has roles written specifically for her. We caught up with the actress earlier this week over a call from Southampton, UK as she was headed for lunch with her lyricist and poet husband Javed Akhtar, for a heart-to-heart conversation. She spoke to us at length about working on Halo and how her relationship with Javed Akhtar has evolved over the years. Excerpts.

How was your experience of working on Halo?

Halo was a complete surprise. My agent in the US was in touch with the producers and managed to cast me for the show. One day he (agent) just randomly told me that this has happened and that I was cast for the role. And this was very unusual because it was without any audition or any talk, based on some Indian films of mine that the casting director saw. Soon a meeting was set up with showrunner and director Otto Bathurst (best known for Peaky Blinders and Criminal Justice) and it went on for two hours. I was familiar with his work. And he talked to me extensively on the phone and then we were all placed in a boot camp in Budapest. In Halo, I play Admiral Margaret Paragonsky, an authoritative woman who is used to giving orders. Her character plays by the rules but feels conflicted. And suddenly she’s confronted with this unscrupulous scientist, who manipulates her and makes her participate in an experiment which otherwise she would never have done. What I also felt was admirable was the inclusivity of actors in the project. Asian actors have been saying (this) now for more than 13 years and so why presume that the mainstream is always Caucasian. What is it that we mean, when we say colour-blind casting? It is precisely this, because Halo has actors from many different countries including Korea, Canada and India. It’s like if Lawrence Olivier can play Othello, then why can’t an Indian or Chinese person do it? In fact, for my character, I wasn’t asked to put on a fake accent to play my role or pretend to be anybody other than who I am. This was the brief given to actors of all ethnicities and all countries. Moreover, it’s a new thing that I have tried as I never heard of this game and then I played it and it’s nice that I can now connect with a much younger generation. My nephew Viraj Azmi who never otherwise would think anything of me, now thinks I did something great because he knows the game! So, it’s wonderful to try something new.

Shabana Azmi in Halo as Admiral Margaret Paragonsky
Shabana Azmi in Halo as Admiral Margaret Paragonsky

You have an illustrious body of work as an actor, each role different from the other. You are also straddling other roles away from films. What motivates you to work so hard, especially to take up challenging roles?

I always like to try new things. As an actor, it is your job not to stick to the same thing and break your structure every time. I can’t do the same thing because then I have nothing new to do. I am working on different dimensions and always looking for something new — learning new things is what inspires me. You see how many worlds I straddle? I am on my way to the premiere of Halo in LA, doing academics for Mijwan (an NGO that was started by her father Kaifi Azmi that works for the upliftment of rural women) with Southampton and then in India, there is so much work with Mijwan’s upcoming show. This is what keeps me excited. I am always motivated because I don’t get tired of the work that I am doing and discovering new things.

Many actresses today say that cinema is now focusing on women-centric roles, but we have seen you doing films like Arth, Ankur, Mandi and Nishant. Do you think cinema was far more progressive then; and women had a stronger presence in such films?

I think there has been a steady improvement. If you look at the films in the ’60s, many were female-oriented and actresses like Waheeda Rehman, Meena Kumari and Nargis played very powerful roles. But at that time, women were portrayed in very traditional roles. ‘Main Chup Rahungi’ (I will stay silent) was considered a virtue for a woman. After that, we went through a period when we had films like Zakhmi Aurat and Jeene Nahin Doongi. So, it was like, first you had Rambo and now you had Rambolina and none of these roles had any complexities of what it means to be a woman. It was left to parallel cinema to define those women. I was very lucky to be at the right place at the right time. That’s why I am very grateful to my directors and writers who had the gumption to make those films. I think very often what happens is that the producers think that this is what society is ready for but society has moved on. Because, now with the advent of OTT we have many faces! I also think it is a platform that should be extensively used to create its own stars. We have only a handful of stars. I feel a little disappointed that OTT is also running after these stars. I don’t think that was their mandate.

You recently announced that the Mijwan show is back. What can we look forward to?

I can’t speak more about that now but it’s Mijwan’s annual fashion show which is back after three years. There will be a whole new collection that the Mijwan girls are working on with Manish Malhotra.

How much did the pandemic impact work at Mijwan?

I would say we did some brilliant work in the pandemic. I was quite shocked. With reverse migration, people were coming back to villages but there was no work so we built up centres called Rozgar Dhaba where we were tying up with people who wanted jobs and with the centres where they could get those jobs. What happens is that the government has a whole host of welfare schemes but they never reach people, so we became a source to make that space available for them. Many other programmes benefited many women and widows and I am very proud of that.

It’s been over three-and-a-half decades with Javed Akhtar. What holds the two of you together?

I think the strongest glue that binds us together is respect and friendship. We have a lot of respect for each other. Javed is very fond of saying that we have such a good friendship that even marriage couldn’t break that. But it’s also because we have a common worldview and we come from a very identical background — our parents as progressive writers, members of the communist party, part of progressive movements and all of that. So, even if some occasional differences pop up our basic structure of thought comes from the same cloth. And we also give each other a lot of space. I am happy that Javed is with me here, but there is a lot of time that we spend away from each other too. So, I think if you do not make your relationship the only raison d’être of your existence then you don’t put so much pressure on the relationship. I think it is the space that we have given each other that helps our relationship work.

Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar
Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar

You are often called India’s Meryl Streep. How do you respond to that?

I feel honoured. I have watched her work and she is a tremendous actor. I used to think why am I compared to her, can’t I be seen just as me? But then I understood it is because of the body of work and versatility of the roles that we both have done in our respective industries that people relate us to each other. I have met so many stars from different international film industries but haven’t got the opportunity to meet her. Hopefully, someday soon!

You are also working on Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani, and interestingly with Jaya Bachchan, who you say was an inspiration for you to join FTII?

I have a strong admiration for her because I saw her in a short film, Suman, when she was in FTII. I had never seen such realistic acting and cinema, till then. I have a strong affection for her and we share a strong bond. We both are not known for working in typical commercial Karan Johar style of cinema so it’s new for both of us and it’s wonderful to work in something new and a different setting altogether.

What about R Balki’s Ghoomer?

It’s again a very different film and with a role that’s the exact opposite of my personality. It is based on cricket and I play the role of a woman who loves cricket. Personally, if I tell you, in my house, I am not allowed to watch cricket. The minute I look at the screen, our bowler or a batsman gets out. That’s the reputation I have in my home. If I want to join everyone then I have to sit with my back to the TV. That’s how my relationship is with cricket. Let’s see how it goes with Balki’s Ghoomer.

Lastly, with so many different roles to your credit, is there any role that you still aspire to do?

The day I come to know that, believe me, I will hold my husband’s collar and demand he write that role for me. (laughs)

Halo is streaming on Voot Select.

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