INTERVIEW | 'We shouldn't be apologetic of who we are": Ghoomer actress Shabana Azmi at Indian Film Festival of Melbourne

She speaks about what makes India unique, films that capture the imagination of people, friendship's role in marriage and more
Shabana Azmi
Shabana Azmi

Today, the curtains rise on the dazzling spectacle of the 14th Indian Film Festival of Melbourne at the Hamer Hall Arts Centre in Melbourne. Over the next nine days, cinema enthusiasts will be treated to a gala celebration of Indian filmmaking with screenings, riveting talks, dance competitions and glitzy red carpet-appearances. The festival welcomes Indian icons, including luminaries like Shabana Azmi, Karan Johar, Rani Mukerji, Malaika Arora, Bhumi Pednekar and many more.

Shabana Azmi
Shabana Azmi

Five-time National Film Award-winning actress, Shabana Azmi, takes centre stage as the Chief Guest. Embodying the spirit of freedom, she will hoist the Indian flag on Melbourne's foreign soil in celebration of the 76th Independence Day of the country. Her film Ghoomar, directed by R. Balki and featuring Saiyami Kher, Abhishek Bachchan, and Amitabh Bachchan, is the opening film chronicling a tale of courage, as a physically challenged cricketer finds her way to conquer new boundaries on the international stage. Amid this cinematic extravaganza, Shabana will share about her extraordinary journey in Indian cinema which boasts 160 films, including unforgettable gems like Arth, Ankur, Nishant, Mandi and the newest one Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani which has earned widespread acclaim. Before the festival, we catch up with the 72-year-old actress over a call to get the festival highlights. She also delves into how India can shine brightly, globalised times, the evolution of art, relationships and more.

Ghoomar poster
Ghoomar poster

What makes Ghoomar different from usual Indian cricket films?
Ghoomar’s unique story revolves around a talented young girl who aspires to be a successful cricketer (Saiyami Kher). However, a tragic accident on the eve of her international cricketing debut hinders her progress, leading to a significant setback. Nevertheless, her coach (Abhishek Bachchan), motivates her to continue pursuing her passion for batting and bowling. The film portrays a rollercoaster journey for the player, with both triumphs and challenges, creating a thrilling and engaging experience. In the movie, I portray the role of the girl's grandmother, who has a deep love for cricket and manages her granddaughter in the sport.

Do you like cricket in real life? 
Don’t ask me to speak on this ( laugh)! It's a sad story…

You come from a family background that saw art as a critical tool to herald social change but now it’s also being consumed as guilty pleasure too. How’d you view this evolution? 
There is nothing inherently wrong with creating art that provides only entertainment without serving a purpose. If all art, including cinema, only revolves around social messaging, we risk erasing India's diverse culture. Produce a wide array of content and leave it to the audience to decide on what they want to watch. Having a bouquet of choices is crucial.

Shabana Azmi
Shabana Azmi

What kinds of films are capturing the imagination of people in today’s time?
A notable shift has occurred in the portrayal of women. Society no longer accepts women depicted in stereotypical roles, such as the self-sacrificing wife or the always-understanding mother. Additionally, the lines between parallel and mainstream cinema are blurring. For instance, films like Rocky Aur Rani which are mainstream are still able to explore subjects that were previously considered suitable only for art cinema. This demonstrates that times are changing and we should avoid categorising films into rigid boxes of parallel or mainstream.

In globalised times of remixes, pop culture influences, song mashups, international collaborations and more, how can we keep our Indianness intact?
By keeping our uniqueness intact! In our country, earlier people used to sing along with the songs while watching them on screen and such songs used to hold deep emotional connect. However, as we try to gain the 'acceptance' of the West, we have lost what was integral to our way of storytelling in terms of songs. We should reach a point where we are no longer apologetic about who we are and what makes us different. For instance, Iranian films do not match the yardstick of the West and are very true to their own culture which makes them stand out, even in the international circuit. The Indian film industry deserves greater recognition. As an Asian actress, I question why casting cannot be colour-blind and why ethnicity must always dictate roles! However, change is coming where the world is finally starting to see beyond the differences of colour, ethnicity, language etc…For instance, in Steven Spielberg’s Halo TV series, I'm not cast because of my ethnicity as an Asian actor.

Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi
Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi

Hours before our chat, you posted a picture with your husband Javed Akhtar saying ‘made for each other’. You’ve often said that friendship has been the bedrock of your bond, do you feel Indian society still underplays its role in marriage/relationships?
Yes, we often don't prepare youngsters enough for marriage. Recently, a sociologist pointed out that many girls today desire a wedding but not marriage where he was relating the idea of wedding to fantasy and marriage to adjustments. It’s true, marriage requires daily adjustments and deals with the mundane aspects of life. It’s not constant romance and fantasy! When differences arrive in a couple, what holds them together is their friendship which they can only develop if they share a similar worldview.

Despite being progressive, why youngsters are still struggling to find love?
That’s because the girls have changed. They are becoming more empowered but men and boys are still to make that transition. We need to redefine masculinity because why should it be just about six-pack abs and strength? Why can’t it also be about compassion and gentleness? We need to change the way we are bringing up our boys.

IFFM is being held between 11-20 August. At Melbourne.
Twitter: @ranapriyamvada

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