Making of a legend

actor extraordinaire

Making of a legend

Her beginnings were unique, but maybe that explains in part the growth of a legend — an actor who never went wrong in any film.

As Shabana Azmi, actor extraordinaire, puts it, “I was three -months old when my mother (actor Shaukat Azmi) would strap me on her back and go to Prithvi Theatre, so I literally grew up with the smell of greasepaint in my nostrils. Later, in group sequences, Prithviraj (Kapoor)ji would give me and Randhir Kapoor costumes and we would act in them.”

Her tryst with acting continued in Queen Mary’s High School, where she would always act in plays. “I recall playing Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, and my mother says that I wore one of my father’s (legendary poet Kaifi Azmi) kurta as a tog with a rope,” smiles the actor. “At home, along with my brother Baba (cinematographer Baba Azmi) and the neighbouring kids of Janki Kutir (a famous Mumbai landmark), I would act in self-made plays.”

The fervour continued when Shabana joined St. Xavier’s College. “Farooq Sheikh, two years senior to me, and I set up the Hindi Natya Manch, the first Hindi drama group there,” she recalls. “And it was a resounding success, because inevitably we began to win all the awards at intercollegiate festivals.”

Soon, another

inevitable thing happened. Shabana watched the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) film Suman and was floored by Jaya Bachchan’s performance. Rating it as something different and “completely refreshing” with respect to the kind of acting prevalent in cinema then, she decided to join the FTII and asked for her father’s consent. And her dad said, “I will support you in whatever you do. Even if you had wanted to be a cobbler, I would have supported you, on condition that you try and be the best cobbler.”

Of rocky beginnings

But there was a major stumbling block, and Shabana tells us that she has never shared this story before. “My final BA examinations clashed with the FTII audition dates, and I was disheartened. So I told my father that he must use his influence with Atma Ram (filmmaker and Guru Dutt’s brother), who was a part of FTII then, to try and get me an audition.”

Her parents accompanied Shabana to Pune, and Shabana was given a chance at a solo audition. “But I forgot my lines. So I started making them up. Principal Roshan Taneja, who was taking my auditions, told me, ‘I realised what was happening, but I liked the fact that you carried on and did not stop.’ Having the foresight to recognise a talent who could think on her feet, he admitted me to the course.” Shabana, in retrospect, calls this phase the “most satisfying period of my life.” Almost immediately, the actor won a scholarship, and on completion of the course, a gold medal. “K A Abbas saab signed me for Faasla before I graduated,” she recalls. “And Kantilal Rathod signed me for Parinay the day after I passed out.”

Lady Luck was also in full throttle. Shabana had shot quite a bit of the latter film when Shyam Benegal approached her for Ankur. And that became her first release, won her the National Best Actress award and also became a huge hit, opening the doors to parallel cinema in India alongside Bhuvan Shome and Rajnigandha. It also went to the Berlin International Film Festival.

Her first mainstream film, in a small role, was Dev Anand’s Ishk Ishk Ishk, released later in the same year (1974). “I really do not know what gave me the confidence to walk into Dev saab’s office and tell him, ‘You can’t have a better choice than me!’ He was stunned,” she chuckles. Soon, family friend Shashi Kapoor began to recommend her and she got films like Fakira and Hira Aur Patthar opposite him. And the phenomenal success of the former film made her a commercially bankable heroine as well.

Did she ever have the condescending attitude towards mainstream cinema that her art cinema colleagues like Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri had? Candidly, she answers, “I had no well-planned strategy, but I had a feeling that it is important to be a part of mainstream cinema to become a star. That would make audiences go watch my parallel films. So, I guess I was making an attempt to make art cinema viable.”

Shabana adds, “Besides, the signing amount for a commercial film was more than the full fees for art cinema. And I still say that all my mainstream hits happened despite my presence. I was a disaster in the song-and-dance setup because of my own wrong thinking. That’s the only part of work that I regret now, as one can score in this with just training.”

Another insight follows. “Working with Manmohan Desai on Parvarish was a delightful experience — the man had so much conviction in his cinema. He would say, ‘Don’t do that Satyajit Ray kind of acting in my movie!’ So when he announced Amar Akbar Anthony, he frankly told me that he was creating a sketchy role for me as “otherwise Vinod Khanna will eat my brains because the other two heroes have heroines.’”

The film, a blockbuster, however, taught Shabana an important lesson from the brickbats received. “I was asked what I was doing in the movie. And I realised that it was important for me to do substantial roles even in mainstream films,” says Shabana. And she was lucky to do so, in films as assorted as Devata, Amar Deep, Thodisi Bewafaii, Hum Paanch, Avtaar and more.

On the international screen

What about her international projects? “That was a very important phase in my career,” she says. “I got a call from producer Robin Dalton, stating that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, on whose story it was based, had recommended me for Madame Sousatzka. He asked me which film of mine should be watched to know about me as an actor, and I replied, Mandi. Soon, I was called for a meeting with director John Schlesinger. I was shooting for Libaas and rushed to London for a day, and John and I fell in love with each other.”

Shabana knew that the only way she could make overseas filmmakers take notice of her was to excel. “I was a newcomer all over again, as an actor should never become smug, complacent, and sit on past laurels. I finally did 10 films overseas, and worked with modern systems like call-sheets and memos that became norms in Hindi cinema only 15 years later.”

An important milestone in her career, however, was her small role in Satyajit Ray’s Hindi film, Shatranj Ke Khiladi. “I went to meet him in jeans and tees, but he asked me to change into the costume of a begum to feel my character, and tutored me on the lines I spoke. It was an unforgettable experience.”

The excellence continues with Neerja, her last release. “I derive my inspiration from real people and not performances from senior artistes. I work hard on the research and homework, like visiting three diverse brothels in the country for Mandi. This is something I learnt at my mother’s feet,” the actor sums up.

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