June 28, 2010

Shabana Azmi: "Javed doesn’t have a single romantic bone in his body"

Shabana Azmi on the men who make her world and the woman who rules it. Filmfare gets to know the inner circle.

Her whacky film It’s A Wonderful Afterlife has introduced a new genre in India (similar to the Ealing comedies in England in the 1940s, which included social comment with horror). While her performance as the Punjabi Mrs Sethi has been widely appreciated, she was initially wary about doing it. “I told Gurinder, ‘You’ll have to lead me by the finger’. She took me to a baby shower in London where I met a lot of Punjabi women. Mrs Sethi is obsessed about getting her 30-year-old daughter (Goldy Notay) married. But the daughter is rejected because she is fat. Mrs Sethi kills the people who reject her who then return as spirits. But you never see her killing them. It’s basically brand Gurinder Chadha — whacky, funny and somewhere touches a chord,” she asserts.

The actor and activist, who always debunked stereotypes, says she was ‘never pressured’ into getting married. “But my mother was extremely concerned as I was already 34. It was never a problem with my father (the late poet Kaifi Azmi). Unka bas chalta toh main unhi ke paas rehti (if he had his way, he’d have kept me forever). He was too happy to have me at home.” Cutting to the now she adds, “I am not obsessed about our daughter (filmmaker Zoya Akhtar) getting married. If we were to tell her that we are worried about her she’d think we’ve gone loony,” she smiles.

It’s been eight years since Shabana lost her father, the late poet and writer Kaifi Azmi but she finds his existence all-pervasive. “Abba’s presence around me is so strong that I don’t miss him. I refer to him; I converse with him, more so when I am working in Mijwan (a village in Uttar Pradesh which was being developed by Kaifi Azmi). I remember him with joy, not sorrow. I was shaken after his death but my brother Baba (Azmi, cinematographer) helped me by saying, ‘Look at what this man has done, you should remember him with joy’. Abba is my lamppost, my guru, my friend and my reference point. He remains everything he was. And the fact that we continue to stage Kaifi Aur Main (a play on his life adapted from Yaad Ki Rehguzar written by Shaukat Azmi) with Javed playing Kaifi, his presence becomes stronger. Javed’s poem on Abba titled Ajeeb Aadmi Tha epitomises him.” She recites the lines emotionally,“Ajeeb aadmi tha woh (He was a strange man),Mohabbaton ka geet tha, bagaawaton ka rang tha (He was the song of love, the colour of rebellion), Kabhi woh sirf phool tha, kabhi woh sirf aag tha (A flower sometimes, sometimes just fire),Ajeeb aadmi tha woh (He was a strange man).”

Her mother Shaukat has also been an equally potent influence in her life. “A few years ago, I was at a demonstration for Nivara Haq (an organisation that fights for the rights of slum dwellers) and got arrested, I had to perform in the play Tumhari Amrita that evening at the NCPA. My mother went up to the audience and said, ‘Shabana is an actor but also an activist. She has been arrested and we are trying to get her released’. She went to the police and pleaded with them saying, ‘She’s an artiste, she has a commitment. Let her go and perform. I will bring her back and you can put her behind bars again’. That’s the commitment I have grown up with,” narrates Shabana, the fire obvious in her tone.

Being a poet’s beloved and wife are generally considered to be diametric realities but not so in her case. “Many young girls with stars in their eyes tell me, ‘Javed saab writes so beautifully. How romantic it must be to have him as a husband’. I tell them, ‘Please…he doesn’t have a single romantic bone in his body’.” To this Javed says, ‘If I were a trapeze artiste, does it mean that I will hang ulta (upside down) at home all the time? What you do for a profession you don’t do at home’.” On a serious note she says, “Javed is the person I expected him to be — intelligent, supportive, humorous and sharing the same worldview. He can be completely irreverent and terribly passionate about something too. After the way I revered my father, it was a tough act for any man to be my husband. But Javed has measured up to him in every way. Because he is a true feminist just the way my father was.”

As an allusion to her latest film, I ask her whether she believes in an ‘afterlife’. “Not at all, aapki jannat, aapki dozakh yahin hai (your heaven and hell are all here)!”

Farhana Farook