By the time she was cast in Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s controversial film Fire, Shabana Azmi was already an icon of South Asian cinema and used to unconventional roles. Playing Radha, she falls in love with her sister-in-law Sita, earning the 1996 art-house movie rave reviews for its path-breaking look at the evolution of a lesbian relationship within a traditional household.
However, a Hindu fundamentalist political party, the Shiv Sena, launched a campaign after the film’s release, harassing moviegoers and vandalizing theatres.
“Before Fire, particularly within film, there was no question of even admitting any such thing or any such relations happen in life—whereas we all knew it existed in life,” Azmi tells the Georgia Straight, on the line from Mumbai. “But Fire, because it was handled sensitively, really opened up the space where today, if one were to make a film like that, I don’t think it would raise that kind of controversy.”
She praises Mehta as a "very fine filmmaker" who is very sensitive to actors.
"Her relationship with her actors is really, really good," Azmi adds. "She depends a lot on her actors. She casts very carefully. And after that, she coaxes you, cajoles you, woos you. She does everything in her power to make sure that you remove your blocks and that you are able to give what it is that she wants."
On Wednesday (June 12), Simon Fraser University will confer an honorary degree on Azmi, who has been called the “Indian Meryl Streep”. Her debut came in 1974 as a married servant having an affair in Shyam Benegal’s Ankur, earning her the first of five National Film Awards for best actress. Azmi, who grew up in a Muslim family, has been a pioneer in art-house films, known as the “parallel cinema” in India.
She starred in 2005’s 15 Park Avenue, which focused on schizophrenia. Azmi was cast as a professor who must come to terms with her younger sister’s mental deterioration.
"It was left to the parallel cinema to portray women with any degree of complexity," she says of the earlier era.
She adds that some believe that parallel cinema has died in India, but she disagrees with that notion.
"I only think it has taken on a different avatar because of what you see in terms of the independent cinema today," Azmi says.
She notes that newer independent-film directors focus on western-educated, English-speaking urban men and women whereas in Benegal's era, the emphasis in parallel cinema was on "notions of feudalism", poverty, and exploitation.
"But India is a country that lives in several centuries simultaneously," Azmi declares. "We have people living back in the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. And India's people encapsulate all the contradictions from being a multireligious, multicultural, multilingual society. India's audiences are not a monolith. So all kinds of films are being made and all kinds of films are being patronized by different sections of the audience."
She applauds mainstream Hindi cinema for making great strides forward in the portrayal of women, who were traditionally viewed as either madonnas or vamps.
"You would believe all that the heroines do—all that women do—is wear yellow chiffon saris and dance in the Alps, if you were to look at the trajectory of mainstream cinema," Azmi says. "That happily is changing over the last five years. That is also happening because the newer lot of leading ladies are making some bold decisions...Vidya Balan has really had five back-to-back successful films in which she has played unconventional leading ladies."
Azmi has a role in New York–based Indian director Mira Nair’s new film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
“I’ve been wanting to work with Mira for a long time, even though I knew that it was a minuscule role,” Azmi says. “I just felt what she was saying was important. And the whole issue of the Muslim identity and fundamentalism needed to be portrayed from the South Asian perspective. All that we see is from the American perspective.”
Azmi, a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, tells the Straight that her early interest in international film led her into parallel cinema. “As a young girl, I was exposed to [Ingmar] Bergman, [Akira] Kurosawa, [Jean-Luc] Godard, and [Frederico] Fellini, all of which would not have been available had I not been in the film institute,” she says. “That greatly shaped my aesthetics. So when Shyam Benegal offered me Ankur, it was an unconventional first-film choice because…the girl is an adultress. That didn’t go over well for mainstream cinema. I went ahead and did it because I really liked the subject.”
She has been in numerous foreign productions—acting alongside Shirley MacLaine and Patrick Swayze—but Azmi doubts that Indian thespians will soon become part of the North American mainstream. “Asian actors, for a long time, have been insisting on colour-blind casting, but we don’t see it,” she declares. “The blacks have only started becoming visible in Hollywood cinema. There’s going to be a long time before the Asian becomes visible.”
Azmi notes that one of the legends of Indian cinema, Amitabh Bachchan, could attract a large audience for The Great Gatsby even with a tiny role.
"India is the country that makes the largest number of films a year," she says. "We make twice the number of films that Hollywood does."
In addition to her film work, Azmi is a committed social activist and a member of India’s upper house of Parliament. In the mid 1980s, she went on a hunger strike to support slum dwellers. She has been a UN Goodwill Ambassador, served on the National AIDS Commission of India, and won the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award.
In her interview with the Straight, she says she prefers to discuss film rather than politics. But that didn't stop her from commenting on how Bollywood directors may respond to last year's high-profile gang rape of a college student, which led to her death.
"There has been a kind of churning," she says. "The more sensitive people from within the film industry have been reflecting and analyzing, like every section of society actually, because it was such a horrifying incident."
This year, Azmi has criticized the objectification of women in so-called item songs in Bollywood films. She tells the Straight that these musical productions have little to do with film plots and are there “for purely commercial exploitation”.
“If a women is celebrating her sensuality, it is welcome,” Azmi insists. “But under the guise of celebrating her sensuality, actually what is happening through the songs is an objectification and commodification of the girl, which is highly undesirable. Because, you know, vulgar lyrics and voyeuristic camera angles do not celebrate a woman.”
She cautions that when directors allow exploitive song-and-dance numbers in their films, it gives licence to the “morality brigade” to take over and start censoring films. This is why she’s calling upon the industry to police itself.
“I’m happy to say that among younger people, there is some thought being given to this,” Azmi says.
The Indian Summer Festival and SFU Public Square present Shabana Azmi speaking on sex and sensibility with Indian director Sanjoy Roy on Tuesday (June 11) at the Joseph and Rosalie Segal Centre, at SFU Harbour Centre.