More power to women

Ambica Sachin (Staff Reporter)
Filed on October 30, 2007

And coming from social activist and Indian actor Shabana Azmi, you can bet she knows what she is talking about. City Times met up with the multifaceted actor who was in Dubai to reveal an unknown side to her personality

SHE LOOKS like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. But that doesn't prevent Indian actor-activist, Shabana Azmi from playacting the role of a meek woman midway through our interview. The short interlude came as a response to a question as to whether the private Shabana was anything like the outspoken, assertive, strong-willed woman we have come to expect from her public persona.

She might be a five time National Award winner, but that short 'act' made it more than apparent why she doesn't like to play a 'submissive' role on the big screen. Because, believe us, this actor is meant to portray on screen what she is in real life. And that is an opinionated, political, social crusader who speaks her mind, never mind the brickbats.

She can be curt when she chooses to be. At the same time she was only too willing to expand on the causes close to her heart. Here the actor who takes as much pride in her credentials as a social activist, theatre artist and former member of Parliament, gets candid with City Times.

Is the person we see on screen the same as the person you are off screen?

A part of who you are is bound to be reflected on screen. However much I base the character I am playing on some observation that I have made, ultimately it is being expressed through my persona. An actor is her own instrument. She can only use her mind, her body and her face to express.

When Ravi Shankar plays, it is not just the dexterity of his fingers, but it is also about how finely tuned the sitar is. For an actor her body itself is her only instrument and that is bound to get reflected in the work she does.

Over the years have you felt that your strong public personality has precluded you from playing all kinds of role on screen?

I don't enjoy the idea of of playing a submissive part. It's not something that interests me. I am conscious of the fact that very positive images of women are far in between, that for instance when you look at mainstream Hindi cinema, working women are almost invisible.

If you saw only saw Hindi films, you would think that all women in India wear chiffon saris and sing in the Alps. But the fact is that women in India work whether they are in the villages or in the city. I think a conscious understanding of this must happen with the writers and the actress themselves who should demand that they be shown as professionals.

I think the stereotypical images of women particularly as you see on television is a retrogressive thing in terms of reinforcing what women are like. And I think if female actors themselves become conscious of this and demand a certain thing of the writers and directors, it will lead to positive images of women.

So I don't think I will catch myself really warming up to a character that is submissive unless there is a transformation from somebody who is submissive to somebody who becomes empowered or perhaps if from this submissiveness such a sense of outrage is created in the viewer that you feel that this is wrong.

Are Bollywood actresses in a position to demand such changes?

Absolutely. Look at Rani Mukerji. She is in a position where she can demand what she wants. Tabu has been doing that for a long time. Konkana Sen Sharma — such a young girl is already doing that. I think the younger women, whether it is Preity Zinta or Rani are getting substantial parts even though they are glamourous.

Earlier you had a film like Mein Chup Rahoongi, where 'Chup rehna' was considered a virtue for women. That has changed.

Women are doing substantial parts now. There was a period in the 80s where women were playing avenging angels, Insaf Ki Devi or Zakmi Aurat. As I say first we had Rambos and now we have Rambolinas!

Who among the young lot is your favourite?

Konkona. She was 8-years-old when she first worked with me in a film I did of her mother's. She is also a very good writer like her father. I had told Aparna Sen that I am pretty certain this girl is going to write nothing; she is going to be an actor. Even her pet name Koko has been given by me. So I have a strong maternal instinct towards her.

Tabu, of course, is supreme. She leads life on her own terms. I am very proud of her and happy that she is my niece; that she has is living up to her legacy. Kareena Kapoor is another actress who has a lot going for her.

Would your husband - Javed Akthar - ever script a story for you?

Javed is a man's writer. All his characters are very male-oriented though he has always portrayed women extremely well. Salim-Javed in all the various films they did, they always cast women in smaller parts in main leads but they were always substantial roles.

I think Javed is an incredible writer and I look forward to him doing something special now.

Currently there is a lot of controversy over the use of the term 'Bollywood'. What do you feel about it?

The term Bollywood infuriates me. What it does is that it suggests that all Indian cinema is but a pale imitation of Hollywood. The fact is that India is a country that produces the largest number of films in the world. We make twice the number of movies that Hollywood does. We are the only country in the world that has managed to withstand the onslaught of Hollywood. We prefer our own movies to Hollywood movies. So we must be accorded respect in terms of it being called Indian cinema. But unfortunately one has sort of thrown in the gauntlet now because Bollywood has found its name even in the dictionary to signify the song-and dance kind of Bombay cinema. I have problems with that.

How does it feel to work under such a talented film-maker like Farhan Akthar who is also related to you?

Farhan is into many things. He is acting in movies, singing, writing and directing as well as producing films. So he has got a lot on his plate. I just worked with him in a film called Positive about Aids in which I was cast opposite Boman Irani. Although I had worked in Honeymoon Travels which he had produced, this was the first time I was directed by him.

It was quite gratifying because you take you kids for granted and when you see them professionally living up to the best in them you feel very proud.

There is this quiet authority about him that I didn't remember he was my son! I just felt he was the director.

Zoya is also getting ready to make her first film. She is a very talented writer and I am sure she will make a pretty good film.

Do you think that your degree in psychology has helped you in your chosen career?

It definitely does help you understand human complexities.

In trying to understand what it is that people try to hide, they reveal themselves. An actor's entire life is oiled by constant observation of life and of human beings. Because an actor's resource base has to be life.

So when I meet you, there is something about you that I put consciously or sub consciously in my head. And at some point when I am playing a character, something comes out. It is a simultaneous process for the actor to pick up characteristics from people they meet.

One movie of yours that really moved me was '15 Park Avenue' where you play a no-nonsense woman who looks after her schizophrenic sister. How far do you identify with that role?

The person I played is very close to the person Aparna Sen herself is. What I really like about Anu is that she is the caregiver in the family and yet it is not in a sentimental kind of way.

It was an extremely well written part and easy for me to do because I identity with that. I think women like it very much because today's woman is doing that — she goes out to work. She is the caregiver of the family. She is looking after older parents. She is doing everything a man is supposed to do yet retaining a feminine identity. She is the quintessential urban woman, I really enjoyed playing her.

Women nowadays have to juggle a lot of roles. As someone who is so much in the public glare and involved in a lot of issues at the same time, what advice do you have for today's woman.

I think this pursuit of being a super woman is quite futile. Women should just stop this nonsense of trying to be a superwoman. Because it is just very stressful. And sort of leaves you gasping all the time and doesn't give you any time for yourself.

It is very important to destress - to have some time you can call your own. So I believe that to whatever extent you can delegate, you should delegate.

I know you want to do everything, but it is impossible to do it all. And that is a reality women need to come to terms with. Why don't we expect men to be supermen? Why is the expectation only from women? We are putting that responsibility upon ourselves.

So how can a woman deal with this constant pressure?

It is purely about prioritising. Your priorities may be completely different from mine. I wouldn't for instance say that I respect a woman only if she is working outside the house. I respect a woman who is working only in the house just as much. So long as the choice is hers.

You see, it is the woman's choice — Do you want to work at home? Do you want to work outside? Do you want to look after your child? As long as the choice is in your hand, you are empowered. But I don't say that because you are working only at home you are not empowered. The decision-making process must rest with you.

How do you personally destress, seeing as you lead such a hectic life?

I only give advice! The only time I destress is when I am on a plane going from from one place to another when I can sleep. Because I am very badly lacking sleep. I keep doing too many things.

My husband keeps telling me that I am genetically incapable of destressing!

My idea of destressing is to spend time with my family, with my friends — have them all over from the youngest grandchild to the oldest grandmother. I like to have my family and friends around me. Spend Sundays together where everybody is doing their own thing. For me my base as a nurturer comes from bringing on board people who are very close to me, people I value who give me my strength - my husband, my mother, my brother, sister-in-law, my cousins...

From serious films to judging a reality show - what made you take up the offer to be on the panel of judges for Jjhoom India?

The format is extremely interesting - it is about very talented television actors singing, putting their entire reputation at risk. For an artist to rise to new challenges is very important. I have been an actor for so long and sung for my latest film Loins of Punjab and it was very terrifying. So I can identify with these people, But I think it is very important to take a risk knowing you can fail. It is better than saying — this is what I am comfortable doing, this is what I am going to do.

Mahesh Bhatt and Anandji are the other judges. The most important thing is we clearly told the producers that we will not do predetermined roles. When you fake it, people can see it immediately.

Among all the various social activities you are involved in, which one do you hold closest to your heart?

That would have to be the work I do for the rehabilitation of slum workers for an NGO called Nivara Hakk Suraksha Samiti. We have just rehabilitated 12,000 families which is close to 60-80,000 people - the largest single rehabilitation programme all over Asia. There are people who were thrown out of the Borivili National park. We made the houses ourselves and now the real challenge begins because now we have to make sure that the place doesn't become another slum.

That is closest to my heart.

What do you have to say about the current trend of remaking classic movies that is going on in the Hindi film industry?

There is no harm in trying. If it works, it does. If it doesn't, it doesn't work. It's no big deal. I didn't bother to see it (Sholay) nor do I know anything about it.

Do you like travelling? What do you think of Dubai?

I lead a completely schizophrenic existence. I was in New York last month where I was in all these panels, speaking at Yale University, on BBC, promoting my film Loins of Punjab, going to the UN, demonstrating at the UN general assembly. So I constantly keep doing these completely contradictory things.

I like Dubai very much. Over the years I have seen the transformation of the place. I have seen it becoming more comfortable with itself; developing a character of its own. I enjoy coming here.

Which is your favourite place in Dubai.

The Lebanese chain of Automatic. I've been to all the Automatics all over Dubai. I enjoy all the salads, the mixed grill and the fish they serve there.

Fighting fit with Shabana

Shabana Azmi is definitely one actress who has maintained herself well in Bollywood. Though she is the first to admit that she leads an undisciplined lifestyle at best, the actress asserts that when the need arises she can be quite strict with her exercise and diet regimen.

'I try and work out on the treadmill when I have time. And since I live opposite the beach in Mumbai, I try and go for morning walks as well. But unfortunately nothing about my lifestyle can be regular simply because of the amount of travel I have to do.

'My body weight almost inevitably is in accordance with the part that I am playing at the moment. So I have to constantly lose and put on weight.

'When I have to lose weight I become very disciplined. I manage to lose weight through a combination of diet control and exercise. It is a demand of my profession which is very taxing. Our body is not made of rubber after all! It's not terribly good for your health either. I take calcium and Vitamin E regularly.'

So what kind of food does she like to eat? 'The oilier and greasier the food, I like it more! I am a bajiya and samosa person. But then I can be very disciplined also. There have been times when I have had to put on 12 kgs. And immediately after that I've had to lose it all in a couple of month's time. So I have really had to go to the extent of starvation too!

The VLCC connection

Not many in Dubai may be aware that Shabana Azmi is a brand ambassador for VLCC. And it was in this capacity that she visited Dubai for the opening of their latest Centre at Uptown Mirdiff.

'VLCC is not just about slimming, but it is also about maintaining good skin. I had very dry skin which I have to moisturise all the time. The I-line that VLCC has, is what I use regularly.

'The important thing is that VLCC promotes the concept of wellness — of health, nutrition and right exercise. So you need to look at it not just as a cosmetic thing but as a concept of wellness which is holistic, and backed by a whole lot of research. So I am comfortable knowing that it is not just a cosmetic thing I am endorsing.'

Calling Indian beauties

THE EMIRATES Vision and India Times are seeking two girls of Indian nationality residing in UAE for a direct entry to participate in this year's Femina Miss India event.

The scouting would take place on November 4, in Dubai. Those interested should send their details by email with photographs and contact numbers to john@emiratesevents.com or call – 04 3460040 / 050 6450629.


Height – 5’7' (170cms)

Nationality – Indian’s residing in UAE

Marital Status – Unmarried

Age Limit –18 to 23 yrs


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