She has played a myriad of roles on the big screen, challenging the ‘subordinate’ position of women and defying the countless myths associated with the feminine.
Through her gripping performances she has lived through her characters’ ordeals by embodying their dreams, fancies, yearnings, sufferings and desires. Like a brimming sea of emotions, she has overwhelmed her audiences with her outstanding talents and abilities.
In her various cinematic roles as a mother, wife, lover and sex worker she has been phenomenal by portraying a woman’s potentially dangerous struggle with society in her assertion of freedom. The daring, audacious characters she enacted in films such as Arth, Fire, Tehzeeb and Mandi still stand as a gift to the feminist consciousness.
However, her activism is not confined to the screen but she has been advocating for the rights of women in her personal capacity despite threats and resistance from conservative groups. She is a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament, and has been working for the cause of women empowerment at the grassroots level. “Violence against women is just intolerable,” says Shabana Azmi as we engage in a tête-à-tête at her apartment in the Juhu area of Mumbai which she shares with Javed Akhtar. On the walls are hung a variety of paintings, quite a few of them by the noted Indian painter M. F. Hussain.
“We need to challenge women’s lack of access to education, unequal employment opportunities and unjust marriage practices,” she asserts. “Women are forced to accept their inferior position in marriage and despite obstacles they are expected to live with it. The privilege of gaining education and the ability to combine a career with marriage and motherhood lies with only a handful of women who can afford it.”
Shabana Azmi’s NGO Mijwan Welfare Society works to empower rural women in India. Although women are advancing into leadership roles in all professional areas, she says that the problem of female foeticide and sex-selective abortions is still prevalent in India.
“The Indian film industry is also paving its way towards gender equality in a way that more women-centric roles are available,” she said, “Lately, audiences have realised that films with women leads can also be intriguing and interesting. But when it comes to representation of women in the industry, a lot needs to be changed.”
“Actresses who accept item songs must be aware that it is leading to the sexualisation of children. It is disturbing to see little girls dancing to these songs that are full of sexual connotations,” she added, however, she argues that she doesn’t think it is the sole responsibility of the actresses.
“What the film industry creates is usually audience-driven so the audience which readily accepts these songs and plays them at weddings and parties is equally responsible.”
“Another problem with item numbers is that women wearing revealing clothes are shown dancing to suggestive, vulgar lyrics. Salacious and obscene camera angles focus on images of women’s bouncing bosom, shaking hips, swivelling curves and what not. The men on the other hand are shown drooling over her, teasing her and even touching her in groups.”
“These songs are typically catered to the male gaze and can play a negative role by reinforcing misogynistic ideas in young minds,” she said, speaking as fluently as an orator and as sternly as a professor. Her strong emotional responses can perhaps not be captured here on paper.
As she talks, I observe how she is at once happy, sad, angry, funny and even harsh. She seems concerned about making me feel at ease by reducing her authority but she effortlessly charms me with her smile. She even called me ‘darling’ a couple of times during the interview.
Shabana Azmi is not an ordinary person with an ordinary family background. Being the daughter of the noted poet Kaifi Azmi and actress Shaukat Azmi, both members of the Communist Party of India, she says, “My parents instilled in me the liberal, progressive and secular values that I cherish.”
She narrates a poem written by her father titled Aurat:
qadr ab tak teri tarikh ne jani hi nahin
tujh mein shole bhi hain bas ashkfishani hi nahin
tu haqiqat bhi hai dilchasp kahani hi nahin
teri hasti bhi hai ik chiz jawani hi nahin
apni tarikh ka unwan badalna hai tujhe
uth meri jaan mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe
She said that her mother fell in love with her father at a mushaira in Hyderabad in 1947 where he had recited his poem Aurat to Shaukat Azmi. She was convinced the poem was written for her, that’s the impression poets had on women then.
The Communist Party of India had tried persuading Shaukat Azmi to undergo an abortion when she was pregnant with Shabana.
“My father was underground at the time when my mother was pregnant,” she related, “The Communist Party of India was unable to extend their support and any help at that time, and had asked her to abort her child.” Infuriated, Shaukat Azmi objected to the party’s decision and took up a job at All India Radio to support her child.
Her mother used to take her along to the Prithvi Theatre for her acting rehearsals. “I’ve grown up watching her performances so acting skills are deeply ingrained in me,” she said, “I was only four years old when I first started experiencing films, acting and stage performances.”
Talking about her father, she said, “When I was a child my father would read his poetry to me and at any bizarre reaction of mine, he would at once change that particular word. He believed that children had high artistic and aesthetic sensibilities.”
I tell Shabana Azmi that my father had met her father in Kuwait in 1974. Kaifi Azmi had then talked about his poem that he wrote shortly after recovering from a state of unconsciousness.
This year at the Jaipur Literature Festival both Salima Hashmi (Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s daughter) and Shabana had shared the stage, talking about their renowned fathers and their works. Someone from the audience had asked Shabana if she likes Kaifi Azmi or Javed Akhtar, to which she wittily replied, “I like Faiz Ahmed Faiz.”
She is of the opinion that it’s not only the responsibility of the artists and authors but of every individual to contribute towards building peace between Pakistan and India.
“We’re doing the best in our way to bring the two nations together,” said Azmi adding that Salima Hashmi, is a dear friend of hers. “Faiz Ghar in Lahore is doing a great job in continuing the legacy of Faiz’s poetry and works.”
“We have great technicians and resources here and you have such good talent in Pakistan,” she added, “Creative people from both countries working together to make films, music and art can bring about a very positive change. If someone can make this happen, it would be wonderful.”