One-on-one  with Shabana Azmi: I have the freedom to do what I want

You had played the
role of a teacher long back in Sparsh
and Bhavana. How different is your
character in Chalk N Duster?

It’s completely different. It has nothing in common. In Sparsh, I was a teacher who teaches
blind children and not full-time. In Bhavana,
I was a governess. But my role in CND is that of a full-fledged teacher. I was
a very good student who always scored a first-class first. But the one subject
that I was completely hopeless at was mathematics. Our Maths teacher, Ms.
Barucha would come into the class and call out the names and during the roll
call, my surname being Azmi, my name would be called first. She would say, Azmi
Shabana; I would say, ‘Present teacher.’ And she would say, ‘Leave the class!’
(Laughs) The ironical part is that I am playing a Maths teacher in the film.
That was the most challenging aspect for me because I really don’t understand
Maths. The only time I had to work hard in the film was while learning the
theorems and to pretend as if I know it. (Laughs)

It’s been four
decades since you have been giving us some remarkable performances. Does Chalk N Duster do justice to the caliber
of Shabana Azmi?

Well first of all thank you very much for the compliments.
Chalk N Duster is a story of two
teachers who are sacked unfairly because a very ambitious principal wants to
revamp the whole school. And then it is the struggle of these two teachers to
regain their dignity and reclaim their status. But it’s not done in a preachy
way at all. It’s a very entertaining kind of film and if you ask me which genre
I would like to put the film in then I would say it would fall in the category
of Dum Laga Ke Haisha. It’s not an
art film in any way and it’s not catering to the lowest common denominator. But
it’s a heart-warming story and both the protagonists have equal parts to play.
What you take from the film is that it will kindle the warmth in you for that
teacher who has played an important role in shaping you to be who you are today
but who you were too young to appreciate back then. Even when I say this, I
have goose-bumps because each one of us has had a teacher, not necessarily in
school or college; it could be someone who has been a mentor to you in your
life. The film rouses that kind of warmth and respect for teachers. As kids we
all think that teachers are a nuisance because we all want to escape what they
are doing but today we realize that who we are is shaped largely by them.

So, who was that
one teacher or mentor who you could think of or had at the back of your mind
while playing this character?

I didn’t think of a teacher but I based my character on
my sister-in-law Sulbha Arya who is a theatre, television and film actress. She
was the teacher for the longest time and as a kid I had seen her correcting
exam papers, bringing books at home, etc. So, even the way I look in the film,
the way I dress is very similar to Sulbha Arya.

In the film
industry, who do you consider as your teacher or a mentor? You too must have
learnt from somebody over the course of your illustrious career.

Oh it’s always a learning process. I think I learnt a lot
from Shyam Benegal, Shashi Kapoor, Jennifer Kapoor and it’s a continuous
learning process. If you were an artist who doesn’t want to become smug and complacent
and therefore diminish, you have to keep growing and keep becoming aware and
keep learning. So I learn everyday from everybody I interact with.

Films like these
which address certain issues need to be packaged in a certain way to ensure
that they don’t suffer commercially. What separates Chalk N Duster from its predecessors?

See, it’s not at all a preachy film. It’s a story which
is being told in a very entertaining way and the film boasts of some really
good actors. It has Juhi (Chawla), Divya (Dutta), Richa Chadda, Rishi Kapoor,
Girish Karnad and I. So I think that’s quite an outstanding star cast. The
performances are very good. I think the story in itself has what it takes for
people to like the film. I at no moment believed that it will have a fantastic
opening or any such thing and neither did Dum
Laga Ke Haisha
. But word of mouth helped that film and that’s what will
happen in case of our film too.

The director said
in an interview that he wouldn’t have made this film if you would have said no
to it.

(Smiles) Yeah he keeps telling me this all the time but
that’s very kind of him. Aisa kuch nahi
. I think there are many other competent actors who could have done the
role. But I think directors and writers do see a particular person in a
particular role, so that’s why I think he decided to cast me.

Similar thing
happened for Neerja biopic as well
where you will be seen playing Sonam Kapoor’s mother. The director said that he
had written the role specifically for you.

I don’t think they really mean it in that way. I think
they all have been very sweet and that’s a very nice way of making you feel
wanted and happy. But the role in Neerja
is a very lovely role. This year seems to be very good for me. Last year too, I
had Jazbaa and there is a TV series
for BBC called Capital where I play a
feisty Pakistani mother whose son has been picked up to become a terrorist and
how she fights back. It’s not the kind of Asian character you normally get to

Does it irate you
or amuse you when people majorly remember you for your off beat films and less
for the commercial hits?

Not really and you will be surprised to know that so many
people talk to me about Parvarish and
Amar Akbar Anthony more than they do
about my art films. This happens also because these films keep playing on television
a lot more than other films of mine.

After so many
stellar performances in these many years, do you now specifically look for
roles that give you an option to take back home something?

Actually, now I have the freedom to just do what I want
to do. I don’t need the money, I don’t need to be in the business and I don’t
have to prove anything to anybody. So, I have the freedom to say that I will
only do one scene. Now you may ask me, why would you do one scene? But I feel I
should do that one scene because there is something that needs to be said. Or I
may do it to encourage a young director. Or if I feel that my being in the film
would help the film or maybe the money is very good. I am not in the game or I
don’t have to be in the market and all that. There is no other consideration
except that the role catches my fancy. I am keen to work with the younger lot
of people and I feel very frustrated when they all say that they don’t dare
offer me a script. Even Jayant (director of Chalk
N Duster
) went up to Juhi and said that he doesn’t have the courage to
approach me and offer the role. So Juhi brought him to my house. Now this is
completely crazy because I am not an ogre who is going to eat him. At the most,
I will say no.

But does that
irate you when younger filmmakers find you intimidating and are scared to
approach you?

Actually lot of younger people know me well because they
are Zoya and Farhan’s friends and they are not intimidated by me but they do
feel that they have to offer me something substantial which in itself is a
back-handed compliment.

But why don’t Zoya
and Farhan cast you in their films? They have been making some really
good films.

But there was no ‘right part’ for me in those films.
(Laughs) Well it’s easy to convince Steven Spielberg to cast me in his film
rather than my own children because they keep saying that they are waiting for
‘that’ role and ‘that’ part which would do justice to me and which I would suit
the best. I think that will go on forever!

One of your films,
Libaas, directed by Gulzar couldn’t
see the light of day. Isn’t it disheartening? Gulzar feels that even if it had
released 10 years later, it would have been a golden film of that decade.

It’s extremely sad and disheartening. The film is
complete but it didn’t release because of some differences with the producer. I
think it has been the most painful for Gulzar Sahab because he had made that film with lot of love and if you see
the film even today, it looks so fresh and relevant. It had Naseeruddin Shah,
Raj Babbar and I and its a very nice film. It’s sad that it didn’t release. It’s
a part of the game, what to do?

Don’t you ever
tell Gulzar to come back and wield the megaphone again?

Not really. But the one person who I kept telling to
direct a film and chew off his brains is Mahesh Bhatt. I constantly keep
telling him that he must direct a film and he says he is a spent force and he
can’t do it. But I think he is being unjust because he is not a spent force at
all. But for some reason, he has decided to take a back seat when it comes to
direction. Any actor who has worked with him will tell you how he challenges
the actor and makes him/her rise up to the part. Marlon Brando once said, ‘I am
not willing to churn my guts inside out if my director is not willing to churn
his own.’ And he was so right because the director is the captain of the ship.
Mahesh would really drive you in raising the bar of your performance.

But you did
convince him back then to cast you in Lahoo
Ke Do Rang
which was one of the biggest films of that year. It’s learnt
that you asked him to make a film with you that would have great songs.

Not at all; bilkul
bhi nahi
. This is not true at all. When he came to me for Lahoo Ke Do Rang, I felt he was crazy. I
had already done Vishwasghaat with
him. I asked him why he wanted me to do Lahoo
and he said he would make me look beautiful in one song, Muskuraata hua gul khilaata hua mera yaar.
And he actually did that. He styled me so beautifully in that song. I had done
that film only for that song!

There was a trend
of multi star cast films in the 70s and it sort of diminished in the 80s and the
90s. However, we see the trend coming back and Zoya too is extremely good at
making multi-starrers…

Well a film has to be dictated by a story. You can set up
your mind and say that today I am going to make an ensemble film. It’s about
what story excites you and whether you want more actors in it or whether the
film demands an ensemble cast. But the best thing today is that even big actors
are very secure in their own space where they don’t bother if they have a
dialogue more or less or a scene more or less than his/her co-actor. If you see
Dil Dhadakne Do, Anushka Sharma had a
smaller role than Priyanka Chopra but the fact is that Anushka did it extremely
well. You sense no insecurity in her and she has given it all and that I think
is a very healthy sign in our industry today. A director should be able to
inspire that in an actor and build that trust factor.

But as an actor,
do you feel an ensemble film is a less comfortable and secured space to be in?

No, not at all. Making an ensemble film is a very happy
state of affairs for the actors. With Shyam Benegal, we have done many ensemble
films and nothing could beat Mandi
that had even the smallest of actor from the art cinema. It’s an ultimate
ensemble film. Every single person who is anybody in art cinema could be seen
in that film. Spending time on the sets, waiting for your co-stars could be very
tiring in terms of ensemble films, but when we were doing Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd, we were playing games, antakshari and dumb charades so much so
that Zoya had to tell us that we were not here to play games but to shoot the

Has there been any
film where you felt that it wasn’t going anywhere and you thought of walking
out on the first day of the shoot?

I did a film called Gajagimini,
directed by late MF Hussain Sahab. I couldn’t understand a single word of what
he was saying and I would just nod. Firstly, he would speak very softly, and he
said things which made no sense to me at all and I was doing what he wanted me
to do. So Madhuri came on the sets and she saw me doing that and said, ‘Ma’am
you are letting me down very badly. I can’t understand anything of what Hussain
Sahab is saying and I thought you would understand and be able to guide all of
us.’ I told her, ‘The only thing you can do while working with Hussain Sahab is
just do what he asks us to do and don’t ask for logic!’

If you had to
debut as an actor now, you think this is the most interesting time for actors
in our industry to make a debut or was it back then when you had started your

It’s definitely an interesting time and there is much
more going for an actor. You have to remember that today the advent of the
casting director is a very important addition to Hindi cinema. Unfortunately,
not much is talked about it, but that has changed the milieu of films. We were
used to seeing stock characters who would always play certain parts and that
would bring in the element of staleness in films. Today, even if a character
has to speak one line, the casting director takes hundreds of auditions and
that’s how it happens in the west too. When I first started working in Hollywood,
I was absolutely taken aback because I remember there was a role of a lady who
had to say just one line, ‘The boss is asking for you.’ But for that one-line
character, they had auditioned more than 30 female actors in front of me. In
Bollywood, we would not even bother to take audition of even one person; we would
just catch hold of some junior artiste on the set and make her do it. But
because the casting directors coming into picture, a lot of effort is being put
to cast actors.

Do you feel
originality is missing in today’s time? Earlier we had directors who would not
copy or ape west and had their own style of cinema. You think filmmaking has
become proposal making, especially the mainstream commercial entertainers?

No I don’t think so and I don’t think we are aping the
west. For example, you cannot say that a film like Masaan is aping the west. And there are many such examples that are
original in nature. Art cinema itself has taken a new avatar and that avatar is
independent cinema which is trying to tell stories differently.

Mahesh Bhatt is
one of the boldest and the most audacious filmmaker who has never had any
qualms about making films even on his own life. Today, we don’t see such
audacity in filmmakers.

They don’t have to because there are no givens; there are
no rules in the game. It’s not written anywhere that a filmmaker would be
considered bold or audacious if he makes a film on his own life. If you set a
norm, you would take away the freedom of filmmakers. I grew up in an atmosphere
where people believed that art should be used as an instrument to bring in a
social change, but I don’t insist that everybody should make only meaningful
films. It’s perfectly valid if somebody wants to make a film that serves the
purpose of entertainment. But I would say let’s redefine entertainment. Why
does the entertainment have to be crude or vulgar or violent? But let everybody
make what they want to make.

Agree, but in the
process, Mahesh Bhatt gave some brilliant and path breaking movies. So what I
meant is that we don’t see filmmakers picking up bold subjects or taking a
slice of their life if the need be.

That’s because others probably don’t have as interesting
a life as Mahesh Bhatt! So it would be very boring if you have had a boring
life and you think of making a film out of it, no? But having said that, so
many biopics are being made today and they too are real-life stories. They may
not necessarily be the real life stories of the directors but they are
somebody’s life stories.

Who do you
attribute your success and achievements to?

I really owe my career to being at the right place at the
right time. I am grateful that there were writers and directors at that time
who gave me roles that gave me a chance to exhibit any talent at all if I had.
I could have the same amount of talent but it would be a closely guarded secret
if I hadn’t got those roles. So the fact that today’s actresses are getting
those roles is also because they are realizing the worth of doing something
that is substantial and not doing something where they only have to play a
second fiddle to the hero. All of them are working hard. It was absolutely
incredible what Vidya (Balan) did in Dirty Picture. The amount of weight she
had put on and the way she showed her belly fat was very courageous of her to
do it.

When people refer
to certain films as women-centric or women-oriented films, does that irk you at

No, not at all. Why should it irk me? And I find it very
strange that it would be irksome to anybody. When you see our films, most of
them are being told from a male point of view. Women are 50 per cent of the
world and we want to tell the stories in the way we tell it. So I think it’s
about time that we get some female gaze in our cinema and I am not saying
feminist gaze; I am saying female gaze. I hear women filmmakers saying why are
they referred to as women filmmakers. I hope that the fact that you are a woman
will reflect in the film you make. It doesn’t mean you have to make
women-centric or women-oriented films. You can make comedy, action, thriller,
murder mystery or drama; but surely you would see things differently from how a
man sees them. And that difference needs to be conveyed. If these films become
successful commercially, more such films will be made and more women filmmakers
would be encouraged to tell the stories they want to tell and the way they want
to tell.

Lastly, when do we
see you directing a film?

Not in the near future for sure! It’s very cushy being an
actor and being in the centre of everybody’s attention rather than becoming the
production manager and a peon and a carpenter and running helter-skelter. I
like to be pampered. Who doesn’t?

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