How I met THE Shabana Azmi

I am an unabashed and insane fan of Shabana Azmi. The first film of hers that I saw was Vishal Bhardwaj’s Makdee and the 14 year old me had loved the film; especially her character of witch. However, it was her movie Arth that made me notice the brilliance of ‘actor’ Shabana Azmi and since then there has been no looking back. I have revisited almost all her films right from her debut film Ankur (which till date remains one of my favorite Shabana Azmi films) and I can safely say that she is one of the finest actors that Indian cinema has seen.

So while I was exploring twitter sometime in 2010, one fine day, I saw Shabana Azmi’s handle (@AzmiShabana) on my timeline. Back then it was not verified and I have had my fair share of instances where I had got myself into some intense discussions with people (Democracy with Arundhati Roy) only to realize later that they were imposters or parody accounts. So, my first tweet to her was actually a question asking ‘Hello, Is that really you?’ I managed to get a reply from her and since quite a few celebrities were following her I was assured about the authenticity part. Icing on the cake was that she started following me (I have no idea even now why she did so because I was just one of the many fans she has). Initially, I used to think she pressed the follow button by mistake and I used to visit her twitter page regularly for months to ‘check’ if she is still following me (Back then there was no ‘Follows You’ feature). And that was the beginning of my beautiful virtual relationship with one of the finest actors of the Indian cinema.

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Pehli Mulaqat:

My first meeting with her was quite filmy actually. In 2011, I got a Direct Message from Shabana Ma’am that she was coming to Bangalore with her play ‘Broken Images’ for Standard Chartered Bank at ITC Gardenia and asked if I would like to come. I nearly jumped out of my bed and I of course said yes. The super excited me was about 1 hour before schedule and I was supposed to meet ‘Richa’ with whom she had left a message. When I enquired, the folks said they don’t know anyone by the name Richa. My heart sank. I ran from pillar to post but nothing came out of it. I did not have the contact details so I was writing tweets continuously in the hope she will read it but I got no reply. I had lost all hopes and I thought may be she forgot to leave a message.  I kept praying to God. Thankfully, she hadn’t forgotten. Richa came just before the show and made sure I got a seat in the front. After the play (which was fantastic), I waited to meet her. I touched her feet and she said ‘Jeete Raho’ and she introduced me as her ‘Twitter Friend’ to the people standing out there. She said I was an ‘Encyclopedia’ and whatever information she needs, I tweet about it immediately. I was literally shivering, when I took out the CD of her film Mandi (My favorite Shabana Azmi film) and asked for her autograph. I was a college student back then and with whatever pocket money I used to get, I managed to get a Photo-frame and few chocolates for her as a gift. Those 5 minutes were one of the most special moments and in all this I forgot to even take a photograph! Sigh!

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Autographed CD of Mandi

Dusri Mulaqat aur Photograph:

I had to wait for 4 years to get that photograph. In 2015, she came to Hyderabad where I was working now for an event organized by COVA. There was a discussion on ‘Role of Women in Films’ and I was seated in the front. After the session, when the Q&A session started, Shabana Ma’am announced that ‘Rahul Sharma will ask the first question’. Everyone in the auditorium turned to me and I quite felt like a celebrity.  After the session, I met her and gifted her two books (One was by Amartya Sen whom she greatly admires). I took a photograph and I was planning to leave but she said ‘Jao, plate le kar aao’ and have dinner with me. I was on cloud nine. I rushed and came back but I was little interested in the food. She introduced me to some of her family members also.  We discussed a lot of things from politics to society. She asked me my views on GST Bill, MNREGA etc. Once we were done, I realized that I don’t really look good in the picture I had taken. I requested Ma’am for another photograph and she happily obliged.

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The books I gifted

Tohfa Tohfa, Aaya Aaya

I have often tweeted about my love for Shah Rukh Khan and except the man, the whole world knows that I am his ‘Jabra’ fan. One fine day, I got a Direct Message from Shabana Ma’am asking me to share my address so that she can send a gift. It took me some time to believe and I read it twice but here it was – A five time National Award winner and a Padma Bhushan asking the address of a fan so that she can send across a gift. I shared the address and what I got touched me. I got a special edition of the book ‘Aditya Chopra relives DDLJ’ which was released when the film had completed 1000 weeks of running. The book was sent by Aditya Chopra to her and knowing that I am a fan of the actor and this film in particular, she sent me the book. The SMS (By now she had shared her number) which she sent made me feel on top of the world.

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Recently, Shabana Ma’am sent me another book on Veer Zaara with a hand written message. I need not mention that this makes me feel very special.

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Agree to Disagree

What’s interesting is that we both don’t really agree on politics and share the same ideology. She is an Amartya Sen fan, I am not. She is not really a Narendra Modi fan, I am. She believes in socialism, I don’t. I am a rightist while she leans towards the left. We often share articles/WhatsApp messages on these. But this has never affected our interactions and we agree to disagree on these.

I have often wondered why anyone of her stature would do all this for someone like me who is just a fan of hers? Why does she take so much efforts to send me gifts? Why did she invite me to have dinner with her when she could have just said a Good Bye post the event in Hyderabad? Why does she make it a point to write a Happy Birthday tweet to me which is just 4 days before hers (though I sometimes remind her a couple of days before)? Why did she share her personal mobile number with a stranger like me? And most importantly, why did she follow me on twitter? Guess, some of us are just born lucky!

And twitter, you beauty! If you were not there, all this wouldn’t have been possible!

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Shabana Azmi @ 40 : 4 Favorite Performances

As a self-confessed Shabana Azmi devotee; it’s next to impossible to pick up 4 best performances from her body of work because she is just brilliant in every film. However, as she completes 40 years in the Indian film industry, I share four characters/performances which I loved the most.

1. Ankur

Shyam Benegal’s Ankur is one of my favorite films of all times. Interestingly, this was the first film of Shyam Benegal and Shabana Azmi who created the path for parallel or off-beat cinema as it is called now. Based on a true story, Ankur is a film that mirrors the brutal feudal system which prevailed in India and the evil social customs that had (still have) chained India. The beauty of Ankur is that it addresses various social issues from alcoholism and casteism to inequality and dowry; yet it is more about the underlying human relationships.

However, if I have to pick one reason as to why I love this film then it is because of Shabana Azmi who shines in the character of Lakshmi. She excels as a coy yet strong house servant who submits to her master who is attracted to her. We don’t know whether Lakshmi also loved her master or approved of the affair or whether she used him to get the child she had been yearning for. Her eyes speak of the emotions which churn within her. Ankur is truly class apart!

 

2. Mandi

Another Benegal film and it is probably one of the most enjoyable characters played by Shabana Azmi on-screen. At an age of 33, Shabana played the character of ‘Rukmini’ who was a woman much ahead of her years and she delivered an incredibe performance. I remember Shabana Azmi sharing in an interview that how she had to put on weight & chew paan continuously to look the part.   leads the film as Rukmini, the domineering but caring madame of the house. Her unusually loud tone with the ‘Hyderabadi’ accent and crudely unrefined mannerisms are brilliantly done, and it’s great to see her switching moods from angry to happy to suffering to motherly and loving. This is one of her most amazing performances.

 

3. Morning Raga

This happens to be one of the most challenging roles played by Shabana Azmi her career and unfortunately this remains her most under-rated performance. Playing a Carnatic singer is no mean feat but Shabana Azmi gets into the skin of the character and excels. She had undergone a great deal of training for this part in order to understand how Carnatic singers sing, their body language and mannerisms when they sing. She did not sing the songs but the lip-sync is done exceptionally well that one seldom realizes that someone else is singing.

 

4. Godmother

Godmother was stated to be inspired by the life of Santokben Jadeja,  who ran the Mafia operations in Gujarat in the late 1980s and later turned politician. Shabana Azmi got her fifth national award for the portrayal of ‘Rambhi’. Right from the accent to the body language, she gets it all correct. Shabana Azmi essays the ruthless confidence with great elan. I would be at a shortage of adjectives if I start writing about how much I loved her in the film.

The Idea of India – By Shabana Azmi

In this political season of slugfest where our netas are outdoing each other in dividing us on the basis of our differences (caste, creed, language, religion) ; it’s good to come across a piece that talks beautifully about the ‘Idea of India’ and how these differences unify us.

I would thank Shabana Ma’am for sharing the script of her speech which she delivered at an event for Rahul Bose’s NGO ‘The Foundation’ on 22nd February 2014. And with due permission, posting it here because it’s a must read! 

Speech – The Foundation’s – The Idea of India 

Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

Rahul Bose’s commitment to the Foundation is that of a missionary. I have watched him from the beginning of this journey and feel privileged that he has included me in ‘this path less traveled by’.

For today’s event I have watched him become a one man army. It has taken him two years to put this together – involving people of such repute as are present this evening. He has been both the Chairman of the Foundation and its Peon. More power to you Rahul and thank you for including me.

I’ve been asked to speak on ‘The Idea of India’. I’d like to begin with a sher of my father-in-law the noted Urdu poet Jan Nisar Akhtar.

 Tu is qadar mujhe apne qareeb lagta hai.

Tujhe alag sey jo sochoon ajeeb lagta hai

India is in the air I breathe. India is in the fragrance of the mogra, India is in the poetry of Kabir, Ghalib and Tagore, in the strains of Pt. Ravi Shankar’s sitar. India is the silence of meditation in the muted serenity of the Himalayas. India is also a cacophony – loud weddings, louder prayers, honking horns and shouting TV anchors.

India is a country that lives in several centuries simultaneously – She lives back to back in the 17th , 18th, 19th , 20th and 21st centuries and her people at any given time and place encapsulate all the contradictions that come from being a multi religious, multi cultural, multi lingual and multi ethnic society. Her rich diversity, her inherent pluralism is both her strength and her weakness. Her diversity makes her unique but it also makes her seemingly impossible to govern.

India exudes beauty: the white symmetry of the Taj Mahal, the vibrancy of Madhubani, the colors of Kutch, the carvings of Konarak. Yet India is a visual sore: garbage mounds, discarded plastic bags and open gutters.

India is an olfactory assault: smoky air, putrid drains, and burning cow dung. Yet India floats the fragrance of agarbatti, the smell of coconut and the seduction of Itr.

India is a story of lost opportunities, unresponsive governance; the abode of illiterate, poor, blind and the sick. But India is dreams and soaring aspirations of the young the energy of entrepreneurs, and feisty spirit of voluntary organizations.

India assaults sensibility with its women abusers walking with impunity amongst the goddess worshippers; with starving children living next to warehouses with rotting food. But India offers hope with Democracy a Constitution and a Justice System.

To me the idea of India is simple. She is a Secular Democratic Republic and her greatest strength is her composite culture – her ganga- jamuni tehzeeb.

I was raised in a commune like flat of the Communist party which was called not surprisingly The Red Flag Hall. Comrades like the great Urdu poet Ali Sardar Jafri, my father Kaifi Azmi and eight other families had just one small 280 sq. ft. room each with a strip of a balcony that was converted into the kitchen. Eight families lived together with just one bathroom and one toilet. My father was a whole timer and would get only 40 rupees to look after my mother, my brother and me. So there was never any money but it didn’t seem to matter at all because the residents of Red Flag Hall were tuned to the sound of a different drummer, they were committed to a larger goal. They were determined to struggle for social justice, gender sensitivity and celebration of India’s composite culture. All festivals were celebrated with much fanfare – Holi, Diwali, Eid, Christmas. As kids we were taken to the Sarvajanik Ganesh Pandals. On 26th January we would be put in a truck and taken to see the lights at Chowpatty – we imbibed India’s pluralism almost by a process of osmosis.

Today however that pluralism seems to be under threat. Communalism is raising its ugly head and permeating into all stratas of society. Religion is being used by Fundamentalists of all hues to divide people for vote bank political mobilization. Mobocracy is threatening the very tenets of Democracy and much more needs to be done to stem the rot. We need to recognize the signs of danger around us. It is said that if you put a frog in a cauldron of boiling water it jumps out and saves itself. But if you put it in tepid water and gradually turn the temperature on the frog doesn’t realize it till it is too late and dies. We are like the frogs who do not realize that the temperature around us is being heated up and very soon it might become too late.

If you ask me who I am I will say I am a woman, an Indian, a daughter, wife, actor, Muslim, Mumbaikar etc… my being Muslim is only one aspect of my identity and yet in India today it seems as though a concerted effort is being made to compress identity only into the narrow confines of the religion one was born into at the cost of all other identities! But this is a construct; it is not the truth of India – India’s greatest identity is her composite culture. If you look at a Kashmiri Hindu and a Kashmiri Muslim they have much more in common with each other because of their cultural identity their Kashmiriyat – than a Kashmiri Muslim and a Muslim from Tamil Nadu inspite of the fact that they share a common religion.

There is much that needs our attention if we want the Idea of India to flourish. As India seeks to become a global power we must also pause to ask which model of development needs to be pursued. Who’s development and at who’s cost is a question that begs to be answered. It cannot be the progress of a few at the cost of many. One of India’s greatest challenges to me is that large infrastructure projects need to be put in place to drive the engine of growth but this will necessarily lead to displacement of large numbers of people. Unless the principle of social justice is applied to resettling the displaced no genuine development will be possible; in fact there will be social unrest and chaos as has been witnessed in Nandigram and other places. The project affected person asks “If I am displaced from the land of my birth for ‘the greater common good’ then surely I have a right to demand that I am the first beneficiary of that project or at least one of the beneficiaries”. Alas! such is not the case as experience shows. We need economic progress without doubt but the benefits also need to reach those sections of India where ‘the sun is not shining’.

The vision of Rahul Bose’s The Foundation is to see a world free of discrimination of all forms. We know that in India all kinds of discrimination exist but what is heartening is that a robust civil society and hundreds of NGOs are putting up stiff resistance to work against discrimination of all kinds particularly discrimination against women. Women are breaking their silence, women are speaking the language of rights. Women are saying don’t call us Goddesses, treat us as equal human beings and the change is perceptible. In Mijwan a tiny village in UP Azamgarh where I work, girls as young as 8 and women as old as 80 are saying girls are equal to boys. Girls are refusing to be pushed into marriage before the age of 18 and are aspiring to work and become self sufficient.

There are also our artists, some of them present here today who are fighting for the right to freedom of expression and through their work have demonstrated that Art knows no boundaries; Art soothes, Art excites, Art provokes. I believe Art has the possibility of creating a climate of sensivity in which it is possible for change to occur.

The major idea of India is inclusion – men and women, poor and rich, old and young, tribal and urban all must become active participants in the polity who strive for Equity, Justice, Agency and Empowerment.

India is not a melting pot in which individual identities are submerged. Instead India is a colourful mosaic in which individual identities are retained whilst contributing to a larger whole. India will always remain more than the sum of its parts.

The long and the short of it is simply this – I am proud to be an Indian.

Thank you.

 

5 Off-beat Hindi films that I love

Films have always been an integral part of India and the very fact that we churn out the maximum number of films in the world every year confirms my statement. Indian cinema has been divided into two ‘types’ – Mainstream and Parallel or Commercial and Art House. This distinction was correct also but over the years things changed and so did the cinema and so did the audience. Art-House/Parallel cinema became Off-beat. The line between the two ‘types’ of cinema started to blur and we saw that off-beat films can be commercially viable too. I wouldn’t say that the line between the two has completely vanished; however; we now see a greater acceptance of all kinds of cinema.

In this post, I write about 5 ‘Off-beat’ Hindi films which I saw and why I loved them.

1. The Lunch Box

The Lunch Box is one of the most beautiful and ‘delicious’ love stories that I have seen on screen. I love this film because it takes an unconventional path with respect to storytelling. In the age of SMS and internet, this love story develops over hand-written notes delivered via lunch box. There is a comfortable ingenuousness in the notes which the protagonists exchange. There is an intense vignette of loneliness; and what’s interesting is that the characters talk about their life, experiences, and problems to each other but never really profess their love or meet each other. But, the magic is that still you can feel the love that grows between them and that is the beauty of the film.

2. Stanley Ka Dabba

Well coincidentally, Stanley Ka Dabba is another film based around food & lunch box that I absolutely love.  There are many reasons why I adore this film. One of the many reasons being that it is a slice from our lives. It takes us back to our school days when the lunch time was the most cherished hour with friends. The time when we used to play, fight, laugh, cry and of course share food with our classmates. Stanley Ka Dabba also brings back innocence into the kids. The kids here are just their age and not the over-smart or overly matured bunch of kids as shown in most films. Around all this, the film conveys a deeper message against child-labor. It isn’t easy to address serious issues through a film and not sound stodgy. Stanley Ka Dabba excels here!

3.  B.A. Pass

Based on a short story ‘The Railway Aunty’, B.A. Pass is a gritty story about sex and betrayal. The film shows us a Delhi that is beyond India Gate and Lal Quila. It shows us the deep dark and ruthless city that it becomes as the neon lights are switched on. It exposes the life of middle and upper class people where the middle class is battling with hypocrisy while the upper class is battling loneliness.  Amid all this is enveloped the story of a boy who is forced into male prostitution and the film tells his tale brilliantly. It also talks about sex from a woman’s perspective; how physical needs are not just meant for men. Women too yearn for physical satisfaction. There aren’t many films which have touched the subject of male prostitution; B.A. Pass does and it passes! For all these reasons I love the film.

4.  Dhobi Ghat

Most films have stories which are set in some city but we seldom come across a film where the city forms a character in itself. Dhobi Ghat is one such film and one of the major reasons why I absolutely loved it. It is the story of a city with four people living in it. In fact, it can rightly be called an ode to Mumbai. The film takes you to the chaotic lives of the people of Mumbai from all walks of life, their daily struggles; sometimes with themselves and sometimes with others, their hopes, their desires, their dreams. Just like a free flowing river, the film has a free flowing narrative and it’s still interesting how the four people are connected to each other in the film. It’s a painting of Mumbai with people filing colors into it.

5.  Ankur

Shyam Benegal’s Ankur is one of my favourite films of all times. Interestingly, this was the first film of Shyam Benegal and Shabana Azmi who created the path for parallel or off-beat cinema as it is called now. Based on a true story, Ankur is a film that mirrors the brutal feudal system which prevailed in India and the evil social customs that had (still have) chained India. The beauty of Ankur is that it addresses various social issues from alcoholism and casteism to inequality and dowry; yet it is more about the underlying human relationships. The title of the film also has many connotations left to our imagination. It can refer to Lakshmi whose womb is waiting for an offspring to grow in it or the seedling of uprising that takes birth against the feudal system and social customs. However, if I have to pick one reason as to why I love this film then it is because of Shabana Azmi who shines in the character of Lakshmi. She excels as a coy yet strong house servant who submits to her master who is attracted to her. We don’t know whether Lakshmi also loved her master or approved of the affair or whether she used him to get the child she had been yearning for. Her eyes speak of the emotions which churn within her. Ankur is truly class apart!

This post is a part of the Miss Lovely Activity in association with Blog Adda.

Miss Lovely, an off-beat film directed by Ashim Ahluwalia is set in the lower depths of Bombay’s “C” grade film industry. It follows the devastating story of two brothers who produce sex horror films in the mid – 1980s. A sordid tale of betrayal and doomed love, the film dives into the lower depths of the Bollywood underground, an audacious cinema with baroque cinemascope compositions, lurid art direction, wild background soundtracks, and gut-wrenching melodrama. Miss Lovely is scheduled for commercial release on 17 January 2014.

You can check the trailer of the film

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