In her 40-year-long acting career, a majority of the cinematic choices Shabana Azmi has made reflect her fierce convictions and the causes close to her heart---mainly, women's rights and the fight against communalism. As Azmi gears up for her upcoming movie Sonata, directed by multiple National Award-winning director Aparna Sen, she talks to HuffPost India about the health of the democracy, the nepotism in Bollywood and the evolution of women in Bollywood.
You're working on a film about middle-aged women's friendships. Isn't it odd that such a natural subject took so long to be explored?
It is. But where have the women been visible in cinema, before now? Earlier, our "women-oriented" films were movies called Main Chup Rahungi. So it didn't matter that the female actor was the lead protagonist, her character was being used to tell us that silence is a virtue in women. There were all these stereotypes: the suffering wife, forgiving mother, understanding sister. There was also a very clear division between the heroine and the vamp, where all the virtue was invested in the heroine, and because of our colonial history, the vamp was someone who was safely blue-eyed and golden-haired, a foreigner you could lust after, if need be.
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If you saw a Hindi film until even 10 years ago, you would think that Indian women basically wear yellow chiffon saris and dance in the Alps.
Then a spate of movies followed that were all about Jeene Nahi Dungi, Zakhmi Aurat, Insaaf Ki Devi, etc., supposedly feminist films but basically women being as cardboard as men. Working women were completely invisible from Hindi cinema. If you saw a Hindi film until even 10 years ago, you would think that Indian women basically wear yellow chiffon saris and dance in the Alps. It was left to art cinema to delve into the complexities of women, while mainstream films continued in their lethargic portrayal of women.
Why do you think Bollywood has persisted in portraying women so poorly for so long?
In India, mythology still plays a very vital and vibrant role in the shaping of our heroes and idea of virtue. So Ram as the ideal husband and Sita as the quietly acquiescent wife have been upheld as the models of virtue by Bollywood producers because they are required to cater to the lowest common denominator in society. Their intention is not to bring about social change, their intention is to reach out to as many people as possible.
So what, according to you, has changed?
I think a big part of the credit goes to mainstream women actors. They've realised the worth and virtue of playing strong characters, rather than spending their entire careers in the pursuit of glamorous roles. Look at the courage in Vidya Balan's choices. Look at Kangana Ranaut, Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra and Alia Bhatt. I am amazed when young women like Anushka Sharma have the gumption not just to act in, but produce unusual films. She's a producer of regional cinema when it would be so easy to bag safe and easy mainstream Bollywood films. These women are inspiring, honestly.
I am amazed when young women like Anushka Sharma have the gumption not just to act in, but produce unusual films.
The second thing is that society itself has changed so rapidly. The feminist movement all over the world, started reflecting in India. And some of it trickled down, as it was inevitable, in the shaping of the women characters in our own films. But ultimately, how successful these films are at the box office will determine how many more such films will be made.
You say things have changed, but I feel stereotypes have just shifted. Earlier, there was the Madonna-whore binary, now a "strong" woman is someone who drinks, smokes and has indiscriminate sex. Is that really so much better?
We are at the cusp of change right now. We have understood that the subservient woman is no longer an accurate representation. There is a great desire among creative people to create characters that resonate with today's sensibilities. But exactly who this new independent woman is, and how much freedom can she be given, is still being negotiated. By "allowing" her to smoke, drink and sleep around, and yet not be considered a woman of easy virtue is an invasion at the moment and you need to see how far you can push.
By "allowing" the woman to smoke, drink and sleep around, and yet not be considered a woman of easy virtue is is an invasion at the moment.
When there is a maturing, these questions will be raised and answered by the women themselves. It isn't something that should be looked down upon. See it as an initial movement. Compare it to the feminist movement. There was a time when bras were being burned, when wearing lipstick was considered as letting down the cause. When you upset the status quo, it takes some time to get clarity. We'll get there.
Actors like Vidya Balan might be pushing boundaries, but is the industry supporting them enough? Even now, there is a huge gap in what male and female actors are paid.
It's not a matter of support, it is a matter of commerce. A star is someone who can carry the film independently for at least three days after release. Unfortunately, women don't hold that clout in mainstream Hindi films yet. So you can demand equal money, but you won't get it. Producers aren't out to change society, they are in a speculative business, taking huge risks in the hope of huge rewards.
You can't cry about lack of good cinema and then have your kids dance to main tandoori murgh hoon, gatka le mujhe alcohol ke saath... It makes you a complicit.
If we want female actors to be paid equally and for producers to invest in sensible movies, we need to play our part better. You can't cry about lack of good cinema and then have your kids dance to main tandoori murgh hoon, gatka le mujhe alcohol ke saath... It makes you as complicit as the people making those item numbers. Change, if it has to make a lasting impact, has to happen in the mainstream, otherwise, you're just preaching to the converted.
So the onus is on the audience?
No, it is shared by artists and audiences, equally. Creative people need to push the bar, but we can't last in the absence of patronage. It is a crying shame that a woman like Aparna Sen cannot raise Rs 2 crore to make a movie because of a couple of flops after a history of brilliant cinema. You can't keep crying for things to change and then not go and watch a good movie because it released in one theatre that was at the other end of town. Participate in the process or don't complain.
Given that religious politics has had such a significant impact on who comes to power in our country, lately, do you think the Ram-Sita model of virtue will make a re-emergence soon?
The health of a democracy depends on how secure its minority feels, and right now, we're in big trouble. But I still feel that in India, there is space for minorities to rise to the highest level of their potential.
The health of a democracy depends on how secure its minority feels, and right now, we're in big trouble.
Despite all the hungama, there is a very robust civil society offering stiff resistance. It is very important for the silent majority to stop watching from the sidelines and get into the ring. We define what kind of India we want to live in.
Isn't the film industry a big part of the silent majority?
The film industry at the moment is at its most vulnerable. It has become the sitting duck for all kinds of targets. Extra-constitutional "authorities" stand up and take offence to just about anything and you get into deep trouble. Sanjay Leela Bhansali's set has been burnt and he's been physically attacked over a script nobody has even read! These are very frightening times.
It is a crying shame that a woman like Aparna Sen cannot raise Rs 2 crore to make a movie because of a couple of flops after a history of brilliant cinema.
In the middle of all this, people call the film industry very weak and unable to stand up for itself. It's so easy to say that. But if I've got a 100 crores invested in a movie and the livelihoods of hundreds of people at stake, it is my duty to safeguard that commerce. But why is the media toeing the line like never before?It is left to the students of universities to put up any kind of resistance. And they're doing a fantastic job of it, even in the face of the atrocities they're being subjected to.
Are you saying then, that all of us—Bollywood, businesses, the media—are failing our people in the name of commerce?
When a frog is put in boiling water, it immediately leaps out and saves itself. But when you put it in tepid water and slowly turn up the heat, it doesn't realise what is happening and it dies. That's what's happening with us. The water is being slowly heated and we're not realising it. We cannot afford to continue this way.
What's your solution?
These are frightening times, but technology is such a wonderful tool. At a time when everyone is being forced to toe the line due to financial constraints, a medium like the Internet opens up. Everyone has a voice. Movies can be made with almost no money and can be used as massive tools to tell censored stories.
And yet, we barely see any mainstream Bollywood biggies using the free and uncensored Internet to say anything meaningful...
But how can we determine for someone what they ought to do?
It's not about determining for someone else, but like you said, participate in the process, or don't complain.
Every time a celebrity says something, while there are so many people listening, there are an equal number of people chomping at the bit to muzzle their voices. But I am not at all despondent. You have to understand that this technological explosion is all very new and everyone is still figuring their way around. Even so, look at individual changes. Even a Karan Johar, who used to make only cheaper versions of his own films, is now experimenting. Kapoor & Sons is by no means like a mainstream Hindi film, but he's also trying to find out where his space is in this new media order. Everything can't happen in a day.
It is deeply troubling that any criticism of the state is so widely considered anti-national.
Instead of pointing fingers at each other and arguing over who did how much, we should be focussing on the real problem. It is deeply troubling that any criticism of the state is so widely considered anti-national. George Bush's binary of 'either you are with us or against us' is what we need to fight, not each other.
Bollywood and CBFC have locked horns several times recently. Do you think censorship has any role to play in creativity?
I am completely against the CBFC and its ridiculous demands. Basically, 30 people are chosen to sit in judgement of what a billion people should see, depending upon the political dispensations of the party in power. I absolutely refuse to accept that my country's morality can be subjected to political tests and changed every five years depending on election results. At the same time, I don't think that freedom of expression is absolute.
Is it truly freedom if it's not absolute?
I personally believe that when you have the freedom to express yourself, it is imperative that you exercise responsibility while using that freedom. Art is not only meant to entertain, it is meant to stimulate, provoke, do all kinds of things. And as an artist, the responsibility for what you put out lies with you. We need to be able to classify our work ourselves.When you make a violent film, or something that is sexually explicit, you need to be upstanding enough to say that yes, this piece of work is not suitable for kids. Or if you insist on sticking to your creative vision, you have to accept that your film will be seen by a smaller audience. Our industry needs to internalise some responsibility.
You can't pretend that you're not responsible when an 8-year-old is singing a song about women being tandoori murgi.
Many factions of Bollywood like to justify item numbers an expressions of female sexuality. How can they be? When you're showing separate parts of a woman's body—heaving bosom, quivering hip—you're robbing her of bodily autonomy and subjecting her to objectification by the male gaze. If you're doing this as an informed choice, that's your call. But take responsibility for it. You can't pretend that you're not responsible when an 8-year-old is singing a song about women being tandoori murgi. Something is happening in society and you are part of what made it happen. Accept your role in it.
Lately, there's been a lot of outrage over nepotism and the advantages that star kids refuse to acknowledge. Do you think it is justified?
A star kid most definitely has an advantage, but that only gives you a toehold. Ultimately, if you're not talented, no amount of parental protection can cushion you from failure. Their struggle might be longer and harder, but newcomers are getting chances and it's only going to get better.
I think the advent of the casting director is a very big step towards talent being the only yardstick for a role.
I think the advent of the casting director is a very big step towards talent being the only yardstick for a role. Earlier, bigger roles went to the stars and then there were small actors who played stock characters. But casting directors are now going all over and ferreting out interesting faces and actors from all parts of the country. The eco-system of the moviemaking process is changing and it will affect mainstream stars who have so far happily been cushioned from everything.
Until 10 years ago, they could be playing rockstars but not know how to hold a guitar and get away with it.
Until 10 years ago, they could be playing rockstars but not know how to hold a guitar and get away with it. Today no actor would dare to do it. I'm not saying that it is all hunky dory and everything is being done the way it should be done, but things aren't all bad either. Give it some time.