13/07/2016 11:24 PM IST | Updated 16/07/2016 2:11 PM IST

Manjula Breaks My Heart: Shabana Azmi On Her Upcoming Performance In Girish Karnad's 'Broken Images'

ACE Productions

Noted playwright, movie director and actor Girish Karnad's 2004 Kannada play Odakalu Bimba (Bikhre Bimb in Hindi, Broken Images in English) is all set to be staged in the national capital this coming Sunday. Directed by Alyque Padamsee, this adaptation tells the story of two sisters, including a not-so successful Hindi writer who becomes an internationally bestselling author after writing a book in English. The play also raises important questions on language politics, identity crisis and the invasion of technology. Veteran thespian and social activist Shabana Azmi will breathe life into the leading character, Manjula Sharma, who finds herself in an unusual turmoil when her own image begins posing questions to her.

In an exclusive interview with The Huffington Post, Shabana Azmi discusses the advent of new techniques in theatre, her most challenging roles on stage, a lifetime of friendship with Girish Karnad and more. Excerpts...

I disagreed with [director Alyque Padamsee] during rehearsals sometimes only to discover how right he was -- later, after the performance!

How did you react when you first read the script?

Raëll (Padamsee) and I had been planning to work together for some time but couldn't find the right script. When she sent me Broken Images, I was doing (Harold) Pinter's Betrayal for Singapore Repertory Theatre. I said "Yes" by return mail -- that's how much I liked the script. I knew it would be technically challenging, which intimidated me, but also propelled me on. Alyque had worked with my mother Shaukat Kaifi about 45 years ago and I looked forward to working with him. Alyque understands the pulse of the audience and it surprised me how accurately he predicts what the reaction will be. I disagreed with him during rehearsals sometimes only to discover how right he was -- later, after the performance!

Which broken piece of Manjula's image would you choose to retain and live with: Manjula, the world-renowned writer; Manjula, the interrogator on screen; Manjula, the inner-self (the image) talking on screen; Manjula, the novel thief or Manjula, the crippled sister -- Malini?

Manjula with the limited talent; she breaks my heart. With all her weaknesses and insecurities, she is flawed but human.

ACE Productions

Manjula comes across as someone who has "used" Malini (her sister) to gain acceptance in the literary world. Is Malini's disability absolving the character by pitting the two sisters against each other? Aren't both the sisters "heroic" and "villainous" at different phases in their lives? Why should Manjula be put in the dock?

Girish didn't answer that question for me. "Figure it out yourself," was his advice to me. Alyque steered me to be wary of miss goody-two-shoes Malini. I haven't found the answer yet. In some shows, I empathize more with Manjula, in others, with Malini. It happens spontaneously on the day (of performance) and surprises even me.

In some shows, I empathize more with Manjula, in others, with Malini. It happens spontaneously on the day (of performance) and surprises even me.

Is there a parallel between the two narratives of Manjula-Malini in Broken Images and Anjali-Mitali in Aparna Sen's 15 Park Avenue? Anjali is unable to find Mitali towards the end of the film. Who was actually schizophrenic? Was it all imagined? Is Manjula imagining the speaking image?

Any one of these questions could be the right answer.

More than a monologue, 'Broken Images' is a soliloquy of a kind, punctuated/interrupted (infiltrated, perhaps) by a speaking image on a television screen. Is the use of television as a tool -- not just a lifeless stage-prop -- in some way adulterating the theatrical space?

I used to be wary of using technology on stage because I believe it takes away from the theatricality -- a distinct form -- in which reality and illusion are created by the actors. I remember watching a production in Tokyo that mesmerized me. Huge changes in the sets were created by actors carrying mirrors rather than through curtain drops or electronic trolleys! In France, Ariane Mnouchkine's work spells magic only with actors. But, over the years, I've come to realize that stagecraft will include innovations that need not be "pure theatre". In the case of Broken Images, the challenges are many and I think they add than subtract from the experience. I am proud of the fact that Malini's entire TV sequence was done in one 40-odd-minutes-long shot and we canned it in the first take!

As an artiste, which of these three have been more enriching and intense: Tumhari Amrita, Kaifi Aur Main or Bikhre Bimb?

All three of them in different ways. Also, my experiences at the National Theatre London for The Waiting Room or for Rifco Arts' Happy Birthday Sunita or Nora and Betrayal for Singapore Repertory Theatre have been unusual and fulfilling. Abroad, they rehearse five days a week from 9am to 6pm. It's a different ball game altogether.

I believe Girish [Karnad] is one of India's finest playwrights.

It's been an album of memories vis-à-vis your association with playwright Girish Karnad. From the days of Nishant till Chalk n Duster recently, how would you describe the journey so far?

We share a similar worldview and that keeps us bonded even though we meet rarely. I believe Girish is one of India's finest playwrights.

A little about your favourite Indian authors who write in English and the books you're currently reading and would like to recommend.

Two Alone, Two Together: Letters between Indira Gandhi & Jawaharlal Nehru (edited by Sonia Gandhi) is my all-time favourite. I liked Yasmeen Premji's Days of Gold and Sepia. Among authors, I am fond of Anita Desai and Amitav Ghosh.

Do we see you directing a play soon?



Broken Images

Cast: Shabana Azmi
Written by: Girish Karnad
Director: Alyque Padamsee
Producer: Raëll Padamsee's Ace Productions
When: 17 July, 2016 (Sunday)
Where: Air Force Auditorium, Delhi
Timings: 5.30pm & 7:45pm

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