I Get Withdrawal Symptoms Before Every Shoot: Shabana Azmi
Shabana Azmi in a scene from <i>Arth </i>(1982).
Shabana Azmi in a scene from Arth (1982).

I Get Withdrawal Symptoms Before Every Shoot: Shabana Azmi

Much before Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone got on to international projects, Shabana Azmi was the first Indian actor to work with John Schlesinger in Madame Sousatzka, Nicholas Klotz’s La Nuit Bengali, Jamil Dehlavi’s Immaculate Conception, Blake Edward’s Son of Pink Panther, Ismail Merchant’s In Custody, Roland Joffe’s City of Joy and Tony Gerber’s Side Streets.

Her career transcends all genres of films and all languages on theatre (Waiting Room, Kaifi Aur Main, and Broken Images).

She has done television (Anuradha in the past and currently Ammaji), did playback singing for music director Khayaam/Anjuman and last week recorded Tagore songs for Aparna Sen’s Sonata.

On her 67th birthday Shabana Azmi talks, what she is most passionate about, acting.

Q: What in your view, makes a truly great actor?

Shabana Azmi: Versatility, I imagine. Like someone once said, “Acting is not like a sprinter’s race, where one who runs the fastest in the shortest period of time comes out the winner.” A most definitive Hamlet can turn out to be a disastrous Macbeth.

An actor who can do a wide variety of roles with equal felicity would qualify as a great actor in my book.
Shabana Azmi in a scene from <i>Mandi </i>(1983)<i>. </i>
Shabana Azmi in a scene from Mandi (1983).

Q: You are rated amongst the best actors in our country. How do you evaluate yourself?

Shabana Azmi: I am nowhere near achieving the facility exhibited by the really great performers. Like a writer must at least know the alphabet to qualify as a writer, I am capable of being sometimes good, sometimes bad and sometimes average. I need to be pushed hard to rise to the level of potential that I believe I have. I approach every part with anxiety and a hopeless sense of inadequacy. I need an excellent script, a talented director, and terrific co-stars to shine.

Q: What about theatre? You’ve done a number of plays, both in India and abroad.

Shabana Azmi: Theatre is much more an actor’s medium than the director’s. When I did The Waiting Room at the National Theatre in London or Nora at the Singapore Repertory Theatre, I realised that deep down inside me, I am more a film actor than a theatre actor. Many years ago, when I accepted to do Safed Kundali, and later Tumhari Amrita, it was because theatre prevents you from getting complacent. Believing in one’s own greatness is the biggest stumbling block towards an actor’s growth. Mercifully, I come from a family of artists who are hugely critical, so my sanity remains intact.

Sonam Kapoor and Shabana Azmi in a scene from <i>Neerja </i>(2016)<i>. </i>
Sonam Kapoor and Shabana Azmi in a scene from Neerja (2016).

Q: Your training as a professional actor at the Film & TV Institute of India, followed the Stanislavski School of method acting. Does that enable you to play any part with complete honesty?

Shabana Azmi: Yes, but after playing complex roles where characters are forever struggling against injustice and oppression, a time came when I could no longer treat acting as a 9 to 5 job. The residue of the characters’ lives that I had inhabited, started leaving their marks on me, and sub-consciously I began to get involved with their concerns.

Every artist’s resources must be drawn from life itself if they are to reflect truth. If the purpose of art is to create a climate of sensitivity, then it’s normal to get drawn into the process that protests against these injustices.

Q: Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth in the 80s turned you into a crusader of women’s rights. Were you prepared for it?

Shabana Azmi: Not when we were shooting the film. Then I was only concerned with my part. When the film was released, the reactions were overwhelming. Suddenly I had women walking into my house, relating to me not as “fans” of a “star,” but in sisterhood. They expected me to resolve their marital conflicts. I was humbled by their faith in me and also frightened. Slowly I rose to the occasion, became conscious of causes related to women.

Film poster: <i>Arth</i> (1982)
Film poster: Arth (1982)

Q: What is your mind-frame when you begin shooting a new film?

Shabana Azmi: I get withdrawal symptoms and severe cramps in my stomach. The anxiety comes out of creating a character I think. The biggest and the best actors have denied thinking about their roles, denied doing home-work. I do. Other actors are organically capable of competent performances, I’m not. I’m an extremely hard-working actor.

Q: Would you say you’re an idealist?

Shabana Azmi: There’s nothing wrong with being an idealist, but I’m pragmatic too. Statistics have proved that rapid industrialisation leads to degradation of the environment. When bamboo was discovered, we ravaged the forest instead of recycling it. The tribals, on the other hand, cultivate forest land and then leave it for five years to fallow.

(Bhawana Somaaya has been writing on cinema for 30 years and is the author of 12 books. Twitter: @bhawanasomaaya)

(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 17 September 2016. It is now being republished to mark Shabana Azmi’s birthday.)

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