Shabana Azmi, Acting On Her Convictions

Originally published on May 31, 2011 11:54 am

In a typical Bollywood dance number, a beauty queen might be seen singing in the rain as she awaits her lover's return. The leading lady is known for her beauty, her dance skills and her ability to deliver a convincing lip sync.

But Shabana Azmi is not your typical Indian movie star.

Yes, she's beautiful and she'll do the mainstream dance numbers — but during her 40 years in cinema, Azmi has also portrayed women fighting for a place in Indian society.

"From rural to urban to middle class to across region[s], she in many ways encapsulates the portrayals of women in Indian cinema," says fellow Indian actress Nandita Das.

So while Azmi can play the Bollywood part, the actress, activist and sometime politician is better known for using the attention those roles attract to spotlight her more socially conscious projects.

Art As 'Instrument For Social Change'

Shabana Azmi is the daughter of acclaimed Indian poet Kaifi Azmi — an active member of India's Communist Party — and was raised in a secular Muslim family.

"I grew up in a family that believed that art should be used as an instrument for social change," Azmi says.

That belief has in many ways been a theme of her acting career.

The actress, now 60, recently starred in a sold-out performance of Girish Karnad's Broken Images at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The one-woman show tells the story of an unknown Hindi writer who finds fame after writing a best-seller — in English.

"I'm Manjula Sharma," Azmi's character declares. "I must mention that officially I'm Mrs. Manjula Tiwari but my creative self continues to be Manjula Sharma. There are some areas in which we must not let marriage intrude too much."

Manjula Sharma goes on to describe Indian husbands as "caring but useless," a characterization Azmi believes will resonate among the Indian women who grew up with her films.

"Over the years, I've consciously not done films that in any way suggest that women are subservient to men," Azmi says.

More Than A 'Dancing Girl'

Playwright Girish Karnad says despite Azmi's fame, she's not exactly someone you'd characterize as glamorous.

"She's not someone who could have been an Elizabeth Taylor of Indian cinema," Karnad says. "If you look at her, she looks like an ordinary woman. It's only when she acts that she begins to glow."

And that glow has been known to cause quite a stir.

In 1996, Azmi starred in the film Fire alongside actress Nandita Das. It was the first Indian film to openly explore a lesbian relationship, and it was met with protests, death threats and the destruction of Indian cinemas. The Hindu right declared it wicked and an attack on Indian family values.

Five years later — in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks — the actress debated Muslim cleric Syed Ahmed Bukhari, then the head of India's largest mosque, on live TV about the role of India's Muslims in the war on terrorism.

"He dismissed me by saying, 'We don't have to listen to dancing girls,' " Azmi recalls. "I don't think I could have paid him to make a remark like that — that ... boomeranged on his career so badly. Because even amongst his supporters, they were shocked that he should use words like that."

'New Ideas' Of Acting And Activism

Azmi's willingness to take on institutions reflects more broadly on artists of her generation, the first to be born in a country free from British rule.

Indian filmmaker Ketan Mehta, who is part of that generation, says there was a certain freedom that came with being born in India after 1947.

"The post-Independence generation ... did not carry the baggage of the colonial past with them," Mehta says. "Therefore, we were all looking for new ideas. We were looking for something new to do."

For Azmi, that has meant becoming a human rights activist and serving in the Indian Parliament from 1997 to 2003. She has won countless awards for her activism and today serves as the head of Nivara Hakk ("Right to Shelter"), a nonprofit organization that works to empower India's slum residents.

Azmi continues to be a model for aspiring Indian actresses who want to be more than just "dancing girls." And she's hopeful that the rest of the film industry will take after her example.

"I'm hoping that for film actors, there is this kind of emotional trigger on any subject — it need not be only slums, it can be anything," Azmi says. "Even if it is tentative, sooner or later it will, by its sheer force, engulf you in a way where you make a commitment and you get involved in it beyond ... an image-building exercise."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Hollywood celebrities are famous for taking up causes, but not so in film-crazed India. Shabana Azmi is an exception. She's one of Bollywood's biggest stars and one of India's most prominent social activists.

The actress recently visited Washington, D.C. and sat down with NPR's Bilal Qureshi, to talk about what it means to be both an activist and an artist.

BILAL QURESHI: Shabana Azmi is not your typical Indian movie star.

(Soundbite of music)

QURESHI: In a quintessential Bollywood dance, number a beauty queen sings in the rain, waiting for her lover's return.

(Soundbite of a song)

QURESHI: Fellow actress Nandita Das says thats about it for a woman in Indian cinema.

Ms. NANDITA DAS (Actor): Shes pretty. She knows how to cry, she knows how to dance. She knows how to lip sync a song, and doesnt have a whole lot to do.

Ms. SHABANA AZMI (Actor-Activist): I do what I want to.

QURESHI: Shabana Azmi also does what she wants off screen.

Ms. AZMI: I grew up in a family that believed that art should put be used as an instrument for social change.

QURESHI: She's the daughter of one of India's most acclaimed poets, Kaifi Azmi. He was a member of India's Communist Party and Azmi grew up in a secular, political Muslim family.

Ms. AZMI: The position that Indian Muslims have is unique because we exist in a democracy, which is something that cannot be said about many Muslims living in the world. The fact is that the Muslim in India has a stake and a space in that democracy.

QURESHI: And in her 40 years on screen, Shabana Azmi has often portrayed women fighting for their space in Indian society.

Fellow actress, Nandita Das.

Ms. DAS: From rural to urban, to middle class to, you know, across region. She in many ways encapsulates the portrayals of women in Indian cinema.

QURESHI: That means she's done the mainstream dance numbers, but she's often used the attention those bring to spotlight her more independent, socially-conscious projects.

Azmi is 60 years old now and she was recently at the Kennedy Center to perform a one-woman show before a sold out audience.

(Soundbite of play, "Broken Images")

Ms. AZMI: (as Manjula Sharma) Im Manjula Sharma. I must mention that officially Im Mrs. Manjula Tiwari, but my creative self continues to be Manjula Sharma. There are some areas in which we must not let marriage intrude too much.

QURESHI: She quotes another biting line from the play.

Ms. AZMI: Typically Indian husband, caring but useless.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AZMI: Everybody, I think, that remarks goes straight to the womens hearts.

QURESHI: It goes straight to women's hearts because Indian women grew up with Azmi's films.

Ms. AZMI: Over the years, Ive consciously not done films that in any way suggest that women are subservient to men.

QURESHI: In an industry that often casts models and pageant winners as female leads, Shabana Azmi is different. Playwright Girish Karnad wrote the play that brought Azmi to Washington.

Ms. GIRISH KARNAD (Playwright, "Broken Images): Shes not glamorous. Shes not someone who could have been an Elizabeth Taylor of Indian cinema. You know? If you look at her, she looks like an ordinary woman. And it's only when she acts that she begins to glow.

QURESHI: That glow can sometimes burst into flames. In 1996, Shabana Azmi starred in "Fire," the first Indian film to openly explore a lesbian relationship.

(Soundbite of movie, "Fire")

Ms. AZMI: (as Radha) This isnt familiar for me; this awareness of needs, of desires.

QURESHI: The Hindu right lashed out as soon as "Fire" was released, declaring it wicked, an attack on Indian family values.

(Soundbite of protesters)

QURESHI: There were protests, death threats, cinemas were destroyed.

(Soundbite of protesters)

QURESHI: But Shabana Azmi seems to relish provocation. That confrontation with the Hindu right was followed by a confrontation with the Muslim right. In 2001, the actress debated a cleric on live TV about the role of India's Muslims in the war on terror.

Ms. AZMI: He dismissed me by saying we dont have to listen to dancing girls. I dont think I could have paid him to make a remark like that that would have really boomeranged on his career so badly. Because even amongst his supporters, they were shocked that he should use words like that.

QURESHI: Shabana Azmi's willingness to take on institutions is also a reflection of her generation - the first generation of Indian artists born in an India free from British rule.

Filmmaker Ketan Mehta is part of that generation.

Mr. KETAN MEHTA (Filmmaker): It was actually the post-Independence generation that was growing up, and they did not carry the baggage of the colonial past with them. And therefore, we were all looking for new ideas. We were looking for new ideals to follow. We were looking for something new to do.

QURESHI: And for Shabana Azmi that's meant serving in the Indian parliament. She's won countless awards as a human rights activist. And today, she runs an NGO that works for the rights of slum residents.

Ms. AZMI: Im hoping that for film actors there is this kind of emotional trigger on any subject. It need not be only slums. It can be anything. But even if it is tentative, sooner or later, it will - by its sheer force - engulf you in a way where you make a commitment and you get involved in it, beyond just making it an image-building exercise.

QURESHI: That certainly hasn't been Shabana Azmi's exercise. As for the images the actress has built, those continue to be the model for the Indian woman who wants to be more than a dancing girl.

Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

You are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And Im Mary Louise Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.