She never misses a chance to admit the role her parents have played in shaping her into what she is today. Watching her mother ready herself for a play – dressing and living the part at home for weeks before she was to go on stage – she learnt everything about the sincerity of being an actor from Shaukat Kaifi. When she asked her father, the legendary Kaifi Azmi whether he would support her decision of being an actor, he told her she could be what she wanted – even a cobbler if she must – if she promised to strive to be the best there ever was. From him, she imbibed life’s deepest lessons. Small wonder that Shabana Azmi turned out to be one of the greatest gifts this country had received.
GJ: When did you decide to take up acting as a career?
SA: I actually took the decision of taking acting as a career seriously when I was in college. I used to win all the inter-collegiate drama competitions. Farooq Sheikh was two years my senior and both of us used to act in all these plays, inevitably winning all the awards. When I was just completing my B.A, I saw a film by Jaya Bhaduri and I was very struck because I had never seen acting of that kind. I found it extremely mesmerising. Later, I came to know about the Film Institute and told my father that I would like to join it and pursue acting seriously and if he would support me in my decision... He said that even if I had decided that I wanted to become a cobbler, he would support me provided I tell myself that I’ll be the best cobbler in the business. I remember, even before we had this conversation, I had once told my father that I was interested in acting. So when I was pursuing B.A, I didn’t know what subject I should take. I went up to him and asked if I should take literature or psychology. He said that when it comes to literature, you can read as many books as you want on your own. But, you said that you were interested in acting, so don’t you think Psychology will help you because it will make you a top psychologist in building a character. Although he said it very casually, but I took it to heart and took up Psychology. I must say, even today, I do think that my very little understanding of it has helped me somewhere in characterization. But the fact is that I actually chose BA without any thought of what I was going to do with my life. I did BA because in my time, everyone does BA unquestioningly. But when I decided to pursue acting, I wanted to only do theatre. I had no idea that I would do it for film.
GJ: Did you pre-plan your stint in parallel cinema?
SA: It was Shyam Benegal’s Ankur that paved the way for parallel cinema in Hindi. Before that, of course, you had Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and many more but in Hindi, just before the advent of Ankur you had very few like Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome. Given that Ankur did very well commercially as well as critically; it suddenly opened the door for a lot of other filmmakers to make films with substantial roles for women. It was not like I thought about my role in Ankur or analysed it before choosing it - I chose purely on instinct. But I also consciously chose to do mainstream cinema at the same time because I felt I needed a wider audience. I had figured it in my own way that to have a wider audience, if my work in mainstream cinema became successful silver jubilees, then there would be enough interest created in me for them to watch parallel cinema too. That’s exactly what happened. I was very fortunate that films like Fakira became such big successes and I will continue to say that it did not happen because of me... I was atrocious in that film. The fact that it did extremely well gave me a really strong foothold in mainstream commercial cinema as well as parallel cinema. Looking back, I guess, the fact that I didn’t do theatre initially but revisited it much later was definitely a sliding door. The fact that Ankur happened, really made me the face of parallel cinema.
GJ: When you started doing films, it was a time when women’s sensuality was coming up in mainstream cinema while parallel cinema was known for defining roles. While your films like Faasle, Ankur and Aarth paved the way for women’s empowerment movement in India. What inspired you to directly get involved in parallel and not mainstream cinema then?
SA: I think it just happened, particularly Ankur. Shyam told me so vaguely about the film. He had offered the role to Waheeda Rehman and she declined. He then offered it to Lakshmi from South and she refused too. He had offered it to Anju Mahendru too who had said no. So, finally, he was already so dejected that when he met me, and it was completely random the way he chose me for the role. I was much younger than he had originally planned for the role. He said how would you do the dialects – and I said – what dialects? He said Dhakini and so I started speaking to him in Dhakini. I said I was born in Hyderabad and I have relatives there and I can speak it. Following that, he narrated the story of both Ankur and Nishant and he said that you are going to be in both these films. It was as random as that! But the fact is immediately after I shot for Ankur, I went straight into shooting for Ishq Ishq Ishq. So, I was doing mainstream cinema simultaneously. But I was more inclined towards parallel cinema because I was exposed to international cinema in which I admired actors like Liv Ulmann, Ingmar Bergman and the likes. I was very fascinated by Ingmar Bergman at the Film Institute. I was very young then but I used to get really affected by his films and his performances. I realised whatever I liked, it was always serious and it was drama. So, when I started working, I found it much more engaging and pleasurable to work in parallel cinema because there was some semblance of a script, you shot it in one go, there was some continuity... It was not like the madness of mainstream commercial cinema and so, although I didn’t grab it by the horns and said that this is what I want to do, I sort of slid into it. It gave me more satisfaction. So, I grooved towards that.
GJ: How did your selection of roles evolve with time?
SA: In the beginning within parallel cinema, I would obviously consider the character, the director and the plot. In mainstream cinema, the production house and co-actor mattered – these were natural considerations keeping career enhancement possibilities in mind. For example, I had already worked with Manmohan Desai in Parvarish where both Neetu Singh and I had a substantial role. I had enjoyed working with Manmohan Desai. He then came to me and said that he was producing his first film Amar Akbar Anthony. He said that there was no role for me in the film as such but ‘vo Vinod Khanna jaankhaa jayega ki dono actors ke paas heroine hai, mere paas nahi. So, for my sake you do it.’ I really liked him very much and I loved the fact that he was so frank with me and so I agreed to do the film. This is just to illustrate that there have been varying reasons why I agreed to do certain films. For me, the size of the role doesn’t matter at all; the role itself mattered a great deal. Even today, I’ll do even one scene if I feel that this film will be helped by me doing this scene or it is saying something that needs to be said. People don’t realise that I have actually worked with the maximum number of first time film makers because I love the passion with which they work. They behave like the world would come to an end if they don’t get the shot they want. It’s nice to see that kind of energy. Today, if I have to do something, it really would be something that catches my fancy or something that I would like to encourage or if I think it is a film that is saying what needs to be said.
GJ: What does your checklist look like while preparing for a role?
SA: I prepare for the role in two ways. One, from the outside where I think – what will the character look like, what will her walk be, what will she wear and all of that. And the other is internally – what is going to happen, what would she think et al. It essentially depends on the character. Off late, I am being offered either semi wicked and partially humorous characters more often, which I’ve never done before. So, that’s interesting; especially if you see my character in Matru Ki Bijli. For me, the look of the character is very important – what the character looks like and particularly, the battle with the weight – is the person fat or thin. Sometimes, I fall headlong into the path and sometimes, I only open a window and peep and find the character and then close the window only to try and enter through the door. Then, I enter the drawing room and then the bedroom. It takes very long for me to go into the bedroom and face the mirror – saying this with respect to my character. It is sort of visiting the character in her world in little parts. I love the process of inhabiting my character. Then, of course, while you are actually shooting, changes keep happening alongside but I write copious notes on my script. You’ll never see a clean script – you’ll see so many notes adjoining notes.
GJ: Your notes are related to your character?
SA: I write things like - What is the sub text of this? What is she not saying? What is the continuity of the character and so on. Unlike earlier, continuity of costume and other stuff is not a problem today. But earlier, you couldn’t take any instant shots and then you have people say – ab kuch nahi ho sakta hai na! Hence, I would make a lot of notes on the script and not leave it on the assistant. I used to make notes more on the continuity of the film and character. For instance, you shoot a scene in 1984 and the next in 1986... it’s the same scene and so, the question I would ask is - what is your weight, what is your hair like and how is it all changing in the interim.
GJ: In an interview, you said that you are sort of the fruit of your father. What lessons have you learnt from your mother?
SA: The fact is that the actor who I am today is because of my mother; is because I learnt at her feet and I learnt by example. I saw how seriously she took her theatre work. I used to see that days before a play, she would dress up in the clothes of character and then acquire the walk, change the base – do all of that. Similarly, the way I inhabit my character, I learnt it all from her. The values that she has given me about acting and about being sincere have helped shape me as an actor and individual. Acting in mainstream is really, entirely a product of my mother who praises wholeheartedly and criticizes wholeheartedly. She instilled confidence in me. I remember, I was 9 years old and I used to study in a school called Queen Mary’s at Grant Road. When we moved to Juhu, my brother changed his school but I said that I would continue to go to the same school. I was maybe in third standard then. She sent a maid with me for three months only. The drill was that I used to take a bus from Juhu, go to Santa Cruz and from there, I would take a train. I would get down at Grant Road station and then walk 20 minutes to school. After school, if I came back even 1 minute later than 6’0’ clock, she would be there weeping. So, at 6 ‘0’ clock come what may, I had to make my appearance at the gate. But look at the amount of confidence that gave me... The fact that I had to do all that and trudge all the way to school – only because I said I want to go to that particular school. For any other parent today, they would have pulled up their child and refused. They couldn’t afford to send a maid then for thirty rupees and would have insisted that the child goes to a school close by.
GJ: What was it like growing up in a commune?
SA: I grew up in a family which believed that art should be used as an instrument for social change. Till the age of 9, I lived in a commune like house of the Communist Party of India, which was called The Red Ball. It was basically a large flat with 8 rooms of only 240 sqft each. There was also a little strip of a balcony which was turned into the kitchen and all the families shared a toilet and a bathroom. They were all members of the Communist Party. My father was a whole-timer and used to get only forty rupees a month. So obviously, when the kids were born, my mother had to go out and work to supplement his income because she had to look after the kids. She first joined the All India Radio and then subsequently became an actress with Prithvi Theatre. So, I imbibed the spirit of India’s composite culture almost by a process of osmosis because though there was nearly complete absence of religion, there was a great celebration of festivals. We used to go to Ganesh pandals during Ganpati festival and on 26th January, we would all be put in a truck to be taken to see the Republic day live. So, there was a big celebration of everything. Gender equality was something that we didn’t just preach, but also practice. My father’s relationship with my mother was that of equality. So was Sardar Jaffrey’s relationship with Sultana Jaffrey. But, no one paid any great attention to it because nobody sat you down and injected you with theories of the Communist Party. It was just the way you lived your life. So, ideally, I should also have been politically aware as a person but I took everything around me with such élan and so much for granted that I never gained any conscious awareness of it. I think, I was around 20 when I realized that gender equality is not the norm, it is the exception.
GJ: You were brought up in an atmosphere charged with politics. What influence did it have on you?
SA: I told you I should have been someone who should really have been far more politically aware than I was. I used to take pride over the fact that I don’t even read newspapers. But, so much politics used to be discussed all around me that if someone wanted to discuss political things, I would say – I am not interested in this at all. I remember one day, MJ Akbar and Sayid Mirza had come to my house and I proudly declared that I don’t know anything about politics. Their reaction was that I should be ashamed of myself because I am Kaifi Azmi’s daughter and I am taking pride in this! But, I give credit to my father that he never once pushed me into it. He never asked me why I don’t read the newspaper. I think he was just so assured that the earth was so fertile that the Ankur would sprout one day. He somehow was confident of that and that’s exactly what happened.
GJ: You have been described as a non-demanding child – someone who was very dutiful as a daughter and never fussed over pocket money beyond what could be afforded by your family then.
SA: I was still in Xavier’s College but started working at a petrol station during my summer vacations. I would sell Bru coffee because I would get ninety rupees a day which was a huge amount of money. At that time, everybody made fun of me and said – how can you possibly do that? But when they realized how much money there was, very soon you had hordes of St. Xavier’s girls selling Bru coffee. In fact, I used to come and give Mummy the money. But, all this is something that I am not very conscious of. Mummy keeps saying that I didn’t make demands and that is a part of my life, which I am not aware of consciously.
GJ: Was the Film Institute in Pune your obvious choice once the decision was taken?
SA: It is so strange because when you talk about sliding doors, I wanted to go to National School of Drama. But, I had heard that the then Director of the institute - Ebrahim Alkazi was very strict and I thought what if he doesn’t accept me in his institute. Also, going away to Delhi seemed a very daunting thing for me to do then because I had never stayed away from home. So, Pune and the Film Institute seemed much more accessible and I opted to join the Film Institute. I value Prof. Roshan Taneja - my senior, my Guru, my teacher - because there were so many statements that he made then which I didn’t quite understand but I internalized them and today. I watch myself actually taking the guidance that he gave me as a student so many years ago. So it was possible that had I gone to the National School of Drama and become a theatre actor, I wouldn’t have become as well-known as I am today since it is only because of cinema and its reach that I would owe my popularity to. Also, had I gone to the National School of Drama, I wouldn’t have got the gold medal at the film institute, I wouldn’t have been cast by Shyam Benegal, I wouldn’t have won my first National Award, I wouldn’t have gone to Berlin and been mentioned along with Richard Dreyfuss as outstanding talent and so on. My whole life would have taken a different trajectory altogether.
GJ: You were offered your first film even before you passed out of the Film Institute?
SA: I actually thought that I would get into theatre when I was a student at the Film Institute. I hadn’t even won the gold medal when I signed my first film. I remember, Ahmed Basu was a family friend and a member of the Communist Party. He had made a children’s film called Hamara Ghar. He rejected me for a role when I was 12 or 13 saying, ‘You are too old for the part’. He wanted to make up for it and so, when I was still a student at the Film Institute, he signed me for a film called Fasla with Raman Kumar. I signed another film called Kantilal Rathode’s Parinay while I was still a student. This was the first film that I actually started shooting for… So, imagine, I passed out on the 30th of April 1973 and on the 1st of May, I was already shooting my first film. I would say I had 3 firsts. The first film I signed is Faasla, the first film I started shooting for was Kantilal Rathode’s Parinay. Ankur was offered much later and I only started shooting for it on 18thSeptember 1973. But because it released on 24th September 1974, it was my first released film. The fact that it was my first released film also made a difference.
GJ: You are known as the Meryl Streep of India. But what would it take for somebody to be the Shabana Azmi of the country? How would you define your own legacy?
SA: That’s really a tough question because I really do think that I am a product of being at the right place at the right time. It’s perfectly possible that I would have had the amount of talent that I have and it could have remained a closely guarded secret. But it was through the roles I was offered and the films that got made why I was successful at exploring myself as an actor. What if I hadn’t got these opportunities? Then who would have known me? So you have to give credit to the fact that I was at the right place at the right time. The fact that it all sort of exploded together worked in my favour. Also the fact that I worked in international cinema - it gave me the right exposure.
It was in 1989 that I did a film called Madame Suzatska with Shirley Maclaine and John Schlesinger. When I was asked to work in that film, the producer rang me up and said that Ruth Jhabwala has written the screenplay. In the original novel, the woman is a Jewish mother but Ruth Jhabwala wanted to turn her into an Indian mother and John Schlesinger felt that Asians had become such a part of the British fabric that it would be nice to play her as an Indian mother. Now, see the chance over there. Someone else could have been writing the screenplay and not Ruth Jhabwala and this wouldn’t have happened. Anyway, after a few questions here and there, within 24 hours I got a message saying that Ruth would like you to fly to London. At that time, I was shooting for Gulzar’s Libaas but I flew to London within 24 hours. John and I just fell in love with each other at first sight. I went, knowing fully well that I was going to be treated like a newcomer, making a new beginning because they didn’t know anything about my reputation. I was also aware that I was going to be judged purely for my work and nothing else. Now, this was a time when I was reigning queen and really comfortable with being called Meryl Streep of India. But they didn’t give a damn and they weren’t going to stand up in respect until and unless they saw my work. This is an ability I have and Javed describes it best by saying that I don’t fear failure.
GJ: How do you assess your experience doing international cinema?
SA: When I was shooting for Madame Suzatska, it really felt like I was giving myself an opportunity to start all over again and earn respect only on my own grounds and not out of the reputation that preceded me. After this, I got many more films. I did City of Joy, I worked with Hugh Grant, with Elephant Man John Hurt and then I worked in a film called La Nuit Bengali and so on. There are 10 films that I have done internationally and of course, it became much more comfortable as I went along. We did a film called Side streets with Shashi Kapoor when Zoya was new to the industry then and was the Assistant Director on the film. Later, when I worked in the National Theatre in London, it was the first time that the National Theatre was doing an Asian play - The Waiting Room. It was written by Kanika Gupta but was being held at the National Theatre. I did the grind like everybody else - I lived by myself in a one bedroom flat, I would wake up, cook my own food, go to work at 9 o’clock in the morning, wind up at 6, walk back and cook my dinner. There was absolutely no reason for me to do it – I could well afford a more comfortable living. I could have had a maid and let her do the cleaning et al. But I said if I do that, I am not allowing myself to be a newcomer. I really want to be a newcomer. I want to actually sahulat... You know Javed says that about Abbas – sahulat - main usko chod sakti hoon – I can give up the comforts. I was really living like a student and getting a very paltry per diem and enjoying that. So, putting yourself in unfamiliar circumstances and then being able to put your head above the water, I think that’s very important for an artist because then you don’t allow yourself to be complacent. In fact, I was already a Member of Parliament then but I did it at the time when Parliament was not in session.
GJ: Do you ever watch your own movies?
SA: I do watch! This is one of the things I love to do. But my family would probably come and say – have you cracked your head completely that you are watching your own work? What has happened to you? In fact, even today when somebody is watching my work and if there’s a shot I don’t like, I’ll try and give you popcorn at that time so that you don’t look at that shot which I hate.
GJ: Of all the characters you’ve played, which has been the most personal for you?
SA: Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth because that got me involved with women’s rights and issues. When I did Arth, I had women walking into my home as fans – not as fans to the star in me, but as in sisterhood – expecting me to resolve their marital conflicts. I was merely an actor and I had merely done a part. I was really frightened then because they expected me to resolve all their problems. We are talking about 1983... It was then I realised that as artists we have such a huge responsibility too. Even today I meet so many women who are my age, who have come and told me that I have touched their lives because of my character in Arth. I am very grateful to Mahesh for giving me that part because of which I could connect with women and their issues.
GJ: Of all the directors that you’ve worked with, who has shaped you as an actor?
SA: Mahesh Bhatt, because I was very confused about what glamorous means on screen and I used to put cakes of makeup, wear horrendous wigs and awful clothes that were done by stylists and look really awkward. It was Mahesh who said – ‘I see you in real life and I find you a really natty dresser and I find that you have your own persona. You never allow that persona to come on screen.’ I contested it by saying that I simply wear on screen what my dress designer thinks I should be wearing. He couldn’t get the logic of my argument probably and he put me in a film called Lahoo ke Do Rang in which we worked with what were actually my personal saris. He said that he wanted me to wear a sari but also do something different about it. So I turned the sari around me and wore it like a gown; something that people are doing very often today. I clubbed that with a silver belt and silver jewellery and stuff like that. He then asked me to get rid of the sleeves and so we did a halter blouse. That experience was very liberating for me because that was close to what I was in real life.
I used to be very conscious about my teeth and hide my smile because everyone used to always laugh at me and say – Buck tooth Shabana. But Mahesh asked me why I keep covering my face and when I told him this reason, he said that it is about my eyes and not my teeth. He said that if the smile comes, it has to come from the eyes and after that, this is all that mattered to me. For me, it was like a big burden that had been lifted from my head and I suddenly started smiling without being conscious about it. Mahesh was honest to then say that I don’t need to show all my 72 teeth and that I can just relax and stop covering my mouth. When people came up to me and said – you’ve got a glorious smile, I would just look at Mahesh and wink and say – this is all your doing, buddy. I used to always keep covering my mouth and he liberated me. Mahesh helped me be confident of my own self instead of trying to adapt to notions of what glamorous is.
GJ: Which of your films have influenced your journey considerably?
SA: Two very significant films – one was Goutam Ghosh’s Paar and the other was Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth. They were really the turning point and that was a huge sliding door. While I was preparing for Paar, I was looking out for some character that resembled the character I was playing in the film. We were living in an English guest house in Naihati, which is a shanty town away from Kolkata. There was a girl there who was the sweeper woman. I would see her sweep the floors. I would see the way she walked, the way she ate and everything else. I would observe very carefully and we even kind of became friends. And then I was imitating what she does. That was when she said if I would go to her house. I agreed immediately and went to her house. I saw this hut and I saw utter poverty there, which I had never before seen in my life. It was a maybe 180 sq ft. tenement with no electricity, no air; housing eight people. There was absolutely nothing! I was so struck that someone who was living against such adversity had the generosity to become my friend and that she had taken me home without being self-conscious about it. I was so moved that despite these conditions, she was offering me tea and biscuits. I felt so taken-in by her and I felt that if I went back to Bombay and used her to win a National Award but did nothing to improve the lives of people around her, it would be a travesty of the trust she had placed in me while we had become friends. I couldn’t say that I am going to use you to better my performance and after that, I won’t be concerned about your life.
I also remember that we were shooting on the streets of Kolkata – Calcutta at that time and there was a scene where I am sleeping on the pavement and a man tries to proposition me. Just a little away from me, there was a mazdoor woman lying who had worked the whole day. Despite the generator we were using for the shoot, the noise, the screaming and the light, she had passed out. She was completely oblivious to the fact that there was so much noise around her. I remember being struck on seeing a woman who worked so hard all day and is sleeping on the streets without being aware of all the noise – she was dead tired. I remember writing a letter to Shekhar Kapur at the time citing this as the socio economic reality of India and what are we talking about! It was a pen/paper note that I wrote to him. I don’t know whether he still has it.
I came back and happened to see a movie by Anand Patwardhan called Bombaiya City, Hamara Shahar which clearly brought home to me that demolitions served no purpose; that demolitions created worse slums out of already existing ones because people don’t go back to the villages. They come to the city in search of work and if you demolish their homes, then they will go 5 kms away. So, maybe, the first slum has water and electricity but next slum won’t. It proved the point that unless you can provide employment in the villages so that people don’t have to migrate to the city looking for work, they will inevitably come. This realisation opened the doors of my mind because like everybody else, I used to feel that these people keep coming and creating slums in the city. I joined this organisation called Nivara Hak; it was out of an emotional response to this reality.
GJ: Did Nivara Hak give birth to the social activist in you?
SA: I joined Nivara Hak in May 1986. That was the time when I was supposed to go to the Cannes Film Festival because my film - Mrinal Sen’s Genesis - was being filmed there. One day before I was to go, I was called for a meeting at the Nivara Hak in which they said they were going on an indefinite hunger strike. It was Anand Patwardhan and three people from the slums who were going on a hunger strike because a very large slum had been demolished in Cuffe Parade and the Government was not willing to give them alternative accommodation, although that was the policy then. They had knocked on every door and they had done every possible thing for their rights. But they were unsuccessful and so, they decided to go on a hunger strike. When I heard that, my emotional response was - I am going to join you in this hunger strike. I expected it to be indefinite but it lasted only five days. I remember telling Javed and he said that I will be criticised for this. He told me that people won’t say that I was such a great heroine to be doing such a thing. This was so because it was the time when one couldn’t imagine a mainstream actress could do something like this because it was anti-government. Anyway, at the strike venue, there was no security at all. It was just five bamboos in the sweltering heat of May. My blood pressure started falling and I became ill but I carried on. It was then that Shashi Kapoor went to the Chief Minister and said that while the film industry was always out for them, how is it that he does nothing when one of their own is literally dying! Shashi Kapoor then managed to get the Home Minister to come and assure an alternative land to these people. It was a big success. Later, I increasingly became involved with Nivara Hak because the fact that I was who I was, doors opened very easily. So we could meet chief ministers, we could meet defence ministers and do all sorts of things.
Once, I was about to perform my play Tumhari Amrita and I got arrested along with 16 slum dwellers for allegedly trying to create a riot, which was completely false. What happened was that the officials were bulldozing the slums of Gitanagar and lathi charging the people. We tried to stop the police from doing that and the police arrested us. We landed up at the police station and in 2 hours, at 6 o’clock, I had my play at NCPA. While they said that they would release me on bail, I refused to accept it because I had done nothing wrong. I insisted that the police had to let all of us go else even I would stay back. My mother, father, husband, the director of the play Feroz and my co-actor Farooq – all of them came and said – but there is a play, how can you not do the play? My mother insisted that the show must go on and that I shouldn’t let my audience down and asked the Inspector to let me go for two hours, after which my mother would personally get me back to the police station. However, after much back and forth, I went in at 8 for the show which was scheduled to start at 6! Finally at 8.05, I was on stage and we got a standing ovation and nobody from the audience had left. All these ups and downs of my life was beautifully collating with the work that my father was doing.
GJ: How did you think of going back to your father’s village in Uttar Pradesh and working for the betterment of the village?
SA: After having a paralytic stroke, instead of giving in to despair, my father went back to his village Mejwan in Uttar Pradesh, Azamgarh where he was born. He realised the village was frozen in time. There was no road, no electricity, no school – there was nothing. That’s when he decided to dedicate himself to the upliftment of the village and its people. At the same time, I was working in the urban areas saying that if people find employment in the villages, they will not have to migrate to the city and into the slums at all. I became a Member of Parliament because of the work I was doing in the slums. We made houses for 50,000 people for free and in accordance with the SRA regulations in Maharashtra. But the fact is that I feel utterly bad today because when your parents are alive, you don’t pay any attention to them and this is what happened with me too. When my father passed away in 2002, I then took on the reins of Mejwan because to me, it was a given. I got completely involved with Mejwan because it couldn’t be any other way. It was what my father was doing and I had to take it on. It takes a lot from me - it takes a lot of physical energy and personally, it’s like an emotional seesaw. Add to it, people there also have expectations. But today, I feel proud... Mejwan has gone international. I kept thinking of my father all the time. Once when I was watching Manish Malhotra’s show and all these girls in Mejwan being adorned on the ramp, I kept feeling very guilty throughout and I wished I had done this when my father was alive. I constantly keep feeling I didn’t hold his hand when he was doing it on his own. This is a guilt that will remain with me.
GJ: How has contributing to the emancipation of women and children, interacting and reaching out to the downtrodden emotionally or internally transformed you?
SA: It’s a continuity of the work I saw my father do. There was never a chowkidar at home – it was a little cottage where anyone could walk in. So you had the Governor of Maharashtra coming to the house or the mazdoor from Madarpura and nobody could ever stop anyone from coming into the house. I had seen these contradictions early on. But for me, the biggest challenge came because as a film actor, more a star than an actor really, your life starts getting cushioned by so many people before you can be reached. So you have a manager, then you have a secretary, then you have a make-up artist and then you have a hair dresser and then you have a personal assistant! In this process, you start losing touch with life because you have this coterie around you that protects and isolates you and puts you in an ivory tower, which is detrimental for you as an artist. It is detrimental because for an artist, life should be as it is and I believe the very resource base of an artist should be life. What would happen is that I would be in my air conditioned fancy house and suddenly at 7.30 in the evening when I am just opening the doors for a fancy party that I am throwing, suddenly I get to know that 30 women are waiting downstairs for me. I cannot ask them to come back tomorrow because their house is going to be demolished tomorrow morning. While they have a right to expect from me and the right to walk into my house, but mentally it was very disturbing because you had women in front of you talking about losing their homes and you were about to throw a fancy party. It would create a lot of turmoil, disturbance and trauma inside me. But I realized that I owed as much to my family as I do to these people because it is my family which is so supportive of me and gives me the freedom and the support to do whatever I can. I could say that I will abandon everyone, become Mahatma Gandhi and go and live with them. I have a life that I love and I also want to be there for women like these. All I wanted to say was that it is possible to do both. You know some people can find it very strange.
GJ: Who would you say were your support systems at such times?
SA: From the very beginning, I was only working at the grass roots. I wasn’t a brand ambassador for something and posing with children on Children’s day and making a hefty pocket full of money for doing so. I was actually at grass roots – standing in front of bulldozers, staging demonstrations and actually taking action. I was able to straddle both worlds because of the support from my family; also strangely from my film producers. I remember I was shooting for Mardonwali Baat with Dharmendra on the set when I was told that a slum had been demolished in Priyadarshini Park. We were promised that they would meet us the next day and then we would decide what was going to happen to the people who were still on the pavements. Instead, we heard that the children and women had been put in a truck and taken away in the dead of night and the men didn’t know where the women and children were. I went completely crazy and started sobbing. Brij, the filmmaker, saw me sobbing and instead of telling me that he doesn’t care and that he has Dharmendra only for two hours; he told me that I should go. That was the kind of support I got from the film industry.
GJ: How do you manage so many different roles - being a parliamentarian, a humanitarian, a social activist, an actor?
SA: How do I juggle so many hats? I think I live at breakneck speed. All the time, Javed keeps telling me that I just can’t keep on running. He keeps saying Shabana runs a marathon like a sprint! He says you can’t run it like a sprint, it’s a marathon; you’ll get really exhausted. I do get exhausted and I moan and I bitch and I groan and I say that I can’t take it anymore and the next morning, I am back to exactly where I was. Again Javed says that Shabana is either straight or she is flat. So, it’s all going in and then it’s suddenly that moment when you fall flat for some time and then it comes back exactly to 90 degrees angle. That’s the way I am and that’s exactly the way my father was too. My father also used to work like this and his health was of no consequence to him. In fact, my father made such a strong foundation for me that to take on from there was really the least of the worries. It all ties up with art being used as an instrument for social change. It all goes back to what was injected into me by a process of osmosis, not by being made to sit down and listen to a Communist ideology but because it was practised around me. Because I feel when you have this kind of ability to reach out to people, it is very important that you do it in a way which contributes, which makes a difference. I believe to have this power in your hands and to waste it is a huge pity.
GJ: Considering the many ups and downs of your life, how do you look back at the times gone by?
SA: A major part of my life has been about protests. It all started when I was a child but as I grew older, I have matured a great deal. Now, I don’t stay only with the problem; I stay with the solution. And for the solution, I am willing to walk two steps forward, two steps backward – whatever is required - because I feel the only way to solve a problem is through dialogue and nothing else... It has to be through dialogue and engagement; it has to be by being able to make the other person see your point of view. There has to be stiff resistance and there has to be stiff opposition. But ultimately you just can’t stay with that, you have to move forward. For us in Nivara, having high rise buildings is not the answer to Bombay’s slums. But either we had a chance of just letting these people perish and die or move them into buildings that were not our first choice because at least it gave them a chance. You can call it a compromise, you can make it an understanding, you do whatever – I am with the solution.
In the larger perspective, for me, at the moment when I am dealing with women’s situations; women’s safety, women’s expectations, women’s empowerment is what I look out for. We are all victims of a patriarchal mindset that privileges the boy over the girl. The solution to this is a mindset transformation which takes a long time. You can get laws in place, but for laws to be internalised, for mindsets to change – that’s what takes a long time. When I get impatient, I always think of my father, who said to me – ‘when you are working for change, you should build into that expectation the possibility that change might not occur within your lifetime. Yet, you must carry on working with sincerity and dedication, knowing that if you do that – change will occur – even if does so after you are gone.’ So then there is no place for any frustration because you haven’t given yourself a McKenzie 5-year goal in which this has to be achieved; because you are talking about mindset change. I see in Mejwan and girls saying no to marriage before the age of 18. This was unthinkable earlier when the girls would come to school with sindoor in the maang. Today, the principal, students and teachers have taken a vow that if a girl is forced into marriage before 18, they will do a demonstration outside her house. They have opened their own bank accounts; they are not only earning money, but also spending money the way they want to. I can see the huge transformation that has taken place and this to me is the most significant of all.
GJ: What keeps you going even as this age, at a time when most of the actors from your generation are enjoying what one could call a ‘retired life’?
SA: This happens largely to those who play the ‘heroine.’ Even when I was playing a heroine, I was playing a character who was an actual person. So your persona depends on not just what is considered glamorous at 28 but also on the substance of the person, of the character. Then, there are parts that get written for you, keeping in mind what you have to offer. When you have only good looks and svelte figure to offer, then very quickly you are going to be replaced because the next girl is waiting right there around the wings with more to offer. So, the fact is that even when I was playing the heroine, I was playing characters. I hope I am able to explain myself because it’s a very important thing – that’s why your career gets extended.
GJ: Born to Kaifi, married Javed Akhtar - What is it being Shabana?
SA: And then, the mother of Zoya and Farhan... it doesn’t end! My father was an amazing person. About Javed - you know, I fell in love with a married man and people were absolutely appalled. They felt that here is this feminist and she is talking about women’s rights and she is snatching away somebody’s husband! It was a battle to explain myself but I didn’t bother because I figured it was okay to get the brickbats; because it is a contradiction; because people do think that how can I do this? I was tempted to go out and explain that Javed’s earlier marriage was already over when I entered but I refrained from doing so because it would have hurt far too many people. So, to continuously get those brickbats and consciously allow myself to take it because it was so important for me that Javed is my husband. Javed told me - I will marry you and if I don’t, remember that it was because I never intended to. Those were the strongest words coming from Javed at a time when so many people told me that it will never happen because he loves his children to death and it was a very difficult decision for him to take. We really tried to stay away from each other... we broke up thrice and we did all kinds of things and then finally, he took a decision. During this time, his words would come back to me – I didn’t marry you because I never intended to. There was so much confidence that he had given me throughout this phase.
GJ: Given that you and Javed Saab are two very strong personalities, how has Javed Saab influenced you?
SA: I think both of us have shaped and influenced each other because we are, in a sense, different personalities. But we are fired by the same vision, by the same world view. We are products of the same environment; his father was a member of the Progressive Writer’s Association, he was a member of the Communist Party, he is a film lyricist and so on. I always say that we should have had an arranged marriage because our backgrounds are so similar. But I will tell you an incident... We were building a house in Khandala and we had so many arguments then because in my head I was building a different house while he was building a different one. I was building a house which was a cosy weekend resort and he thought of building a mansion. I made his life absolutely miserable then. It was his best friend who told me that ‘Shabana, this is his dream house, he has lived on the street, you haven’t – and you better not interfere.’
Something else about Javed that not everyone knows is that he is a true feminist. In discovering Javed, I was re-discovering my father because I was re-discovering the language, I was re-discovering the food, I was rediscovering the tehzeeb - there’s a Lucknowi and Awadhi tehzeeb. My father and Javed both have a sense of propriety, which is very old world. I keep telling him that you are ancient but there’s a strong sense of propriety and all those things are so similar to my father. He is outspoken and fearless but also very pragmatic. It is contradictory that he can be very pragmatic and also very dreamy.
GJ: How is it working together and sharing your life with Javed Saab?
SA: I say ‘No’ to everything he says. He says ‘yes’ and I say ‘No’, then he says after 10 minutes you’ll say OK – and I say OK. To me, I don’t want to deal with anything that is so huge and I say - no, no, no! I want it on a much smaller level but he just expands everything and frightens the daylights out of me. I think micro and he thinks macro! But our marriage works because we are each other’s best friend. In fact, Javed is fond of saying that Shabana and I are such good friends that even marriage couldn’t ruin our friendship. In the friendship we share, we seek each other’s company. Before I met Javed, I used to seek different things in different people. So, I had some friends who used to give me humour, some used to give me intellectual stimulation and some who used to give me emotional support. Then I met Javed and it suddenly all became available in one person. I don’t know whether he feels the same about me.
On the surface when you see Javed, he can come across as a very careless person; but, every time I have been even in the slightest trouble, he picks up his hood like a cobra mate and holds me close and says – let me see who is going to say anything to my wife. That to me is so much securitythat it doesn’t matter about the other things that you expect. In fact, in our lives, we are not in the husband/wife roles at all. I do things I watched my mother do – like pack his bags. But if I don’t, there is no expectation from him. If his buttons are missing, he is not going to turn to me and say that they are missing. It’s his man Friday who’ll look after it. He doesn’t expect that I’ll look after his food or any such thing, but I do all of that because that is what I have seen my mother do. There have been instances when I get up in the morning and Javed has gone somewhere and I didn’t even know, or he gets up and I have gone. But then that’s fine.
GJ: How well have you adjusted with Farhan and Zoya?
SA: Our gatherings are a lot of humour, lot of leg pulling; sometimes really foolish conversation and most of the times, a lot of intense and very serious political conversations. I am very proud of the fact that Zoya and Farhan are both very socially conscious citizens of the country and they have very strong views. They have great arguments also and are fiercely opinionated. They are responsible citizens and for both of us, that was extremely important. We are also very proud of their body of work. They are not running after false success. They have not compromised quality. They have not done anything that has embarrassed us in any way. In fact, it’s really very strange because Farhan wears his success so lightly. I mean, he never comes back to us, shows off and says -- you know, I went for this performance and my God, it was amazing and other people say that Farhan had this rock show in Singapore and the girls went completely crazy and stuff like that.
For my relationship with Farhan and Zoya, I give a lot of credit to their mother Honey because I think she has been extremely generous in sharing them with me and in not filling their hearts with all kinds of stories about me, which would have been completely natural had she done that. For this, I value her greatly! Firstly, such an approach retained the sanity of her children and it made the whole experience not as hard. It was hard, it would be wrong to say it was not hard, but not as hard as it could have been, not as harsh as it could have been. I really respect her for the fact that she has given the children the freedom to discover me on their own and make up their mind independently of what was her feelings about what had happened. I really value that.
GJ: In hindsight, what have been the high points of your existence?
SA: Those six years as a Parliamentarian because it was the place that provided me with an opportunity to be the voice of the grass roots at a place where issues were discussed and policies were framed. I always felt that there was disconnect between people who frame policies and people who actually have their voices right there on the ground. So being a Parliamentarian gave me an opportunity to be there! I was an extremely sincere Parliamentarian, I attended the sessions regularly and participated in debates and was respected despite being opposed to the BJP. I don’t belong to any political party, I never have. But it never happened that I wanted to speak on a subject and I wasn’t given an opportunity. When I gave in my name and said I wanted to speak, I always got the opportunity because I wasn’t doing rabble rousing; I was talking about serious issues. I guess, in Parliament, because I didn’t belong to any political party, I could easily listen to two completely different points of view patiently and then decide who made more sense and reach a conclusion. I also found it very strange when I saw people in the House almost at each other’s throats. I felt that they could almost kill each other. But then, once you are out, you see the same people sitting in the Central Hall and say things like - why don’t you buy me a coffee and thanda pila do chalo. I realised that it was such an adult way to behave; it was issues that you were fighting against and it wasn’t about egos. That for me was a learning experience because my resource base was academics and not the political class. There were NGOs, there were people who were actually working both at the academic level and the grassroot. I stood firmly for Housing or slums and Domestic Violence Bill and on Health while in Rajya Sabha.
GJ: What were the lows of your life?
SA: After dealing with brickbats over falling for a married man; it was the realization that I can’t have a child because I had taken it for granted that I am God’s chosen child and so everything should come my way. I was shattered about how could it be possible that Javed and I cannot have a child of our own? But then I came to terms with it and felt that may be, I wouldn’t be able to be as actively involved in social work had I had my own child because I would have been a late mother. I got married only at the age of 34 and so, I would have had to have a child very quickly but that was the time when I was actively involved in the heart of everything. Today, I don’t hold any hurt in my heart at all. I was very blessed because I had Zoya and Farhan who had gone past the age when they had Mumps and diphtheria and measles and teething problems and other miserable problems that children have. They were these bright, intelligent people just waiting for ideas to be put into them and to have stimulation. I had a glorious, glorious period with them. So, not having a child of my own hasn’t scarred or hurt me particularly because I had Zoya and Farhan and because I believe that you cannot get it all.
GJ: When you wake up every morning, do you have expectations from your day?
SA: At this point, the expectation I have from my day is that I hope I can get up in the morning and have nothing to do, so I can clean my cupboards. But seriously speaking, I want to be able to do absolutely nothing – read a book, listen to music, clean my cupboards - just do absolutely nothing.
GJ: If you had three days off, what would you like to do?
SA: I would love to take a holiday in my own house. Holiday for me is not going to Paris or London. It is being in Sagar Samrat. Being there for three days without an agenda where my days would be just around my family, my friends. For me a completely ideal day is when I have family and friends of all generations together – from my mother to her great grandson – everybody over here. There will be a lot of food since the Azmis and the Akhtars are obsessed with food; they talk about nothing but food all the time.
GJ: What would Farhan and Zoya say about food?
SA: Farhan and Zoya can come to our house at any time of the day and simply ask – where are the kebabs? There has got to be a time when you can eat kebabs; you can’t eat kebabs the moment you enter the house! But ‘where are the kebabs’ is the first question. Every time they come to the house, they say – we are starving, where is the food? That’s typical them because the food in the house is really good.
GJ: I read somewhere that you watch cricket.
SA: Nobody talks to me when the match is on, including my staff. So I am the day and night staff who silently gives them the food, serves them tea because even the staff is not willing to help me during the game. This is the only time when I am left completely on my own – the time when there is a cricket match going on.