By Subhash K Jha
MUMBAI: Shekhar Kapur once said Shabana Azmi’s name would occur at every important turning in the history of Indian cinema.
He was right. There isn’t another actress who means as much to our cinema as she does. As an individual and as a professional, Shabana seems to represent the essence of all that’s intellectually alive and desirable in Hindi cinema.
A huge influence on Indian cinema and on me personally, Shabana Azmi is the only actor in Bollywood who has watched me evolve as a journalist, and who, I believe, is extremely proud of me.
Once many years ago when she was shooting with Madhuri Dixit for Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand, their conversation veered towards me. “Arrey, what is this?” she ribbed me later. “Everyone knows you now. I feel very very possessive.”
For a long time she was the only actor I wanted to know. She was the only one I cared to know. I’ve always felt she’s the best dramatic actress this country has ever produced. And my opinion has cemented as she has gone from strength to strength—from Ankur and Arth to Godmother, Fire and now her latest triumph Morning Raga which I know will win her another truckload of accolades.
I always feel her performances speak a language that only I understand fully. In a long letter that she once sent me (and which I’ve preserved ) she wrote, “I feel you see things in my performances which others can’t.”
It was huge compliment to a journalist who was just finding his way around the con-create jungle.
Ever since then Shabana has been a kind of role-model , a role, I suspect she enjoys playing.
Though I’ve known her for over 15 years , I’ve had little chance to penetrate the exterior mask.
Though Shabana is extremely friendly she doesn’t invite any kind of intimacy. “I’m a very private person,” she once told me recently, and that holds true for keeps in spite of her extremely warm nature. Though she exudes an undeniable warmth, Shabana remains mystery to most of those who claim to know her closely.
As a person and an actress (the two roles are synonymous in her cosmic scheme), Shabana exudes tremendous strength of conviction. When she speaks you’ve got to listen. She won’t have it any other way. The same is true of her performances. Shabana’s acting doesn’t just grab your attention. She holds you spellbound.
Her delight at receiving compliments hasn’t diminished over the years. I remember my uncontainable excitement when I first met her. The first interview is like first love. Every detail gets indelibly imprinted in the mind.
There I was, an impressionable 27, face-to-face with one of my idols. Shabana tried to cut through my gushing admiration. She even arranged for a tape recorder which I had foolishly forgotten to take, but finally gave up. “Aap mujhe bhi kuch bolne denge?…We should do the interview at a later date when you are less excited.”
That’s how our association started. The bonding has outlasted many hurdles including long periods of silence when I’ve kept away from her. Even if we speak after a full year, Shabana doesn’t waste time reprimanding and blaming me for being careless. Even if she feels I’ve been less than perfect with my protocol there’s never any awkwardness .
She’s too clear-headed for carrying forward the baggage of negativity. She’d much rather look ahead than wallow in the past. That’s the first thing I learnt from her. The most important thing that I learnt was, never hesitate in going for what you want.
“So what if I want to work with all the good filmmakers in the country?…Mrinal Sen, Gulzar, Sai Paranjapye….I wanted to work with all of them, and I kept hounding them until they agreed to work with me.”
It’s this quality, plus of course a powerhouse volcanic talent in her personality which has taken her further than any other actress.
It’s a fallacy that Shabana is only a serious cerebral person. She’s also capable of having fun, letting her hair down and just having a ball. I’ve seen her discussing shades of dupatta with a friend as earnestly as the plight of slumdwellers in Mumbai. To Shabana, life is not about calibrating but celebrating every shade of existence.
She treated me with the same aloof respect and affection back then when I was just starting out, as she does when I’ve a certain standing.
I think Shabana and I have certain comfort level that very few actors and journalists share. Her lust for life makes her reach out to anyone who shares her glow for glory. But to her every interaction , on a human or artistic level, is an occasion for knowing herself.
Over the years her gusto has grown, and so has her passion to squeeze every drop of experience out of every given situation.
Bluntly honest and as averse to beating around the bush as humanly possible, Shabana is still a mystery to most people. I’ve noticed a lot of people in the film industry are intimidated by her. But Shabana isn’t really intimidating. She’s just so naturally larger than life that she creates the impression of being several cuts above the rest.
Next logical step for this astonishing woman? Direction, of course.
As an actress, Hindi cinema has nothing more to offer Shabana. She can’t do the Bhabhi-Mataji roles. She’s too brilliant to be convincing in roles that don’t convince her. That goes for real life too.