She has five National Awards, more than 120 films and has been a UN Goodwill Ambassador status. As a vocal and articulate champion of communal harmony and economic equality, she has honoured her father, Kaifi Azmi's political legacy.
He inherited his literary talent from his father, Jan Nissar Akhtar and his uncles, but it was his scripting partnership with Salim Khan that created waves at the box office and made him a star. The wit and sensitivity of his poems have carved him an important niche in the nation's literary annals. Married to one of Bollywood's biggest actresses, a star scriptwriter in his own right, he remains an intensely private person.
Shabana Azmi reveals the hidden side of her husband and soulmate: Javed Akhtar.
Firstpost: You are articulate, expressive about what you believe in, while he is quieter, more involved in his own world. Are you opposites in terms of temperament?
Shabana Azmi: On the contrary, I cannot think of anyone who is closer to me, and more similar than Javed. He is my soulmate.
What makes your relationship so perfect?
Look at the similarities in our backgrounds. In discovering Javed I rediscovered my father. Both are from UP, both poets, film lyricists, writers. Both love politics... In fact if you consider the fact that one seeks the perfect match of backgrounds for an arranged marriage, then this could well have been the perfect arranged marriage.
But it wasn't arranged…
He was already married by the time I realised how well suited we were.
When did that happen?
He had been coming home for a very long time, like other poets he would come to read his poems to my father, seek his opinion. But I was very busy with my work, and never really engaged with him.
Then in the ‘80s, I sat in on conversations my father had with him on poetry, on politics, and I realised he was very different from his image.
How did you become close?
He saw Sparsh, he really liked the movie. He told Sai (Paranjpe, director) that he really liked the film. There was a little party at Sai’s and he was invited too. We met there. He spoke of the film in such detail that I was amazed. That was the start of serious complex conversations.
But the fact remained that he was a married man...
Yes, we realised that. We stayed away from each other for as long as was possible. My mother was against it completely. When I told my father, I asked him, "Is he wrong for me?" And he said, "He is not wrong, but the circumstances are wrong."
When I asked him, "What if I change the circumstances,?" he said, "Then it should be okay."
It could not have been easy.
Nobody can understand the anguish, the heartbreak… There were children involved.
For 2 to 3 years, we suffered the trauma. And then one day, we decided to break up. It was too traumatic for the children if we went on. We told each other, "We will break up after one last meeting."
We met for that last meeting and we talked and talked... not love talk alone, but about everything, politics, poetry. We got so busy talking , we forgot to break up.
Did marriage disappoint you? Men change after marriage sometimes. Did he?
After marriage it was like we were two peas in a pod. So much was similar about us. There was not much adjustment needed on my part. There was so much he had gone through in a broken marriage that he had come out of it wiser, more mature. I married a sensible man, growing wiser with years.
We have each shaped and moulded the other since we married, but the most important fact is that we are also very good friends. And he jokes in his typical manner. He loves to say ‘Shabana is such a good friend,even marriage could not spoil our friendship.’
What was especially endearing?
The fact that he is so much like my father. For any ordinary man, my father is a tough act to follow, especially knowing how much I hero-worshipped my father.
So are there no points where you are different? Are there no clashes?
Of course there are! Like we clashed and fought so bitterly over his dream house. He has never participated in home matters, but this house — he went about it on such a large scale!
Then one day a friend said to me, 'Let him have his dream, he sees it differently from you, and it is his dream project. Remember that you are different: he is Sholay, you are Ankur.’
Other areas of dissonance?
I have no interest in action films, or in sports. He loves all sports: tennis, cricket, soccer. He took me to watch the finals at Wimbledon. I watched the match and swore never to go again.
He also likes to joke: If there’s a sad serious film on TV, or a boring programme, he will say, "Shabana ko bulao, it’s her type of programme."
How much do you influence each others’ work?
We have a pact. We will tell each other if we feel something needs change. I will listen to him, and mostly he is right. But there are times when I don’t agree. The same is true in reverse too. But we do share opinions... what’s the point otherwise...
But I do enjoy watching him work at creating a song, with a music director., It is creativity happening on the spot, a word lengthened, a note added, I have seen him with Anu Malik, Shanka Ehsan Loy, Pritam... it is always magical.
And the poetry. Does it make you mooney eyed? Does he sing to you?
Girls run after him. He is a poet, he must be so romantic, they think. But believe me, there is not a single romantic bone in his body. I once asked him about it and he joked: ‘Look, the trapeze artist does not hang from a trapeze at home."
He is well known and respected, but you have an international reputation as a major artiste. Does that bother him?
That has not even occurred to me! Perhaps because the wonderful thing about Javed is that whether I am with him in a slum or with the Queen of England, he is so completely at home. He will win them all over. He is constantly stealing my friends away from me! But to give him his due, in academic circles he is known at Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, and he has delivered lectures there. He commands a lot of respect.
Did you never dream of children of your own?
Of course we did, I did. For medical reasons, I could not have a child. It hurt a lot, and I was heartbroken for a while. Then I told myself, "One can’t have everything in life."
Also Zoya and Farhan were very young then, and their mother was generous in letting us have access to them. So I had children around. And I got the man! I cannot imagine being married to anyone else.
And what kind of a father is he?
Over the years he has developed a very good relationship with Farhan. There is mutual respect, he values Javed’s opinion. But Javed is careful not to interfere, he does not play the father figure.
What then is your recipe for a good relationship?
Deep trust, faith in one another. He will never open my bag, or read my mails. (I would do all that though). The friendship keeps us close. Of course we have fights and bitterness, but between us there is no role playing. No wife must do this, and he does not expect it. Also, we are so busy in our own worlds that it is great to be together when we do meet!
So are you together, in sickness and in health, for better or worse...
Oof, when he falls ill, he loves to talk about it in great detail. I make fun of him. I, on the other hand, am stoic, but when he realises something is serious, he will go to extreme lengths, get the doctor, force me to do tests... it drives me up the wall. And I like the fact that he cares. For me, for my mother; she could not have got a better son-in-law.