Shabana Azmi on being busy through the pandemic, experiments with OTT, future projects and more

Shabana Azmi on looking back at her career: 'I was trained to look for truth in performance and have once in a while managed to achieve it when the script and the director are great'

Subhash K Jha January 06, 2022 12:51:18 IST
Shabana Azmi on being busy through the pandemic, experiments with OTT, future projects and more

Looking back on 2021 what was your main takeaway from the year?

That acceptance is not the same as submission. To carry on undaunted might sound very brave in most circumstances but the pandemic made us re-evaluate our behaviour. One had to be cautious without being paranoid. Because irresponsible behaviour could jeopardise the safety of others. I think this pandemic has awakened us to the fact that we are all connected and it is incumbent on the privileged to extend a helping hand to those less fortunate, it was a time when we needed to give till it hurts.

You kept working through most of 2021 all over the world. How tough was it to work through the pandemic and masks?

I worked on Shekhar Kapur’s What Has Love Got To Do With It with Emma Thompson and Lily James in London early 2021 at the height of the pandemic and on Steven Spielberg’s web series Halo and Nikkhil Advani’s Empire. We were tested every single day on Shekhar and Spielberg’s sets and could not move out of our bubble. It felt weird in the beginning but in hindsight, that’s what kept me going. Also, the second wave was very traumatic because every day we heard about people losing friends and family. Fortunately, we could move to Sukoon our home in Khandala and spend quality time with the family. A lot of people dealt with the feeling of being caged in by devouring by and getting addicted to the OTT platforms. People realised that’s what kept them from collapsing in despair.

You made a very deep impression on the OTT platform with The Empire. How satisfying was that experience for you?

I enjoyed playing Esan Daulat and am grateful that my work was appreciated. I will always be thankful to Nikkhil Advani for accommodating my dates.

With movie theatres in a state of ceaseless uncertainty do you see the OTT as the present tense and the future even more tense?

Yes for sure for now. But one keeps hoping that the Covid variant will become benign and we develop herd immunity. Consuming the way we watch content has altered greatly. When I visit my native town Mijwan I see that it’s the mobile phone which has become the preferred choice of visual entertainment. The big-budget extravaganza is what people will go to the theatre to watch.

Shabana Azmi on being busy through the pandemic experiments with OTT future projects and more

Shabana Azmi in The Empire

How does 2022 look to you, personally and otherwise?

Uncertain and therefore challenging. One can plan nothing. My shooting schedules have gone for a toss, we’ve been holding back on renovations for our home in Mumbai. I was looking forward to a long-deserved holiday with my girl gang that’s been kept on hold. The Mijwan Fashion Show has been postponed but I’ve learned to go with the flow instead of cribbing endlessly. Live in the here-and-now has become my motto.

So you believe that the OTT platform is here to stay?

The OTT platform has opened up opportunities for authentic faces. Chocolate faces are disappearing. It’s not just me a lot of senior female actors are getting substantial work and that is a welcome situation.

The advent of the casting director has cast the net wider so stock actors for stock characters is no longer the norm. Earlier you could predict with your eyes closed that Shivraj, Jeevan, Sapru, Lalita Pawar etc would be cast in a particular role. Today you have fresh faces from the hinterlands who are replacing them. I hope the trend continues.

Which were the films and shows that you enjoyed in 2021?

The Crown, Downtown Abbey

What are your projects for 2022?

I have three major releases Halo, What’s Love Got To Do With It and Karan Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani. I have some projects in various stages of development. It’s a time I can’t complain about.

Very few actors in this country or anywhere in the world have achieved your level of excellence. How do you look back on your career?

Aisa kuch nahin hai , Subhash .. channe ke jhaad pey mat chadhao. I have been lucky to be at the right place at the right time. I do not rate myself as excellent. I was trained to look for truth in performance and have once in a while managed to achieve it when the script and the director are great. Film is a collaborative medium and no actor can rise above the script.

Shabana Azmi on being busy through the pandemic experiments with OTT future projects and more

Trump found Meryl Streep overrated. How would you react to anyone who feels the same about you?

I am very open to an honest appraisal of my work and I listen carefully to criticism provided it comes without an agenda. I hope I never become smug about my work because acting is about a new learning every day

You have been a source of inspiration for generations of women and men. What is your advice to coming generations of Indians?

Main koi guru nahin hoon to give advice. I think we have a lot to learn from the younger generation. They are wired differently and instead of listening to them, we keep lecturing them. I grew up in a democratic family where due consideration was given to both my opinion and my brother Baba’s. We need to have less hierarchical and more interactive relationships with the young. My father (poet, thinker, activist, lyricist Kaifi Azmi) never gave advice without being asked. I have to confess both my mother and myself did so quite freely and frequently!! I’m now learning to curb it.

At a time when marriages are falling apart everywhere what is the secret of the longevity of your marriage with Javed Saab?

Javed and I belong to the same world. We were really meant to be together. We respect each other's work and also push to make the other work harder. When I had to sing for Aparna Sen’s Sonata, I came away a trifle dissatisfied after the first recording. He chewed my brains to get Aparna to re-do it. Today when I get so many compliments for it, I credit both Aparna and Jadu (Javed) in equal measure.

Do you two have the usual share of marital squabbles?

If I find a song he is writing is not his best I push him to. Obviously, in the area I have no say is in his poetry. I fancy myself his stylist and get distraught when he is careless about what he wears. Pat comes his reply “Log meri baatein sunne aate hain mere kapde dekhne nahi !” I say, "Bhai sunne bhi aate hain aur dekhne bhi. Koi aankh pey patti to nahi bandh lete na!” And this nok jhonk continues. Of course we have our differences and are very vocal about them but the commonalities are mercifully more. I feel that there can be no relationship more nurturing than a healthy marriage.

Any unfulfilled dreams and desires?

I don't want much I just want MORE. Ask what I want and I will sing I want more of everything .. everything …courtesy: Barbra Streisand in A Star Is Born.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.

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