Shabana Azmi on Netflix film Kaali Khuhi: 'Horror is around us and that we are choosing not to pay attention to it'
Shabana Azmi talks about her Netflix horror film Kaali Khuhi, benefitting from colourblind casting in the West, and how the parallel movement she pioneered in the '70s is merging with the mainstream
After numerous acclaimed roles in arthouse and mainstream cinema, and stage productions, Shabana Azmi, who burst on the scene in Shyam Benegal’s Ankur in 1974, shows no signs of slowing down.
In 46 years of a luminous career, the actress has worked with stalwarts as varied as Benegal, Satyajit Ray, Manmohan Desai, Mira Nair, Shekhar Kapur, Mahesh Bhatt, Deepa Mehta, and Gurinder Chadha.
Work never dried up for the screen legend, and at 70, she continues to stack up with credits in films, plays, and television shows, as she says, “If you are connected to life, there comes all your passion for doing whatever the art form that it is.”
Azmi’s latest outing is a Netflix original Kaali Khuhi (streaming from 30 October), a supernatural thriller that focuses on exposing the horrifying practice of female infanticide which has been something of a concern for the veteran actress known for her position on various social issues.
Firstpost catches up with the veteran actress who also talks on various aspects of cinema, censorship, international career, and more. Excerpts from the chat:
What drew you to the character Satyamasi in Kaali Khuhi?
I found the script, story, and the narrative very compelling about an issue that I feel very strongly about because of all the ills that women have to face in society. The worst of them has to be the right of being born taken away from her. And the fact that it is happening in and around us in the 21st century even in metropolitan cities and yet hasn’t created the kind of outrage that one would expect that it should, is shocking.
If a conversation starts whereby people realise that this horror is around us and that we are choosing not to pay attention to it, then the film is successful.
The director-screenwriter of the film (Terrie Samundra) says that not just the look of the character, but you gave many suggestions like certain nuances, silent pauses when it was needed...
As far as approaching the character was concerned I felt that Satyamasi has been burdened by the dark secret that she holds in her heart and that would make her being heavy, so she has a heavy walk, heavy voice.
She is someone who doesn’t care about the way she looks because she is so burdened with that guilt.
The idea came on the spur of the moment that maybe I should join my eyebrows because that would not only give me a different look but somewhere it would give you the feeling that this is the woman who doesn’t care about the way she looks, or maybe she doesn’t look into the mirror. The rest was determined by the internalisation.
Once I internalised the character then everything fell in place — the walk, the voice, the heaviness — it didn’t come from outside in but inside out. But it was very important to not make it as a huge statement and just make it visible when it could.
How difficult it is for you to portray such intense characters?
Sometimes when the character and film are too intense, the character stays with me for some time.
This was a very intense period when I went there for a short time and I inhabited the part. And I started with one of the most intense scenes in which I am trying to exorcise the spirit which was scary but it worked. It was a real village that we were working in and then straight out of that I had to go to the US for an international project which was completely different. I think it was the television show Next Of Kin.
After playing numerous diverse characters in over 150 films and winning several National awards, international awards, a Padma Shri, a Padma Bhushan, your passion seems to remain the same. What keeps you going?
An artist’s resource base must be life itself and if you are connected to life, from there comes all your passion for doing whatever the form that it is. Both my parents were really invested in the social struggle, in the fight for general equality and justice. I saw it all around me. It was not lectured to me but it was in the way that they lived and I continue to be involved in life and I think the strength comes from that. I have inherited my father’s genes.
I remember when I started shooting recently, (sometime early September, after the pandemic) everybody was really worried and they told me that I was taking a big risk. I went with a little trepidation and within an hour it just disappeared. That excitement of getting back in front of the camera became more important than anything else. The adrenaline that hits when one is facing the camera after months gives you a kind of high. Soon I will be shooting again and I am looking forward to it.
Kaali Khuhi is your debut on the OTT platform, how do you look at the new avenues that have opened up for actors?
It is a huge opportunity because the OTT platforms are now focusing on content as king. They are no longer concerned that we need this hero or heroine. The narrative is slowly beginning to change with the explosion of digital streaming platforms. They go straight to the content and that is throwing up a lot of new talent whether it is in writing, acting, various technical departments. And hence, there is a whole splurge of new talent that is emerging.
At the click of a button, 190 countries can see a movie and you are not seeing it piecemeal is a huge advantage.
You have been quite vocal about censorship issues and you recently said you feel happy that here we have a platform that isn’t subjected to this law..
I have always had a problem with the structure of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and the way it is constructed. I deliberately say Central Board and not Censor Board because the minute you say Censor you feel you are obliged to cut, whereas, the purpose of the board is to certify and classify. To say this is for adults, etc.,we follow the British system where we pick up a board of people who largely are taken from a political dispensation and then they look at it from that point of view.
This means you are subjecting my country to a morality that is determined by the political dispensation of the day and obviously that is not a healthy thing to do. What we have in the US is you have a board made of people from the film industry who willingly decide that, ‘All right, if I want everybody to see this film, including children then I will have to impose certain cuts on it myself. Or if I don’t want a single cut then I am ready to take it as a Triple X’. So it is a decision that a filmmaker makes and that is the healthiest way of looking at it because obviously there are things that are not good for children.
This law needs to be revisited and I am very happy that the OTT platform doesn’t have to be subjected to this.
You seem to be getting to play more grey and light-hearted roles these days. Are you happy in the space that you are in?
Yes, and I am very happy to do grey and light-hearted characters. Actually, I am getting a whole variety of roles to do. There has been a change particularly because of the OTT platform. All over the world if you look at it, a lot of them are women-centred and there are many substantial roles for older people particularly women and so that is seeping into our platforms here (India) also and then will necessarily reflect in movies. It is a very good time for actors and I am getting all kinds of parts.
I really think that my whole career has been about being in the right place at the right time. Now just imagine all my life when people told me that why haven’t your children cast you in their films. Why hasn’t Farhan (Akhtar) or Zoya (Akhtar) cast you in their films, so I said, that it is easier for me to be cast by Steven Spielberg rather than my children and the next day I know I am doing a Steven Spielberg production, now how random is that? It is random, it is crazy (laughs heartily).
Do you refuse roles if it doesn’t match your thinking, your ideology?
I have done it all my life, in fact, very early in my career. It used to create a conflict in me because I felt that if the character was endorsing women as second class citizens, or was saying something that is basically communal in nature then I wouldn’t be part of that film. But in some places, it created a conflict because as a professionally trained actor in Stanislavski’s method I trained that an actor should be able to prefix the words, ‘If I were' to any character that the actor is asked to do.
But for instance, if I was to play a Nazi officer, I would play a Nazi officer provided you feel a sense of revulsion and not a sense of heroism of that character. If I had to play a woman who was very helpless, either I needed to see a transition, however small, or such a sense of horror should be created in the audience that you should feel, 'This should not happen'. I have been very clear about that right from the beginning.
You played a major role in the parallel cinema movement in the ’80s and now when you look at cinema, do you see a kind of synthesis happening between mainstream and middle-of-the-road cinema?
Yes, yes, it is a different avatar. The films that we are getting today are really quite startling and amazing. I am completely stumped by the subject of certain films made today. So people keep saying that parallel cinema is dead. No, it is not, it has just taken on a different avatar.
You have films that refrain from falling into the formula of what is considered to be a mainstream film. I think that the advent of the casting director is huge because they have broken all the stereotypes of the character actors. It was certain that a certain actor would play a particular character.
Now we are getting actors from small towns, people from the theatre, the ecosystem around the actors is changing which is making them work harder and better.
Considering that you have been part of several international projects, you recently shot for web series Halo (executive produced by Steven Spielberg), do you think it is a great time for Asian actors in the west?
Yes. Asian actors have been talking about colourblind casting for the last several years. Even 20 years ago when I was working in Madame Sousatzka, we were still asking why certain characters should be cast only because of their ethnicity. We have kept asking why our ethnicity should decide the kind of roles offered to us.
In the characters I am playing now, I am not required to either put on an accent or to pretend to be one of them. I am very much who I am and it is all very comfortable. I think particularly in cinema, and when you are on a set, you realise that there are so many people from such different countries.
In Halo, my name is Margaret Paragonsky. I haven’t been asked to put on an accent, or have blonde hair. I just go in and speak English exactly as I speak to everyone. And all the other actors too — there are people from Korea, Canada — are doing what I am doing. So this whole thing of colourblind casting is very, very exciting. You really get the sense of being a world citizen.
(Images from Twitter)
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