She excels in cinema and has equal credentials in the field of social activism. For over three decades now, Shabana Azmi has worked relentlessly to effect social change. She’s slept on the pavement, braved lathis and fasted to bring justice to slum-dwellers. Equally, she’s defied the traditional and taken on bigotry and communalism. More recently, Azmi has raised her voice to focus attention on crucial issues affecting women. What drives her? What keeps her going? Does she ever feel like quitting? The iconic symbol of female strength shares her journey.
At what point did your social journey begin?
The turning point for me was Mahesh Bhatt’s film called Arth, in which I represent a woman who discovers her own individual identity. In the film, I am portrayed as a woman who makes choices. At the end of the film, the character chooses to lead a life without a husband or a male friend. The film became such a cult movie that I had women walk into my home, not as fans but in sisterhood. That frightened me because I’d only done a film and didn’t know I had a role to play beyond that. For me, personally, though, gender equality was a given. I grew up in a 225-sq-ft one-room home, where my mother had converted a strip of a balcony into the kitchen. We shared the bathroom amongst eight families and my father use to dress us up and send us to school because my mother used to tour a lot with Prithvi Theatres but it was only at the age of 19 that I discovered that gender equality was an exception rather than the rule. That’s when I started reading feminist literature authored by Kate Millet, Germaine Greer and Simone De Beauvoir. Arth took me from being a film personality to being a public person.
So, the roles you have played in movies have spurred you on as a change agent?
I don’t see myself as a crusader. I’m part of a sisterhood collective. In my movies, I’ve been a woman standing up against injustice – against feudal and gender injustice. And, if you are a sensitive artiste, you cannot treat your work like a 9 to 6 job. It’s difficult to return to an air-conditioned home and switch off. The residue of the roles you play is bound to be left behind in you. I always try and find a real life person on whom I base my role. I remember this sweeper woman who used to clean the guest house in Naihati, near Kolkata, when I was doing Paar. I started observing her for the way she ate, the way she swept the floor. She asked me one day if I would come to her house and I remember this airless room with no electricity. She had so little but still had the generosity to be my friend and I thought to myself – if I use her to win a national award and not do anything for people like her, it would be a travesty of the trust she had reposed in me when we became friends. Around that time, Anand Patwardhan showed me a documentary called Hamara Shehar and that got me involved with Nivara Hakk. Thirty odd years later, I’m still involved and we have built homes for 50,000 people for free. It’s the single largest rehabilitation project in Asia. I met amazing and resilient women who fought to save their dwellings from being demolished. I used to go to the slums in Mumbai, thinking I’d help them, but they were the ones giving me strength. I was leading a morcha against demolition and it was badly lathi charged by the police. I came home and howled and told Javed (Akhtar), I would never do this again. The police didn’t use their lathis on me but on the poor women. The blood of a child had spilt onto my right shoulder and I was wracked with guilt. The next day, the women came to me concerned that I had also been beaten and they said, “We are beaten every day, that is our life, but we will protect you.’’ I can’t tell you what kind of a moment it was for me. Solidarity for women was happening at a sub-conscious level and I realised that it was important for me to participate and bring women together. By a process of osmosis, I slipped into sisterhood as my primary identity.
Have you ever felt like disengaging, running away? It would be easy for you to slip back into your life as a film star.
There are some moments when I want to run away but I can’t. I owe it to my father Kaifi Azmi. I had to take his Mijwan dream forward. Mijwan is such a small village (in Azamgarh), it did not even have a postal code but today Naomi Campbell is wearing Mijwan clothes courtesy Manish Malhotra. There is so much we had to work on. I remember 12-year-olds coming to school with sindoor in their hair and today we have reached a stage where the school has taken a pledge that nobody will get married till they are 18. That is such a huge thing because it is a mindset change. Early in my journey, there was a girl who didn’t go to school, and abba and I told her mother that she must join the school. A year after the mother relented, she told me that her daughter hadn’t learnt anything and all you’d done is increasing my drudgery because at home, at least the daughter used to help out. I felt like my heart had been pierced when the mother was screaming at me, because she was actually talking about quality education. That’s when abba decided to open his own school. You asked me if I feel like running away. You know, my father had told me that when you are working for change, you have to build into that expectation the possibility that change may not occur within your life time but if you carry on working with sincerity and dedication, then it will occur even if it does so after you are gone. Mijwan is everything Abba dreamed of. Today, it’s a replicable and scaleable model. Our girls learn English through skype from USA courtesy Ann Foundation.
Your journey as a social activist has also seen you having run-ins with the very people who like to see women in uni-dimensional, conservative roles. The Shahi Imam, for example, called you a naachne gaane wali. Does that deter you in any way?
I responded to the Shahi Imam, asking Indian Muslims to wage a war in Kandahar by saying we’ll arrange for him to air-dropped there, for that way his problem would be solved and so would be ours. Outraged, he retorted, saying he doesn’t listen to naachne gane waalis. In an unprecedented gesture, both houses of Parliament condemned his statement. I was a member of Parliament then and I got thousands of letters from people, who supported me, within the community. In contrast, there were only a few condemnatory letters. That was proof that he was only a self-styled leader. The problem is the political class does not want to speak to the moderates within the Muslim community. It is utter rubbish that moderates don’t have a standing in the community. The Shahi Imam is not the true representative of the Muslims.
What role does your family play in your work, if any?
In 1986, I went on a hunger-strike along with four slum-dwellers and Anand Patwardhan and I slept on the pavement for five nights. My mother would come every day and raise slogans of ‘inquilaab zindabad’ and then go home and be a bundle of nerves. My father sent me a telegram saying, ‘Best of luck, comrade.’ Look, I can put myself in dangerous situations because I get strength from my family. I’m a big family person and they give me my oxygen. My husband has the same world view and he stands by me.
Recently, you were part of the India Gate protests in Delhi, after the brutal gang rape, and also of One Billion Rising. What made you join this battle, where you are fighting to give women a voice?
India lives in several centuries simultaneously and our people encapsulate all the contradictions that come from being a multi-class, multi-religious and multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. So it is, with the position of women. We have had a woman prime minister and today we have a woman heading the ruling coalition and another leading the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, but female foeticide is still practised in India, not in far-out rural places but in metropolitan cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. In Mehsana, four brothers end up marrying one girl because there are no girls left. We are a deeply patriarchal society in which the boy is privileged over the girl from birth, provided the girl is allowed to be born. She suffers from inequality and discrimination and has unequal access to health, education and decision-making. Parents look upon a girl as paraya dhan, who is then married off at the first given opportunity. The pressure to keep the marriage alive results in women being forced to accept domestic violence because parents dole out the logic of, ‘it was only a slap.’ Violence against women has the tacit approval of society the world over and this must stop. What was absolutely stunning about the protests at India Gate was that they were persistent and that they were led by the youth, including boys. The gang-rape victim saying ‘I want to live’, is a departure from the shame that victims are forced to feel. My daughter Zoya came up with the slogan of ‘shift the blame, shift the shame’. It is significant that we are now insisting on the certainty of punishment and not the severity of punishment. I believe in the strength of numbers. Women have to be part of a new equation. We must transform the very notion of power, so it becomes about sharing and not about the powerful bullying the weak. Men and women are different, not better, not worse.
How would you describe yourself? Crusader, activist?
I don’t see myself as a crusader but have been brought up by my parents to take a position when I feel strongly about something. I continue to have fire in my belly, 30 years after I got involved with public action. If 50,000 homes were saved from being demolished, it’s not my doing alone. It came from numbers and from eight years of dharnas. Change comes from being a collective.
Do you think it’s unfair to remember women only for a day in a year on March 8, which is International Women’s Day?
It’s a symbolic gesture. It brings attention to women’s issues and celebrates the brave women before us. Today, young girls can speak the language of empowerment because the women’s movement paved the way. We salute them.