A few months ago, Gurinder Chadha, who was on a flying visit to Mumbai, while chatting about her film, It’s A Wonderful AfterLife, and her wonderful actors, had recalled how during the schedule, Shabana Azmi was binging to her heart’s content. "Cakes, pastries, chocolates, samosas, pakoras and God knows what not," informed the director, digging into a packet of chips herself.
The actress plays Mrs Sethi, a widow from Southall, England, who will go to obsessive lengths to get her only daughter, Roopi, married.“Acting is a rewarding profession since you learn from the character and the character learns from you,” points out Azmi, adding that from Chadha’s film, she learnt how far a mother could go for her daughter to experience all the rites of passage.
“In real life, I do not obsess about our daughter getting married, but I can empathise with my friends who do, after having played Mrs Sethi.”
‘We’d pile food on our plates’
The role had her piling on the weight… 11. 36 kilos in three months of gorging. “I had a ball since I had an official reason for pigging out,” she laughs. “Both Goldy (Notay) who plays my daughter, and I would pile food onto our plates that would put to shame all living creatures!”
But there was a price to pay too. Her back gave way and Azmi had to take sessions with an osteopath through the schedule. “By the time I got back to Mumbai, my cholesterol, triglycerides and thyroid levels had hit the roof! My doctor was furious and told me that had I asked for his advice before I left, he’d never have let me do this.
‘I feel like a yoyo’
Duly chastised, she was put on medication and says that it’s been pure torture since. “I can either eat or starve,” she moans. “I cannot eat every two hours, which is the way all nutrition plans work these days. I’ve lost a lot of the weight but the minute I started eating again, I rapidly started putting it all back on. I feel like a yoyo and six weeks with my leg in plaster hasn’t helped.”
Her screen daughter, Goldy, however, has gone back to a size eight and was unrecognizable at the film’s Leicester Square premiere that Azmi had to miss because of her injured leg. “Age has a lot to do with it, I guess,” she sighs.
It’s incidents like this that highlight the hazards of inhabiting a part. “An actor is her own instrument, unlike an instrumentalist. If you play the sitar for instance, how well you play depends on the dexterity of your fingers besides how finely tuned the sitar is,” she reasons. “But an actor has only her head, heart and physicality to play with. And it is her business to tune herself to the demands of the part.”
25 years ago…Shabana put on weight for Mandi too and the fat got deposited in her arteries. In 1983, for Shyam Benegal’s Mandi, in which she played the madam of a whorehouse, Shabana Azmi had put on a lot of weight and even chewed paan (betel leaf) to make Rukmini Bai convincingly.
The film was a satirical comedy on politics and prostitution, and besides Azmi, also featured Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Om Puri, Amrish Puri and Kulbhushan Kharbanda. Based on a classic Urdu short story , Aanandi, by Pakistani writer Ghulam Abbas, the film revolved around a brothel set in an area that some politicians want for its prime locality.
But isn’t 11 kilos for one role, given her age, a bit too much?
Shabana laughed, “I have indeed put on 11 kilos and I’m waddling around, unrecognisable to all. Just the experience of working with Gurinder is enriching. She’s always in control of things without being bossy. That’s a remarkable quality in a director.”
The actress says that when she was being lectured by her doctor, she pointed out that she had piled on the kilos earlier too, during Mandi. “That was 25 years ago, madam,” he retorted. “The fat deposited in your arteries is there to stay. It is far too risky to do this for another role.