You had a huge fashion show where the fraternity turned up in full strength and today’s the opening night of a much looked forward to drama where you play the protagonist. Aren’t there too many things on your plate right now?
There are and one has to be certified mad to have two drastically different mammoth-sized events on two consecutive nights. I can actually be certified mad.
How did you to get so many stars together for the fashion show organised by you in aid of your father Kaifi Azmi’s NGO?
All the stars came on board without asking any questions with the utmost grace. We had so much fun backstage that it was difficult to get them to come on stage. I’m indebted to them all for rallying around in support of the cause. (Laughs) Manish Malhotra, I think, is going to put me behind bars for getting him to style the show and work with all the students! Anita Dongre, who also mentored them, is gracious and calm. I owe them both a big one.
What drew you to a play like Broken Images?
I would say the play itself. The star of a play is the playwright because theatre is the writer’s medium. The face behind a mask fascinates Girish Karnad. In this play too, he tries to unearth Manjula Sharma’s real image. It was extremely challenging because I had to first record a 44-minute shot in one go in which I am the confessor, the psychologist and the inquisitor. You can’t imagine the kind of precision needed for a shot like this because if I goofed up in the 43rd minute, I’d have to start from scratch. I have never done something like this in the past. Then, the real person, Manjula reacts to the questions put across by her visual image. It was intimidating, frightening and challenging to the core.
Is that what draws you to theatre?
Of course, the more intimidating, frightening and challenging it is, the more I want to get into it.
When you step on the stage for any of your plays, do you still have butterflies in your stomach?
Yes, because every night of a play is a new challenge. Your focus has to be consistent. I’ve done over 300 shows of
in the last two decades. I know that my concentration has to be the same with every show. With each new play, the butterflies in my stomach are becoming the size of elephants.
Do you think that theatre has changed visibly in recent years?
If you look at the history of theatre, we have had so many varied forms, from Parsi Theatre to the nautanki. There’s a hamlet some kilometres away from Varanasi, where they perform the
for two weeks during the Dussera. The audience moves with the play. It’s tremendous. Yet, the plays we largely see today are comedies, some of them are just gags bunged in with some jokes. These are solely dedicated to entertaining an audience. I’ve no quarrel with entertainment but I do believe we need to redefine it so that it’s not mindless.
What does Hindi theatre lack today?
It lacks new plays. And to have loads of new plays, we also need to pay the writers handsomely. In the West, playwrights make a living out of writing plays alone. Here, our writers have to diversify into different areas because theatre alone doesn’t help them make a living.
What kind of change do you think can be brought into theatre today?
I think the audience needs to be more theatre literate. That should begin at school and college level where cinema and theatre can be incorporated as necessary subjects. The need to understand theatre should now come from the audience.
After spending decades in the industry, do you feel there are artistes who can become the next Shabana Azmi?
I don’t indulge in that kind of vanity but yes, I do feel that there are so many actors today who’re extremely refined. Konkona Sen Sharma and Shahana Goswami are extremely talented girls. They have unconventional looks but they are also gifted.
‘Parallel cinema exists today in all its vibrancy’
Do you feel that mainstream cinema offers more to artistes today than it did when you started out?
Certainly. Within mainstream cinema actors are inhabiting the world of the character they play with greater depth. Earlier, it was purely representative acting. Today, actors carry out so many different roles, they experiment with their looks and their locks. Look at Ranbir Kapoor. He’s talented to the core. He’s at such ease in front of the camera. He’ll go a long way, I’m sure.
And what about parallel cinema. Do you think it is dying?
No, it certainly isn’t dying. The way we see it has changed and that is something that, unfortunately, cynics don’t realise. The parallel cinema movement of the 1970s and 1980s had Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal helming films. These filmmakers had their roots in the rural India. For them, that was their reality and that is what they brought out in their cinema. Feudalism was a big problem then. For filmmakers like Karan Johar and Farhan Akhtar, rural India is not their reality. They’re urban youngsters, brought up in a certain fraction of the society. What they show in their films is their reality.
Dil Chahta Hai and Rock On!! were still verging on the mainstream but if you look at Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Dev D, you’d agree that they are today’s parallel cinema because they’re clearly not for everyone. The movement, then, is still on.
Then why this perception?
It’s lazy thinking on people’s part. Parallel cinema exists today in all its vibrancy. Actors of every age group have the opportunity to try everything that they want to in terms of roles and variations. Earlier, at 30, a woman was considered past her prime and she would be reduced to doing mother and sister roles. Now there is fantastic stuff being written for actors of every age group. I’ve recently done a film with Gurinder Chaddha, It’s A Wonderful After Life and it’s a pivotal role.
So, do you feel that you were born at the wrong time?
On the contrary, I think I was born at the right time. I was always at the right place at the right time. Parallel cinema was in its infancy when I surfaced on the scene. Shyam Benegal was just starting out. I wonder if I had not been cast in those different and striking roles, if films like Mandi, Ankur, Nishant, Sparsh and Arth were not made, the fact that I can act well would have been a tightly held secret.
Shabana on stage
Betrayal: Produced by the Singapore Repertory Theatre it is one of Harold Pinter’s best plays. It was about a wife who betrays her husband for his best friend only to discover that the husband had also been cheating on her.
Nora: This was Ingmar Bergman’s version of Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, which was in three acts. The story was based on a real life incident that happened in Ibsen’s friend Laura’s life.
The Waiting Room: It’s one of the most popular plays written by Tanika Gupta for the National Theatre London in 2002.
Safed Kundali: This play was among the first ones that Azmi worked in, it was created by MS Sathyu.
This is one is Azmi’s longest running plays, 300 shows in 20 years. It’s the Urdu adaptation of A R Gurney’s
‘I would just sit back and observe her for hours when she rehearsed’
Shabana Azmi on her mum, Shaukat Kaifi Azmi
Your mum, Shaukat Kaifi Azmi, is also a popular theatre artiste. I’m sure she’s inspired you a great deal?
Yes, she completely has. There was a play of hers, with AK Hangal. It was called Africa Jawan Pareshan that she had done for IPTA. She had put on weight and changed her voice for the part. I would just sit back and observe her for hours when she rehearsed. The play was a major hit. It was to be staged in Hyderabad once. Out of some goof up on the tickets, only eight heads turned up in an auditorium with a capacity of 600. The organisers were planning to cancel the show and reimburse the money. My mother and AK Hangalji insisted on having the show because they had it in their blood that the show must go on. And on that night, my mum and he gave such an electrifying performance that I sat dumbstruck in the audience. That day, I felt the kind of commitment she had for the medium. Another play of hers that I really had me inspired was Pagli. Once, while rehearsing her lines at home, she started screaming because she was playing someone mentally disturbed. (Laughs) Our cook felt she had gone mad and jumped out of the kitchen window. Imagine, how convincing she was.
Did she also inspire your work in JP Dutta’s Umrao Jaan, given that your part was the one that your mum did in the older Umrao Jaan?
I didn’t really watch her when I accepted JP Dutta’s Umrao Jaan. I had seen Muzzaffar Ali’s film much earlier. JP’s interpretation was different from Ali’s. But my mother did have her inputs to give on the costumes and the dialogue.
Does she criticise your work?
Wholeheartedly. When she praises, she does it lavishly and when she criticises my work, she doesn’t spare anything.
Did she like any of your recent movies?
She’s watched Morning Raga a couple of times now. She loves watching it over and over again. There was a taxing shot in which I had to give a seriously long alaap. After watching that scene, several top rung artistes and old colleagues were convinced that I was a carnatic singer.