Her name almost connotes an award-winning performance. Therefore, it isn't surprising to see Shabana Azmi, winner of five National Best Actress awards and several other international awards, raise the bar whenever she does a film.
After a long hiatus, the fiery actress is back on the marquee, albeit in a strongly scripted supporting role. J P Dutta's cinematic adaptation of Mirza Hadi Ruswa's book, Umrao Jaan Ada, has Azmi play Khanum Sahib, the high priestess of a high-class Kotha.
Surprisingly, this time, Azmi herself was quite unsure of her abilities to live up to the expectations of people – not because of any fears of her own, but because her mother Shaukat Azmi had wonderfully portrayed Khanum in her inimitable style in Muzaffar Ali's Umrao Jaan, which was released in 1981.
Shabana Azmi is often the scene stealer even when pitted against the best but it's rather surprising to see her walk away with all the acting honors in a film which has her in the supporting cast. "One doesn't get to play lead roles in our country where female actors have to be necessarily young and nubile," she laughingly admits.
|Shaban Azmi in a still from Umrao Jaan.|
While the characters are well-etched in both the film versions, it's Azmi's marginally toned down shrewdness that stands out in Dutta's film. While comparisons are uncalled for, it would be suffice to say that it's her tempered and more humanistic interpretation that is the highlight of this film.
Azmi's Khanam is as mercenary as she is in the original book or in the earlier film.
As someone for whom the
is the be-all-and-end-all of her existence, all that is important to her are the rich
(patrons) of courtesans, "who would keep the tradition alive."
As the astute Khanam, Azmi comes across as someone who lives on her own terms and few could be compared to her. Her spirited encouragement to all the young girls who could bring in name and earn her enough, has her looking for benefactors who deliver too.
And when she realizes it's Ameeran (Umrao) who has more talent and potential to carry on her legacy, she is quick to divert the focus of her attention to her even it means supporting her at the cost of neglecting her daughter Bismillah.