You Can Not Escape Responsibility

Many film celebrities around the world espouse a favorite cause or fundraise for a pet charity. but there is also Shabana Azmi-one of the most gifted stars in the history of indian cinema who is also widely respected by her fellow activists for her deep commitment to social justice. with her usual incisiveness, candor, and sense of fun, she reflects in this interview on the artistic and political paths she has taken.

Chandana: Tell us about home and politics when you were growing up.

Shabana: I grew up in a family where my father was one of the leading lights of the Progressive Writers Association and the Indian People's Theatre Association and they came from a time when the cultural movement was very important in the freedom struggle. They were all from the Communist Party of India [CPI] which at that time had realized that the cultural wing was very important. Sadly, I find that completely missing in today's world. That's one of the great tragedies-we leave issues to be resolved by politicians and other people are not getting involved.

I grew up in a kind of atmosphere where women were treated as equal citizens and where everybody had the same rights, and it was an ideal that everyone was struggling for. I grew up in a family where writers, poets, theater people walked in and out of the house constantly and we had people of the ilk of Begum Akhtar and Faiz Ahmed Faiz as houseguests. At a time when all the industrialists were falling over their feet to put these people into five-star suites, they were choosing the humble surroundings of Kaifi Azmi and his family. And only in retrospect, I realize that one of the values that was being inculcated in my brother and myself was that something beyond material possessions is to be valued. I was a very curious child and I was nine years old when these people used to come to my house. And I would want to sit on my father's lap and listen and he never hushed me up as children usually are in our society. I couldn't understand a word of what these people used to say but I used to just be fascinated by it.

Chandana: When did you decide to start acting and doing a particular kind of cinema? Did you think this was a fulfilling way to carry out the ideas that you had?

Shabana: I went away to the Film Institute-I got involved in acting and was far removed from politics. I used to pride myself on the fact that I used to never read the newspapers. I had had political discussions coming out of my ears all the time and so I totally negated it and I became just a silly little ass, you know, and really very proud of the fact. Never once did my father question me. I think somewhere in his heart he was convinced that the roots had been firmly set. I give him a lot of credit for it because you can imagine his agony. And then I got involved with being an actor purely because of my artistic inclination rather than any other intellectual understanding. By the way, this is probably the most honest interview that I have ever given. Because I really want to try and understand things through this interview. So I'm not giving you ready-made answers and the truth is that I didn't choose that I would do certain kinds of roles. It was just by chance that Shyam Benegal cast me in Ankur. The film became an international and a great national success. It was a very important film because it really marked the start of the parallel movement [non-commercial] in Hindi cinema. It won a lot of critical acclaim plus commercial benefit.

I started my career in 1974 and till as late as 1982, it was just the role that was attractive, not what the roles were actually saying. I remember I went to a 'Women In Cinema' conference organized by the Alliance Française in Delhi. It was for the first time at that conference that I felt completely exposed to myself. There was a film called Thodisi Bewafai which I had done and which was a huge success, and I remember being asked, but how can you be in a film where the husband says to the wife, "Yaad rakho ke pati ke ghar ka dukh bhi maike ke ghar ke sukh se behtar hota hai" ("Remember that unhappiness in a husband's home is better than happiness in your maternal home"). It blew my mind because I had never looked at it like that at all. I had looked at it as a good part. I thought I was in a very special position because women never got equal parts as men in commercial cinema. Arth happened at the same time and suddenly I was becoming a role model for women. I mean there were women who were relating to me suddenly as woman to woman and there was no longer anything about a star and a fan. I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility and a desire to run away. But somewhere the Kaifi Azmi residue now decided that, all right, enough has happened, and now this Kaifi-Azmi-Shaukat-Azmi-CPI background is ready to make things happen, only because nobody had pushed me towards it, and it had taken its own time for fermentation.

In '84 I was doing a film called Paar. Let me tell you very quickly how I normally work as an actor-I try to find the person that I am playing in real life as much as I can so that I can speak to that person and find out what the mindset of the person is. And so there was a woman whom I made friends with who was a slum dweller-let's call her Rama for instance-that was the part that I was playing. I made friends with her because I was watching the way she sits, cooks, eats, does everything, to play her as perfectly as I could. We were in this very fancy English guest house and I used to complain because the air conditioner wasn't working well and mosquitoes were biting me. Then about the fifth or the sixth day, I went into Rama's house. And it just completely blew my mind. There was no light, no water, no air. There were eight people living there. And I was completely amazed that anybody who was living in such tough physical circumstances could have the resilience and the ability to be generous, which is what she had done with me. I no longer had the physical ability to switch on the air conditioner or complain about the mosquitoes because everything about me became artifice and superficiality. I felt so committed to her that I felt that if I went back to Bombay and forgot about her it would be a travesty of the trust that she had placed in me. And that I couldn't have a one-way relationship with her. I couldn't just observe her, study her, treat her like a model on the basis of which I would win an award. And then I happened to see Anand Patwardhan's film, Bombay Our City. The problem of slums had always bothered me because I always saw the way they were demolished.

My father has written a poem called Makaan which talks about the irony of the construction worker, who by his own sweat and blood works to set this amazing building up and then after the building has been put up, a chowkidar [guard] is put on the door and he is not allowed to enter into the very building that he has constructed with his own blood and sweat. It's a poem that always had made a huge impression on me. But like everybody else, I believed that if you didn't demolish the slums Bombay would burst at its seams. And it was only really Bombay Our City that brought into focus for me that demolition is not the answer and then I got involved in working with slum dwellers on the basis of all this.

Anannya: Do you see yourself as an actress who supports activism or somebody who is actually an organizer also?

Shabana: I don't see the two as dichotomous. I see the two as the same thing because the work that I do as an actor also promotes my activism. In the beginning when I got involved with these issues, the focus started becoming much more about me than about the issues that I was involved with. And that created a very serious moral dilemma for me. And so if I was at a march, it was a very attractive photo opportunity because here was this actress on the streets looking really militant, and they would say-"Shabana marches." Any activist will know that activism really is about negating your own persona so that it is about the issue rather than the person. Because of the celebrity status the exact opposite was happening. Now, I realize that the actress in me can never be removed because in fact it is my position that is allowing me access to a lot of situations and instead of denying that I should use it. What is important to me are the people that I am working with, the slum dwellers... are they benefiting? In the beginning, although they were star-struck, I think they had the ability to notice who is an outsider and who's here really to sit and talk. So after the initial star-struckness, they would immediately drop it and have this ability to communicate.

Anannya: What is your role? Is it to be at the march or do you also play a role in planning or organizing?

Shabana: I got involved with an organization called Nivara Hakk Suraksha Samiti which sees itself as an agitational group that fights for the rights of the slum dwellers in Bombay. It's just such a small group that nobody can afford to delegate responsibility. Nivara Hakk Suraksha Samiti was an umbrella organization formed in the early 1980s when the great eviction of the footpath dwellers had happened and all the dwellers went to court. Fourteen organizations had come loosely together under this and their basic premise was that demolition is not the answer to resolving the problems of slums because demolition only creates worse slums out of already existing slums. The root of the problem is that people migrate into the cities in search of work. They need a healthy environment, better civic amenities and uncomplicated land tenure so that they feel that they have a hold on this land; and then you see how quickly they develop it. So that was the basic premise of the organization, and after that it moved out of the various organizations and started working by itself. It still continues with its agitational work. But apart from that it deals with low-cost housing because we've got architects and planners with us who work with the people. Unless you make people active participants in any dialogue there's no way that you are going to arrive at any kind of realistic solution.

Chandana: How did you end up speaking out on communal issues?

Shabana: It was an emotional reaction to what was happening, because I grew up in a family where I've never had a Muslim identity very greatly due to the Communist Party. We grew up in a commune, where every festival was a matter of celebration. What happened during the 1992-93 riots is that for the first time in my life, the word "muslim" was hurled upon me, as an accusation. And I felt completely surprised by it; I felt that identity is based on so many factors. But during this time, a very systematic effort was being made to see that identity was condensed intoä only the religion. But if religion is actually such a binding factor, then Bangladesh should not have happened after Pakistan. I wasn't even born when the Partition happened. And if you turn around to me, and ask me to prove my loyalty to this nation, I find it to be the most incensing thing in the whole world. I think that the whole episode of the Babri Masjid was a thing that shook the secular liberals, particularly from the Muslim community, where it mobilized them to go out into the streets. But the whole struggle will be lost unless we can also work in times of peace.

Anannya: Hindu fundamentalism is sometimes disguised in the US as cultural identity preservation. I know you are not an immigrant here, but as an activist, what would you say?

Shabana: What the Concerned South Asians [an anti-communal organization based in New York that was started in 1992] seemed to be doing is organizing protest marches, taking up confrontational positions, entering political dialogue, forming secular groups- all of which is extremely important. Because, when in India we suddenly get this feeling that the whole of the Indian community in the United States has gone crazy and communal and I find that there are these groups that invite people like myself, we feel very strengthened by the fact that not all of the US has gone completely crazy. But my point is that people are afraid of confrontation, although they are very interested in culture. So if you do not want the agenda to be set by communalists who are using culture in such a disguised manner, that is the area where you guys should get in. Organize cultural events that are about fun and enjoyment, not always about protest marches.

Chandana: We would like to now come back to your work in cultural activism. Didn't the scripts that you were reading do something for you?

Shabana: Oh, absolutely, that's the first thing that I concede too. Actors are trained in acting to say that I should just be able to put the words into any situation-say either about Hitler or Gandhi - and be able to play it convincingly for the audience. Now if you've been professionally trained like I had been-that would give you an ability to play it without the residue remaining. But it was because I was brought up in this CPI house, coupled with the scripts, coupled with my own growth and understanding of these issues, that led me to this particular situation. It was definitely the parallel cinema and the issues that it was dealing with that made the space available for somebody like me.

Chandana: Has all this made you change the kind of roles you want to take now?

Shabana: Oh, absolutely. For instance, I would never be in a film which reinforces the belief a woman should be subservient. There is nothing in the world, no money in the world, no award in the world, that would make me work in such a film. That is my struggle as an actor because I have been trained to say that an actor's craft is not about political belief but is an ability to convince people. I have such strong political views by now that I cannot accept my training and I have limited myself as an actor because of that. I mean I have people like Aparna Sen, who is a very dear friend of mine, saying that Shabana don't you see that you are limiting yourself as an actor because I would hesitate to cast you in a part where you didn't finally make a strong statement; because I would have this preconceived notion that even if Shabana Azmi is playing this very helpless woman, the part is ultimately going to be about a woman who is going to be able to raise her voice. Yet I don't want people to have preconditioned responses to my character. I want them to be surprised by what's happening in the film. So there is a very real conflict in me, but I've played that out now. The fire in the actor in me has died down to quite an extent because it's really activism that I'm energized by.

Chandana: Do you find that a very heavy price to pay?

Shabana: No, not at all. I have been telling my father that "for a long time, abba, I have felt that your poetry has become only a medium for your political beliefs and it's not art anymore and maybe you should get down to art." My mother was once stitching something at such a moment and said, "Why don't you look at yourself and see what you're doing with yourself?" Before she had made that remark it had not even occurred to me that that in fact was exactly what was happening with me.

Anannya: Do you think an artist should take political stands?

Shabana: I am nobody to suggest what anybody should be because I think that is a very fascistic way of looking at things. I think that choice must remain with the person. But, celebrities and artists definitely can use their position to bring into focus political issues and beliefs. I've always felt that if any change is to be brought in cinema, it should be tried through the mainstream cinema, because if it's done through the parallel cinema, then you're preaching to the already converted.

Anannya: What kind of work have you done in the film industry itself to mobilize opinion, to change the way actors or directors work or the way films are made?

Shabana: Tall order. I've worked very little amongst my own groups of people to try and mobilize them because I am quickly assigned the role of the preacher. When I talk about my work to people from the same community, I feel they are really thinking, all right, so what is she getting out of it? Film people don't like to get involved in confrontational situations. Firstly, they're too busy. Secondly, they're quite happy to cleanse their conscience by doing charity work in safe areas - blindness, cancer. As a film actor, your entire life is about being cocooned. It's about having circles of people around you who protect you from the world outside. See, when you're working as a star, you have one hour in the day which you can devote to your family. If you started allowing access to people, that one hour would also go. Activism is about opening your doors wide so that people can walk into your house even if you're having a party. I think that actors need to recognize that their entire strength must come from life itself and how can their strength come from life itself unless they actually interact with real human beings? Unfortunately in India they can never sit in a rickshaw, go by scooter or bus, so they can never speak to anybody who belongs to a different class. They learn an imitative behavior pattern from films where they see this is the way the poor man behaves, etc. So I am critical of the star-system which leads to this kind of thing and I think one has to make a very real effort to cross those barriers.

Anannya: But is it just the star system? For example, Amitabh Bachchan, once he's doing fewer films, the next thing seems to be to start your own corporation, move to the U.S., become a multi-billionaire. So obviously it's not all about time. It's also got a lot to do with what they want to do with their lives.

Shabana: Absolutely. People like artists who have spheres of influence need to become aware that they do have the capacity to bring about change. In India, film stars are completely being sustained by love that society is giving them, complete adoration. You can't have a one way relation with society, one must also be a responsible member towards it. I do absolutely believe that there must be greater interactions between the intellectual, the artist and the activist. I am reminded of Javed Akhtar's poem on Mother Theresa where the first six lines eulogize the various things that she is doing. And then the poet asks, with what face can I ask you: why is it you have never asked what are the structures of power? What is that capitalist society that has created these pockets of poverty? Why is it then on one side you are with the oppressed, but on the other side you are not against the oppressor? How is it that you don't think it's much more important for people to ask for their right to exist, rather than charity to exist? And then [the poet] asks with what face can I ask you [Mother Theresa], because if I ask you then I also have to respond to that responsibility from which I am escaping. So Mother Theresa, all I need to say is, you are very great and leave it at that. It's a very strong poem, and it goes out to you because it makes you very aware of your own responses which prevent you from getting involved, because you basically want escape. And what the poet is saying is, you cannot escape responsibility. But because he is including himself along with society, he is not standing like a leader on a pulpit. What he is doing is awareness building in a way that is not so direct.


Thanks for visiting this site.
Many film celebrities take their pets, when they are sick, to Veterinarian Vail hospital. It is a well known hospital for treating with kindness all the animals. But I never heard of a pet charity. Maybe you are better informed than I am.
I admire celebrities that share their time and make use of their fame for good. They are real models and they can influence others easily. - Missed Fortune They were all from the Communist Party of India [CPI] which at that time had accomplished that the cultural addition was actual important. Sadly, I acquisition that absolutely missing in today's world.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <i> <b> <blockquote>

More information about formatting options

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
6 + 10 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.