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Coffee break with Shabana Azmi

Shabana Azmi on movies, censorship and `Morning Raga'

FIVE-TIME national award-winner Shabana Azmi is no stranger to applause and accolades. Yet, the spontaneous applause that filled Kairali theatre at the end of `Morning Raga' must have been music to her ears. Shabana plays a Carnatic singer called Swarnalata in the film.

As she said later, "It was one of the most challenging roles I have ever done. I had second thoughts about it and wondered if I could do justice to the role."

Shabana Azmi was here in Thiruvanathapuram to inaugurate the Indian package of the Ninth International Film Festival of Kerala.

Later, after attending the `open forum,' Shabana hailed an autorickshaw. "Chalo... let's go. I want a cup of coffee," she said.

Offers of tea at the café nearby is turned down in favour of coffee at a popular vegetarian restaurant near Thampanoor.

Ten minutes later, she sipped hot coffee and decided to try out crisp paper dosas.

While waiting for the dosas, she talked about `Morning Raga.' Soon, she was humming a few lines of `Thaye Yashoda.' As curious customers turned to look and then to stare, she nonchalantly sang snatches of the song and smiled triumphantly.

The dosas arrived. While tucking into the dosas and the three chutneys that came with it, she spoke about `Morning Raga,' some of her favourite roles, and so on... Excerpts.

`Morning Raga'

"It was a challenge for me as it was all about acquiring a new skill. Remember, that I had not even learnt Hindustani music. My teacher, Ranjini Ramakrishnan, who enacts the role of my friend, Vaishnavi, was very good. I was able to sing after 18 classes. Alka Yagnik and Anup Jalota, who sang the songs, were amazed. What thrilled me most was a call from Pandit Ravishankar and his wife, Sukanya. They told me that my performance was excellent. The film's premier in Mumbai was attended by a large gathering of film stars and all of them complimented my performance. Hrithik Roshan, Aaamir Khan, Poonam Dhillon, Ashutosh Gowarikar, Hema Malini, Asha Parekh... all of them appreciated the film.

I was told that cinematographer Rajiv Menon's mother, who is an excellent singer, felt that Mahesh Dattani, director of `Morning Raga,' was making a big mistake. It seems she wanted to know how this actor who is not even a South Indian could essay the role of Swarnalata whose life revolves around music. After the film was screened, she was one of the first to congratulate me.

In fact, there is something very soothing about Carnatic music. It has a spiritual quality that has transformed and touched me. I may not be able to pinpoint what it is but I would love to continue my music lessons with Ranjini.

Shyam Benegal

He is my guru, mentor and friend. `Ankur' was our debut film. After each movie of mine, he makes it a point to call me and tell me what he thinks about it. That is one call I look forward to after each of my films.

`Ankur' heralded a new beginning in Indian cinema. Shabana went on to do a wide range of roles that have left an indelible impression on viewers. Daughter of poet, lyricist and activist, Kaifi Azmi, and noted stage actress, Shaukat, she was not content to be just another pretty face and run around trees. Her bold espousal of a number of causes that she believed in won her many admirers and critics too.

Five memorable roles

Well, I have chosen different movies at different movies. Sometimes, it depends on my moods. Laxmi in `Ankur' is certainly one of the roles that I treasure. It was my first film and it fetched me the national award at the age of 23. Parallel cinema probably began with `Ankur.' I feel that I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time.


Mahesh Bhatt's `Arth' is another role that I cherish. After the movie hit the theatres, droves of women came home to share their sorrow and experiences. They made me part of a sisterhood. Even after so many years the role of Pooja whose husband deserts her for an actress, manages to move viewers. This film was screened at the New York Film Festival. Normally, they hold only the retrospectives of directors. (I was the only actor to have a retrospective in connection with the New York Film Festival). Many foreigners empathised with the wife. This film sharpened my sense of responsibility towards my audience.


This is one of my favourites. Director Mrinal Sen narrated the story in 20 minutes and I immediately accepted the offer. Jamini is not a victim. She retains her dignity despite the terrible vacuum in her life. I loved her character.

Then would come Mira Nair's `Fire,' in which I portray Radha, and `Godmother.' Rambhi in `Godmother' is truly heroic. There were a few problems during the making of the film. But those were sorted out. I had to change my body language and swagger on screen to suit the role. Then I would choose `Morning Raga' as I had to learn something completely new to do that role.

Promising actors

I feel that the actor to watch out for is Konkona Sen. She dares to be different and does different roles that gives her a great deal of scope to explore and bring out her best.


We were shooting in a remote village for `Khamosh.' There were no hotels and we had to stay with the villagers. One has to be adventurous and try out different roles.

Director, author...

(laughs) Direction is too much of hard work. I am lazy. I would like to write a book sometime in the future. But my husband, Javed, says that I am genetically incapable of rest.


Are dosas really from Kerala? I guess it must be from Tamil Nadu. Do Keralites really have appams and mutton and chicken stew in the morning at home? (An affirmative answer calls forth a sharp look and then she moves on to censorship and film certification).


Banning films does not ever solve a problem. What is more dangerous than nudity or violence is the portrayal of women as second-class human citizens. It is all the more dangerous in a patriarchal society. Those kind of portrayals send sublimal messages that can harm gender relations in the future too. I find that working class women do not have a space in our movies.

Then it is her turn to ask searching questions.


How is the government in Kerala doing? What is the problem with the status of women here. Everything looks so good on paper...

Time went by.

The coffee was over and the last bit of dosas were eaten.

A quick look at her watch showed that it was 6 p.m. Time to go back to the festival to watch `Shwas.'


Photos: R.V. Moorthy

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