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Shabana's soap opera

Shabana Azmi, who once rode the crest of parallel cinema, today finds herself on a new shore. BHUMIKA K. on her latest avatar



WEARING MANY HATS Shabana azmi. Photo: Bhagya Prakash. K

It's funny how certain images stick in our mind. Shabana Azmi's name still sets the mind on a trail of scenes with a strong sepia-tinted aura of "art films" — those earthy scenes from Arth, Ankur... Maybe that's why it's so diffficult to accept Shabana selling washing powder, walking the ramp or endorsing slimming and beauty clinics.

It's almost like a new-age resurrection, as if she has risen like a phoenix in a dramatic avatar post mid-life, at 50-plus. Shabana has always emphasised her freedom to make her choices — whether it was acting in advertisements or patronising a fitness centre. "There are many aspects to my persona. I am an actor, a woman and a socially responsible individual. I should be able to pick and choose what I want to do."

Health, particularly women's health, is a major concern for her. "I have personally persuaded so many housewives and got them to go to wellness centres." She stresses the company she endorses is not catering to any pre-determined figure. "Ultimately everything is a business, but I believe that it must be done with a sense of ethical responsibility. Of course, within that, there will be aberrations, I accept," she says, adding there are some slimming parlours and clinics that are spurious.

In the recent past, her first surprise appearance was for a TV commercial, before she zapped everyone with a ramp walk for friend and designer Anuradha Vakil. The detergent ad where she appeals to the nation to save two buckets of water every day by using a washing powder came as a surprise — suddenly there she was on TV, wearing a kadak istri sari, pallu tucked in the waist, flower in her hair and holding a plastic bucket of water. "I did it because they gave me good money, but the advertisement also spoke about water conservation. Water is something I'm concerned about, and the ad helped create an awareness."

Another kind of water that really kindled a lot of fire in Shabana was Deepa Mehta's film Water. (Incidentally, Shabana has worked on another Indo-U.K. production Waterborne that raises a voice against racial discrimination.) She and Nandita Das (who had both shaved their heads for the film) decided to quit Water after fundamentalists objected to the depiction and story of the widows of Vrindavan, ransacked the sets and didn't allow the shoot to take place. "We decided to walk out of the film, though it was painful for us, so that Deepa could complete it," added Shabana. A film that has been equally-awaited and lambasted has Shabana playing the role her mother Shaukat Azmi did in the original — the re-make of the classic Umrao Jaan, directed by J.P. Dutta, where Shabana is Khaanum Jaan. She's also just finished working on an Indo-U.S. production, The Contest, and is heading to London to work on a BBC film Banglatown Banquet. Shabana admits there's been a spate of joint collaborations across countries in films now, with the rest of the world finally waking up to the fact that India is the largest film industry. "Even in mainstream Hindi cinema, we take off to Switzerland for a song sequence. So everyone, even Spain, is now wooing us." The U.K. film industry makes few films in a year but wants to tap the large potential of English-speaking people here. "So, it's a win-win situation for both. Though there is an improvement in the technical quality of our films, we still need to work on our scripts."

With 15 Park Avenue's release, Shabana marks her imprint in yet another new-age Indian film. "I see today's cinema as an extension of the New Wave movement we started way back in the 1970s to move away from the beaten path. But the filmmakers of the 1970s had strong rural roots and looked at feudalism and patriarchy from a rural perspective. Today's filmmakers are less than 30 years old and have grown up in an upper middle-class urban atmosphere, so their films reflect that sensibility." Shabana Azmi believes that it's now a terrific time for actors. "It's extraordinary that we have such roles now. Or else we would have been a `has been' at 30, having to pack up or end up doing mom's roles." Shabana is certainly going fast-track post-50. And "pack-up" is a phrase far away on the horizon.

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