New York Indian Film Festival 2012

Shabana Azmi on the Social Side of Indian Cinema

By Aarti Virani

Vijay Shah
Actor Shabana Azmi, left, with Pat Kaufman, executive director of the New York State Governor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television Development.

No stranger to blazing a multitude of cinematic and social trails, Shabana Azmi became the first Indian actor to receive a proclamation from the state of New York last week.

Ms. Azmi, 61, was awarded the honor for her contribution and commitment to the Big Apple’s film industry, largely fueled by her involvement with the Indo-American Arts Council and its annual New York Indian Film Festival, now in its 12th year.

“I feel very heartened because obviously, the festival has been a pioneer in its field,” Ms. Azmi told India Real Time. Come May, NYIFF will showcase a line-up of over 50 films including the Oscar-winning short documentary, Saving Face and a three-part Shyam Benegal Retrospective.

The latter strikes a special chord with Ms. Azmi, who began her career with the director’s debut feature film, “Ankur,” in 1974. “I’ve always called Shyam my reluctant guru – I’ve been shaped a lot by him but he absolutely refuses to accept that position and insists on treating me like an equal,” she said. “His films continue to be politically significant but they are told in the language of today,” she added. “At a time when most of his contemporaries seem to have disappeared, he’s also reinvented himself.”


Vijay Shah 

Throughout her versatile career, Ms. Azmi has taken on a plethora of memorable characters and has won five National Awards.

The same could be said of Ms. Azmi. Throughout her versatile career, the actress has taken on a plethora of memorable characters, ranging from an estranged housewife in “Arth” (1982) to an unlikely mafia heavyweight in “Godmother” (1999), earning five National Awards in the process.

Up ahead, she’ll star in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” director Mira Nair’s adaptation of the best-selling novel by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid. Ms. Azmi has been cast as the mother of Changez, a troubled, young Pakistani man who flees America to return to his homeland after the September 11 attacks.

“There’s a lovely mother-son moment in the film where my character says, ‘I don’t know what’s happening in this world, I don’t know why wars are being fought. I’m your mother and all I can do is make you some good tea,’” she said. “It’s such a precious, human moment in the film. [My character] realizes that things are wrong but she can’t do anything about it—that in itself is very moving.”

The film is a natural fit for Ms. Azmi, who remains an avid proponent of the “Subcontinental voice,” as she puts it. “The Reluctant Fundamentalist is not the kind of film that will get funding, in fact, people did commit and then pull out,” she admitted. “After 9/11, the Muslim has realized it’s important to let the world know what Islam actually is—firstly, it’s not a monolith,” said Ms. Azmi, herself a Muslim. “But the community also needs to look at itself and film is an excellent way of bringing light to the issue.”

Fusing art with activism is practically second nature for Ms. Azmi, a former member of Parliament and a campaigner for the rights of slum-dwellers. When asked whether the younger generation of Indian actors displays a similar sense of social responsibility, Ms. Azmi stated that while “it might not be full-fledged,” artists are becoming increasingly aware of their positions of privilege. She singled out actor and producer Aamir Khan, who continues to fund socially-conscious films like “Peepli Live” (2010), centered on farmer suicides.

“When I got involved with the slums, it wasn’t that I understood the entire situation. There was an emotional trigger that was pulled, and then I got to know much more,” Ms. Azmi said. “So it’s just a question of making that connect, which will happen, I’m sure.”

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