As Shabana Azmi gears up to complete 62 years of living an inspirational life, here is a tribute to the ‘Godmother’ of Hindi cinema who dared to stretch her boundaries in the realm of acting.
Born to the famous poet Kaifi Azmi and the veteran theatre actress Shaukat Azmi, Shabana knew very early that being an artist was in her genes. And when she saw Jaya Bhaduri deliver a mind-blasting performance in a diploma film called ‘Suman’, her desires to make it big in cinema further deepened. A product of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) Pune, Shabana topped the graduating batch of 1973 with flying colours and stepped into the film industry to pursue her filmi dreams.
Shabana kick-started her acting career by signing a slew of films such as Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’ ‘Faasla’ and Kanti Lal Rathod`s ‘Parinay’, however it was Shyam Benegal`s art house directorial debut ‘Ankur’ in 1974 that launched her as a mainstream heroine. ‘Ankur’ told the story of a married village servant played by Shabana who falls for the charms of a college student on a visit to the countryside. The film made waves nationwide and got thumbs up even from the critics. Not just that, Shabana went on to take home the National Film Award for Best Actress for her acting prowess in the film. Later, one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of India, Satyajit Ray, praised Azmi in his golden words, saying, “In ‘Ankur’ she may not have fitted immediately into her rustic surroundings, but her poise and personality are never in doubt. In two high pitched scenes, she pulls out the stops to firmly establish herself as one of our finest dramatic actresses.”
Shabana tasted mainstream success with ‘Apne Paraye’, ‘Swami’, ‘Umrao Jaan’, ‘Masoom’, and ‘Parvarish’ among several projects. In all the films, she dabbled with roles that allowed her to experiment as an actor. No wonder, she was applauded every time with the numerous awards she lapped up during those years.
Call it karmic coincidence, but destiny had planned the birth of parallel cinema in India just around the time when Shabana Azmi was making her acting debut during the mid-seventies. That decade saw the surge of some promising amateur directors like Deepa Mehta, Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen, Goutam Ghosh and Vinay Shukla, who wrote women-oriented narratives underlined with a strong social purpose. In 1996, Deepa Mehta brought on board Azmi to do her film ‘Fire’. While Shabana handled the role with her utmost brilliance, the movie never saw the light of day in India due to its controversial theme of lesbianism which sparked a furore across the nation. Yet, Azmi’s efforts paid off in the form of her international recognition with the Silver Hugo Award for Best Actress at the 32nd Chicago Film Festival and Jury Award for Best Actress at Outfest, Los Angeles. Also, worth mentioning is her central role in the movie ‘Godmother’, which strengthened her standing in the league of powerful parallel cine artists.
Shabana was earlier rumoured to have been romancing film maker Shekhar Kapur until she found long-lasting love in the arms of lyricist Javed Akhtar. After divorcing his first wife, Honey Irani, Javed Akhtar tied the knot with Shabana in December 1984 and the couple’s relationship is still said to be going strong. The couple credits their strong love bond to the space they give to each other, although Shabana quips that Javed is always on her mind! Every new thing she does, she immediately guesses Javed`s reaction to it!