WASHINGTON: Indian film star and social activist Shabana Azmi was hosted last month by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, which is celebrating its 25thanniversary. "Conversation with Shabana Azmi" was billed as "a high point" of the celebrations. The actress, who has championed the causes women and art for decades, seemed perfectly at home at the museum, said to be "the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to recognizing women's creative contributions." Here are edited excerpts of her interview with Global India Newswire.
Q: Portrayal of women in Indian cinema has always been a problem. Have you noticed any change in that lately?
A: Well, as we celebrate hundred years of Indian cinema — there is much that we can celebrate — the fact is today our films have reached a level of maturity that is quite remarkable. If you look at the recent films that have been made, all genres of films are being made. So for every Dabangg, you also have a Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, you also have a Gangs of Wasseypur, you have Kahaani, you have Vicky Donor, you have The Dirty Picture. There is a whole range of films that are being made that do not necessarily cater to the lowest common denominator and are raising the bar of where Hindi cinema is today, which I find very welcoming. I think in the portrayal of women, there has definitely been a change. Because if you look at the earlier films, the '60s for instance, you have a Meena Kumari film, which became very successful, Main Chup Rahungi, "I will remain silent" was considered a virtue for women. Today, it no longer is so. There was a period when we were sort of struggling to make the woman a little more empowered but hadn't really come to terms with what it is that this empowered woman is. So we struggled and made films like Zakhmi Aurat and Insasf Ki Devi. First we had Rambos, and then we have Rambolinas because there weren't anything about the complexity of a woman. That was left to the realm of the "parallel cinema." Today, even within the mainstream cinema, you can see that working women who were completely invisible are now being seen. And the woman, even though she has a smaller role, is still playing a substantial part, even if it is not big in length. But there is [still] a lot that leaves to be desired.
Q: Speaking of "parallel cinema," you were a part of it from early on. What is the state of parallel cinema in India today?
A: A lot of people ask whether the parallel cinema has disappeared. It hasn't disappeared at all. It has taken on a new avatar. If you look at the independent films that are being made, they are doing the same thing — they are not catering to the lowest common denominator. They are making films that are away from the formula in trying to tell different stories and are doing so successfully. But the independent film is being made by an urban, western educated, English-speaking, young person, who is reflecting her reality or his reality, which is inevitable because after all there are so many contradictions that India lives with and it is nice that we are able to see all of them.
Q: You have acted in the movies of a number of first time directors. How does it feel working with first time directors?
A: I find it very interesting to work with first-time directors, and in my career, I think, I have worked with the maximum number of first-time directors, starting from Shekhar Kapur and Shyam Benegal. I think there is something about the passion and the energy of the first time filmmaker that I find very contagious and very invigorating. But really it is on an instinctive sort of understanding of whether the director is going to be able to hold the script that I make the choice. And so far I haven't been disappointed.
Q: Recently, Shyam Benegal said Indian cinema can be compared to any movie industry in the world. What is your take on that? Do you agree with that?
A: Yes, and no. I think we have much to offer. We are the only cinema in the world that has managed to withstand the onslaught of the Hollywood. We make twice the number of films that Hollywood does. We really prefer our films to any other films in the world. And we have a huge audience in the world. I confess that it is largely in the diaspora but definitely interest in the Indian cinema is increasing. And interestingly, it is increasing because there is a lot of curiosity about Bollywood — the song and dance bit that earlier was looked down up on is suddenly now being celebrated because we are recognizing that it is our USP. We tell tales with songs and dances. So there is a lot that we have now learned, but I think there is a lot left to be desired because although technically we are very good, I still think that in the department of script, there is a lot that can be done.
Q: India is in the middle of a huge transformation. Periods like this are generally considered good for artistic creation. Do you think the contemporary Indian cinema reflects what is happening in the country now?
A: I think so. Also, the fact that it is now peopled by the young and they think differently, that is being reflected in the movies. Films take from life and life takes from films. Sometimes it is very difficult to draw the line of where exactly that happens. Yes, I think the fact that we are poised on the brink of change and such a huge upheaval is happening in our society is certainly fodder for a good script and good film.
Q: Activism and art co-exist in you. Have you ever felt at any point social activism has come in the way of your artistic endeavors?
A: Actually, my activism is not separate from my art because the concerns that I have, the worldview that I have because of being born in a certain kind of family, because of the fact that my parents always believed that art should be used as an instrument for change. That's the kind of atmosphere I grew up. So it was inevitable that I would try and use my art for the purpose of social change because that is what I grew up with. So I don't treat my activism as separate. I use whatever medium I have at my disposal to say the same thing. Sometimes it is through activism, sometimes it's through being able to tell the story of the disempowered and the dispossessed and tell the story of their ability to transform themselves and look at change. So there hasn't been, there isn't a great dichotomy between those two.
Q: You are a regular on twitter, where you have more than 160,000 followers. You also engage others constantly. What do you find fascinating about twitter and social media?
A: I find Twitter very interesting. I am a very low-tech person and it took me some time [to get used to it]. A young niece of mine put me on Twitter, and I just thought it was wonderful you have this ability to connect with a whole world directly. And I think particularly people who are in the movies and the subjects of attention like that because they are able to rectify what otherwise gets filtered through somebody else's pen. And there is a lot of possibility that either you are misquoted or mischievously misquoted. And here, directly in just 140 alphabets you are able to put your thought together. It makes you think more coherently and reach out to people. So it's quite fascinating. (Global India Newswire)