bfi features

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Shabana Azmi

Shabana Azmi was interviewed at the National Film Theatre on 7 March 2003 by Nasreen Munni Kabir.

Shabana Azmi is among India's most respected actors. But she also works tirelessly in India's countless fields of social causes, is a Member of the Upper House of India's Parliament and a respected academic.

First Paycheque
A Bohemian Upbringing
Questions from the floor
Interview © BFI 2003

First Paycheque
Nasreen Munni Kabir: I think we should start with Anjuman, as a lot of people here have just seen it. What are your feelings about it now?

Shabana Azmi: I'm seeing Anjuman after almost twenty years. I must say I was extremely overwhelmed, because it's based on the real-life struggle of a chikan [embroidery] workers' group in Lucknow. When we were making the film, there were thirty people in the organisation, and today there are 5,000 women. In fact, they are so empowered that they've transformed Lucknow society, and all of the rural society around it. They've been truly empowered, and I was very moved by it.

NMK: At the time you made the film, did the chikan workers actually see it?

SA: They saw the film; they were part of it. A lot of the workers are actually in the film. For them, this struggle was not really a film, it was their struggle. For instance, the scene where she's talking about how the traders are trying to cut these women by forbidding the laundry people to wash their clothes. Now if anybody knows anything about chikan, it's that they have to take home these very large pieces of cloth and work on them in their huts, and the embroidered cloths become very filthy, because it can take two months or six months or whatever. So it's crucial that they be laundered; and the middle-men even tried to take that right away from the women. It was a huge struggle.

NMK: For those who don't know, the lady who plays the mischievous aunt is in fact your mother...

SA: She's not like that in real life, I promise you.

[Audience laughs]

NMK: Well, we'll talk about your family a little later... What I'd like to know is when did you know you'd be an actress?

SA: I don't know when I became conscious of it, but it dates back to when I was three. I was in school and acting in the nursery rhyme, Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle... I was this three-year-old girl playing the Cow, and I was supposed to jump over the Moon, who was another three-year-old girl. And instead of jumping over the Moon, I jumped on the Moon. So she stood up and slapped me very hard, and I slapped her back, and they had to pull the curtain down. I think that was the day it was written in my fate that I would end up being an actor.

NMK: I know it's going back into the past a little - because you've acted in more than 140 or 150 films in a 30-year career - but do you remember the first time you were recognised in the street? As being famous?

SA: Well, I come from a family in which every member has been famous in their own right. My father was a very well-known Urdu poet and writer, and my mother is a stage actress, so that went quite naturally in the house. I don't remember the exact moment, although I do remember the first time I got a cheque, for my signing amount for Kantilal Rathod's Parinay. It was 1500 rupees, which is, what, £20? The film-maker came and gave it to me, and I took it ever so elegantly, as if this was the kind of money I got every day. And the minute he left the door, my brother and I were shouting, "Yippee, yeah, 1500 rupees." My father said, "If he hears you, he'll come and take it right back..." So I remember the feeling of earning that money, which was great.

NMK: Do you remember what you did with that money?

SA: That I don't remember.

NMK: You have obviously worked in a wide range of roles - a farmer's wife, a social activist, a doctor - all kind of roles. How do you go about researching these characters?

SA: In different ways for different parts. I think that for an actor or any artist, it's important to draw your resources from life itself. So if I can find somebody similar to the person that I'm playing - that, I find, is the easiest way of working on a character. But sometimes, of course, the people are so removed from anybody that you can meet in real life that you have to depend on the writer and the imagination. I remember when I was doing Mandi, which is a film by Shyam Benegal in which I was playing the madame of a brothel, I actually went to three different brothels in three different cities - one in Bombay, one in Delhi and one in Hyderabad - and I found they had completely different atmospheres, that reflected different cultures. In Bombay, they were a much younger lot, and they all wanted to look like Rekha, the movie star; and really you couldn't see much difference between them. When I went to Delhi, I found that they had much more of the nautch-girl charm, and there was a certain atmosphere of gentility. When I went to Hyderabad, I saw this young girl, who had no make-up on her face; she was really slight and very thin; and she came and sat down in front of me with her eyes lowered. Then this guy said, "These are people from cinema, and they'd like you to perform - would you do something?" Well, there's a song of mine in a film called Fakira, which is an almost devotional song that I sing to Shashi Kapoor as my husband, which says, "I will pray for you," et cetera. And this slight little girl just broke into the most vulgar interpretation of that song. [Audience laughs] It completely took me by surprise. So I had these three completely different experiences which I had to then get into the part. It's interesting how you tend to meet characters who you can model your roles on.

NMK: I think that character was called Rukmini Bai; an extraordinary, wonderful performance that's one of my favourites of yours. Totally believable; you really felt for her.

SA: What I really liked about it was the fact that I had a legitimate reason for putting on weight. I could eat; and I really love food. I'm always playing characters who are emaciated, and really thin. So I was really thrilled about the fact I could eat so much food.

[Audience laughs]

NMK: Obviously you've worked with a number of different kinds of directors, like Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Gautam Ghosh... For you, what is the quality you look for in a director?

SA: I like being directed. I don't like being left on my own. I sincerely believe that film is basically a director's medium. Cinema is really a very collaborative art, but finally it is the director who is captain of the ship. Unless I get direction from a director, I find it very difficult to do things on my own, however well-written it is. But rather than have someone tell me that this is exactly how they want it interpreted, I enjoy being allowed to participate and allowed to interpret. Then being held back if I'm doing something foolish. Now why I enjoy working with Shyam Benegal a lot, is that I know I can take many more risks in a performance with him. I know he'll stop me making a fool of myself. So instead of depending on studied gestures that I know will work, I will attempt to do something different. I must have a relationship of trust with my director, and I don't like unpleasant vibrations on the set. I work best when people are happy around me.

NMK: Say you are working with a director you don't get on with, would you be sulking, or what?

SA: I could behave very badly. [Audience laughs] I can get very angry; I can get very moody; I can cry. I can do all of that, but ultimately I come from a discipline where, never mind how much I disagree, ultimately it is the director's vision, and I would have to go by that. I mean I'd fight like mad, but ultimately I'd give in, because I come from that discipline.

NMK: You were extremely successful in the art cinema. What drew you to working in the popular cinema?

SA: It was great fun. Because your imagination is tested in the extreme. For instance, there was Manmohan Desai's film Parvarish, for which we had to shoot the climax for thirty days. And Neetu Singh and I had to hang in the villain's den over a river where any moment a crocodile might eat off our legs. So can you imagine trying to pretend this whole thing is real, and to do it with any degree of conviction? That's quite, quite wonderful. I think that what commercial cinema does is to require you to create an alternative reality. And to bring any semblance of truth to that alternative reality is a real challenge for an actor. You have to suspend your belief system entirely, and go along with it. What I found very difficult to do was to dance. I have two left feet, and I can't dance at all. That's why I'm amazed when I see all these young actors and actresses who just dance so wonderfully. I think, Well, why didn't I learn? But it's something I didn't do.

NMK: How would you describe the difference in atmosphere on the set of a film by, say, Shyam Benegal, and one by Manmohan Desai?

SA: Well, for one thing, in mainstream Hindi cinema the scene is written as you shoot. So there have been occasions when we have shot only the first page of a scene, not knowing what the rest of the scene is going to be, while the writer was sitting in the make-up room writing the rest of the scene. You can imagine, to work under those circumstances is nearly impossible. But it's an alternative discipline. In a sense, challenging, also.

NMK: Were you doing your own synch-sound, in Shyam's films for example?

SA: For a long time it was dubbed sound, and then for the past ten years or so, he's been doing synch-sound. Which is unusual in Hindi cinema, where it's still a problem for an actor. Because what dubbing post-synch sound does is to make the audience watch one performance and listen to another. I think that creates a certain kind of artificiality, which is very disastrous for a performance. It's only now that we've started doing synch-sound.

NMK: We know that in most Indian cinema there are very predictable roles for women. Yet you have always managed to make extremely bold choices. If we take the example of Fire, from which we saw a clip earlier - the tabloid press immediately said it was the role of a lesbian, and so on. Did you find that a difficult decision to make?

SA: I loved the script of Fire. When I read it, I really loved it. But I agonised over whether I should play it, for almost a month. Simply because I have a life beyond that of being an actor. I also work with slum-dwellers in Bombay, and I felt that vested interests would try to jeopardise my relationship with women in the slums. Because of the radical positions I take, slum-dwellers sometimes find it quite tough to stay with me. They are bound by traditional ties, and have men telling them, Don't go with her; stay with us, et cetera. I thought that would be further jeopardised. Yet I wanted to do the film very much. Ultimately I figured that not all of India's audience is a monolith; that people would react in different ways. Some would be overwhelmed, some would be moved, some would be angry, some would be confused. But what it would do would raise a degree of awareness of an issue which in India we just don't have the courage to acknowledge. Fire was particularly important because it shows these two sisters-in-law in a middle-class environment in Delhi. Not in Canada. Because if that had happened, you could say that it was just the western influence. But to me, more importantly, Fire is not just about a lesbian relationship, Fire is about our relationship with those we do not understand. We tend to fear people we don't understand, so we condemn them. I think that what Fire tries to do is to say that if you can empathise with these two women, then perhaps you can extend that empathy to the other - the other religion, the other race, the other gender, the other nation. In today's increasingly intolerant world order, I think it's an extremely important statement to make. I was pretty certain that, when called upon, I would be able to defend Fire. Yet the reaction to Fire has been so overwhelming all over the world. I didn't expect it to get this kind of reaction, but I'm really glad I did it.

A Bohemian Upbringing
NMK: You bring a completely different mood to the character of Radha in Fire. Can you tell us what you brought to that character?

SA: She could quite easily have been played as a victim. I think it was extremely important to wrest that victimhood from the character, and infuse dignity into her. I remember Deepa Mehta telling me that there is a stillness in Radha, and I think I just completely internalised that. What I really like in her is that, in the scene you just watched, which is her ultimate rebellion, you can see that even when she is rebelling against her husband, she is doing it from a person that she already is. Oftentimes in cinema, when a change takes place in a character, then that person becomes a completely new person. Whereas I think you can see in Radha the residue of the person that she was, and the person that this transformation has now managed to make her. She does it in this very quiet, dignified way. And I must say that Nandita Das was a very good co-star to have. It was a real pleasure working with her.

NMK: When you think of films like this, they are a bold choice of roles, with which you might be alienating a lot of your audience, even including the people you represent socially and politically. Did you find you'd actually make these decisions because of your own parents' background?

SA: Before I answer this question, let me give you an instance of doing a film, not quite knowing how the audience will react. There was a film I did many years ago that became a hallmark for women's liberation in a sense, Mahesh Batt's film Arth. It was a very simple story about a woman who was abandoned by her husband for another woman and, at the end, when she's finally come into her own, her husband comes back and says, "I'm sorry. Will you take me back?" The woman says, "If I had made the same mistake, would you have taken me back?" The husband says, "No." So she walks out on him. When the distributors saw the film they said, It's a very nice film, but you have to change the end. It's unthinkable that an Indian man, an Indian husband, would come to a wife and say sorry, and she wouldn't forgive him. Mercifully, the director and I both decided to dig our heels in, and say, "No, this is the reason we made the film. Even if it doesn't run, this is what we should do." To our surprise, the film became a huge commercial success, as well as a critical success. We didn't quite know that that was how far we could push the audience. But what happened as a result of that was that suddenly I had hordes of women walking to my house. Not as fans, but in sisterhood, expecting me to resolve all their marital conflicts. I was really overwhelmed, because I'd never even thought about it; I was just playing a part. I got so frightened by it. I also faced a lot of hostility from men who said, "You're giving all these wrong ideas to women, and you think walking out on men is the answer." There was real hostility. But women really bonded with me in a way that made me realise an actor has an important role to play in society. Because people put their weight behind you, and you really want to become a role model. It's this kind of responsibility. When you push the envelope a bit, you become more and more aware of it. I wouldn't say I go consciously out of my way to make these choices, and I certainly don't enjoy controversy. I don't court controversy. Simply because I think controversy is bad for any piece of art. What happens is that people in a short-sighted way think that all controversy makes people come into the theatres. But what it actually does is to add a lot of baggage. So people come in expecting what they have imagined, and when they come out they find it disappointing. But I don't think I would not do something only because it was going to be controversial. And the confidence to do that I certainly get from my parents. From my father; from the kind of very bohemian, liberal atmosphere in which I grew up. The fact is that ever since we were little children, my brother and I were encouraged to express our opinion, and we were aware of the fact that our opinion was respected. I think that's why I am who I am.

NMK: What are your memories of your father? He was obviously a very famous poet; and your mother's a well-known actress. What was the atmosphere like, growing up?

SA: It was totally bohemian. Until the age of nine, I lived in a commune-like atmosphere, because my father was a member of the Communist Party. We had just one room each, and the drawing-room of that flat was called the Red Flag Hall, where all the Communist Party meetings used to happen. We used to have a common loo; a common bathroom; and I had just a simple room, with a little strip of balcony that had been converted into a kitchen. But it was a very happy place. We really grew up in a kind of commune. Though I thought 'a poet' was a euphemism for somebody who did no work. I used to think that fathers are supposed to wear trousers and a shirt and go to the office; and here was this man who would just sit and write at a desk. So I would lie in school, and say, "Oh, he does some business," or some such thing. I used to think he was weird. I went to a convent school, and like all girls in my school I wanted a blonde doll with blue eyes. At the age of seven, my father gave me a black doll, and explained that black is beautiful, too. So I'd say he was weird; he doesn't even know what I'm talking about. Much later, though, you start seeing where all these values are coming from. He's been an extremely important influence on my life.

NMK: Did you, as a child, attend any of the mushairas [poetry symposiums] that he held?

SA: Yes. Mushairas are these poetic gatherings that we have. In India we have a tradition of recitation of poetry: not readings, but actually reciting to huge crowds. I remember going there as a small child, going to sleep on the stage and waking up when my father's name was announced to thunderous applause.

NMK: Is there any particular poem of his which really moves you?

SA: Lots of poems... In my work with women, my work against religious fundamentalism, my work with the slum-dwellers; for each of these issues there's a poem of my father's that guides me. When I first got involved with the slums in Bombay, it was really inspired by a poem of my father's called 'Makaan', which means 'home'. It was about the irony of a construction worker who builds this fabulous building with his blood and sweat; who, when the building is finished, is prevented from entering it by a security guard. There are lots of poems like that.

NMK: Also some fabulously romantic ones for Indian films; for Guru Dutt's work. Do you feel as if your world view would have been very different if you'd been brought up by parents who were, say, lawyers, rather than in a house of artists?

SA: Absolutely. In spite of the fact that we really had no money at all, we were very poor, we had some of the best names in Urdu literature living as houseguests. So we grew up thinking there was something more important than money. Plus, as children, it was unusual at the time to be included in so much, in the decision-making process at home. Normally, children were just asked to disappear while the adults made the decisions. But because I grew up with such liberal parents, it was completely different.

NMK: In your adulthood, you've seen an incredible rise in fundamentalism and communalism. Can you situate it back to any specific point, or do you think the whole thing was just much more insidious?

SA: It dates back over eighty years of a systematic campaign of hatred against the minorities. Done insidiously, done strategically, done cleverly; and not being countered enough. Not busting the myths that were allowed to propagate, and that even today face the minorities. So I wouldn't say there is any one incident. In India, of course, everyone talks about the demolition of Ram temple as being the darkest of India's secular spirits. But I think it has been a very long process.

NMK: Obviously, you've worked and spoken a lot against all this. But when you're interviewed, do you find the journalists would rather talk about your cinema career than your political views?

SA: No. Because I'm a Member of Parliament, so it's quite obvous that they'd like to talk about my political position on most things. In fact, that quite overwhelms my work as an actor. It's very interesting - Aparna Sen is a director I really respect, and a friend of mine, and she told me, "You know, your off-screen personality has become so strong that I would hesitate to cast you in a film where you were a weak or meek character. Because the audience will already know that there will be a change; that you will not remain a meek person." I think that's a very real problem, because as an actor I've been trained in the Stanislavski method, where I was told that an actor should be able to prefix the words 'if I were' - Mother Theresa, slum-dweller, sex-worker, anybody - and be able to do it with truth. But I think my political beliefs have started becoming so strong that there are some things that I certainly couldn't do, even if I thought they'd be very interesting parts. That's a real conflict in me. I'm trying to solve it.

NMK: Then I think we should all see the new film that you've done, in which you play a witch... A children's film.

SA: She's not a witch in the end. Just a bad girl.

NMK: Can we talk a little about your husband, Javed Akhtar, who's a very well-known poet and screenplay writer, and an extraordinary person? Can you tell me what it was about his personality, when you first met, that you were immediately struck by?

SA: His wit; his intelligence. He's really the most intelligent man I know. He's also extremely funny. He's capable of being very flippant and very serious. But he and I share a world-view. We come from exactly the same kind of background. His father was a writer; his mother was a writer. He belongs to Lucknow, like my father did. I don't think I could have married anyone else in the world and have the marriage succeed.

NMK: People here may have a certain idea of how a famous actress lives in India. Is our imagination way off? Could you share with us what would be a typical day in your life?

SA: You see, I'm not only an actor. Because I do so many other things. It gets crowded. On the same day, I could be shooting a film, I could be up in the slums, I could have to attend a party that has nothing to do with either. I can have a lot of problems you might not foresee. For instance, on the same day, I have to be at a slum, at a meeting where I'm saying, "Women of the world unite, we've nothing to lose but our chains," and getting them all together. Then finishing that, and going straight off to a Pierre Cardin fashion show. Now how do I dress? That for me is a really big problem...

NMK: In the middle of that, who is the real you? Or is that an impossible way of separating things?

SA: All of it is me. I don't see my work as an actor, or my work as an activist, or my work as a Member of Parliament as different sections at all. I think all these are parts of my personality that I use to raise awareness on issues of concern to me; which is basically women's issues, the rise of religious fundamentalism, and the rights of the dispossessed. All of this is part of me. I don't see any contradictions at all.

NMK: I'm someone who's done a lot of work on Indian cinema, and it's rare to meet someone, particularly an actress, who is concerned about anything other than what their next role is. So it's always a pleasure to hear you. I don't want to monopolise the discussion, so I'll ask the audience if there are any questions?

Questions from the floor
Q: [from the floor] By and large, there seems to be an absence of good scripts in today's Hindi cinema. What is your view on this?

SA: I think that is the main problem in Hindi cinema, though it has come a long way. I think it's technically better, and in many ways there has been an improvement. But with regard to content, there is a dearth of good writers. Plus, interestingly, for a long time the Urdu language suffered because of what happened in Partition, when India and Pakistan were divided. There was a conspiracy to make Urdu the language of the religion, rather than the language of the region. There was this concerted effort to say that Urdu is the language of Muslims; which is wrong, in fact, because it was the language of Northern India. Even in the film Anjuman, there is no distinction between the way Hindus speak Urdu and Muslims speak Urdu. Strangely, it was the Hindi cinema which acted as the custodian of Urdu. But when the Urdu writers started to give way to this kind of 'Hin-glish', this Hindi-English mix that came in, that led to the decline of Urdu, and to a language that, apart from not having any literary flavour, is not even grammatically correct. I think that is a great pity. It's very important that scripts are well-written. I feel very sad about it.

Q: [inaudible]

SA: What I think is happening is that there is a movement both ways, which is very nice. I think anything that allows a director like Shyam Benegal or Govind Nihalani, who were characterised only as Parallel film-makers... If they have stars willing to work with them, as is the case, why should they not do it? Because the fact is when these stars work in Shyam's films, they give the best performances they've ever done. And what having a star does, is to give the film much greater distribution. So as long as they're not compromising on the quality of the acting, I think it's wonderful. There should be a two-way movement. I encourage it greatly.

Q: You're one of a select group of Muslim celebrities in India. Are you finding that more Muslim celebrities are being politicised in the face of rising Hindu fundamentalism?

SA: Firstly, I think Muslims are in a difficult position all over the world, not only in India. Particularly post-September 11th. Because there has been this attempt to make Islam seem synonymous with terrorism. Which of course is not the truth. Islam is spread over more than 53 countries in the world, and is not a monolith. It takes on the culture of the country in which it resides. So in some places you see it in its moderate, or liberal, or reformist or fundamentalist form. To paint all of Islam as synonymous with terror is a huge disservice. But I think this crisis has also become an opportunity, because it's the first time that Muslim liberals all over the world have realised that it is time for them to make a conscious effort to make a separation between the fundamentalist and the liberal, and to say Islam gives us that space. The film Anjumanthat you saw - I don't think people are even aware that Islam gives the woman the right to reject a marriage if she doesn't want it. People don't know about it. You have to take the good things of the religion and make people understand that there is a difference in the way Islam is interpreted. I think what is happening in India is that for the first time the liberal Muslim, who had kept away from the affairs of the Muslim because of Partition - because he or she had believed that to take on the affairs of the community would mean they were communal - for the first time have realised that religion is too potent a weapon to be left to the zealots alone. It's extremely important for the moderate opinion to be heard. The moderate opinion has always been there, but the press has made it invisible. The press will always highlight something a fundamentalist leader says, but when the moderate says things again and again it finds one tiny little space somewhere. But in India in the present situation, I must say there has been a sensitisation of the press, and they are now bringing the moderate voice forward.

Q: Is that true of high-profile Bollywood stars who are Muslims?

SA: It's very strange. The film industry is one place where it doesn't seem to affect. They're not affected by the fact that they're Muslims, thank God.

Q: [inaudible[

SA: That's pure rubbish. The fact is that the fundamentalists are getting nervous for the first time in their lives. Because the secular liberals are finally moving out of this precious space of the seminar-room and coming out on the streets and getting their voices heard. Now this is threatening to the fundamentalists, because it was very safe as long as the secular liberals just stayed in five-star hotels and in seminar-rooms and spoke about how secularism was in danger. It didn't threaten them. But when they're actually going out and aligning themselves with the grassroots, it means there's a strengthening of the secular force. The only way you can deal with that is by pure lies. So what is being said in the name of pseudo-secularim is really lies spread against the secularists. What happened in Gujarat is, I think, the darkest hour in India's history, and I hope that we won't see a repeat of that. But we can only guarantee that won't happen if the guilty are punished. What happens in India's history is, riot after riot, the guilty get away scot-free. So you end up saying there are two kinds of law in this country: if you kill one person, you are likely to get punished, but if you indulge in mass murder then an amnesty of sorts is granted to you. That kind of signal is really dangerous, because then the brutalised people, when they get this sense of justice, just get further alienated. I think India's greatest strength is her secularism, her pluralism, her composite culture, her tolerance of the other. Those are the practices we have to strengthen, because otherwise India will fall apart.

Q: You've done a lot for Indian women in developing countries. Do you see Indian women in more developed countries needing to take on more leadership roles?

SA: I think there's a difference between the feminist movements in the west, and in India. I think that's India's strength. Because what the feminist movement in the west does is talk about rights, and they talk about an individual's rights, whereas I think what the feminist movement in India has done is to realise that development must be the core issue of the women's movements. Because that's the place from where it works. I think it's different in India and the west because in India the family is a very important structure; although a lot of the strictures come from the oppression of the family. But within that, the unit to work with is the family rather than the individual. I think that, earlier, India did take all its cues from the west, but now it is negotiating its own space, according to its own reality. There's a lot of strengthening of that movement.

Q: Could you tell us about your experience of the film Genesis?

SA: It was lovely; wonderful. Because Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah are my favourite actors, and Mrinal Sen is a very favourite director. It was a very stark kind of film, and yet it was bold, because ultimately she says, "The child is mine." I enjoyed doing it very much.

Q: In Anjuman, there's only one feminised man, who supports you. The rest are ghastly, and aggressive, and exploitative. Have things changed?

SA: Yes, I think things have definitely changed. We were talking about 1984. But I think there has been a sensitisation of the Indian male. Certainly, a lot of men are still very angry, but there is at least the notion that to be a male chauvinist is a value that is looked down upon in society. In a certain area, I mean. In certain castes; in certain areas; I don't know. Because we belong to a patriarchal, feudal structure, so that rules the roost; but there is definitely a shift that is happening. There are some Indian women [here], smiling away as if they know better - or at least they're not revealing...

Q: [about Shabana Azmi's occasional returns to the stage]

SA: We are still doing Tumhari Amrita some twelve years later, and I still enjoy it, because I think it's an extremely well-written part. I have done some theatre, not too much. It's a completely different challenge, facing a live audience. I think it's very exciting for actors to be able to do both theatre and film. I think it keeps them on their toes. I enjoy working in the theatre.

Q: [about the limited exposure of the show The Spirit of Anne Frank]

SA: We had only two shows there, that's right. We just did a run of nine shows in three cities; but just to get all five of us together for dates was very difficult. But we hope to be able to start touring with it from September onwards. We'll try to do it here as well.

Q: For Fire, did all the cast discuss the contentiousness? And are there the same pressures on Indian actresses as Hollywood actresses to have a certain profile in the youth culture?

SA: On Fire, Nandita and Deepa and I had long discussions, and we did some rehearsals. This was Nandita's first film. She was a raw newcomer, and I'd been working for a long time. So obviously there was a certain hesitation; although the moment I saw her I knew we would get along very well; like a house on fire. On the first day of rehearsals, within five minutes of us fooling around, Deepa just said, OK, get into bed, you both. Excuse me? Well, do the kissing scene... We both giggled, and tried to get away from it. And Deepa went about it totally professionally, and said, Stop being silly, and just do it. I think that broke the barriers, completely. In fact my husband complains that I've done a kissing scene with a man in another movie and I don't look as convincing as I do with Nandita, and he wants to know what that's all about.

NMK: And the question about youth culture?

SA: For me personally, some of my strongest parts have come after the age of 40, which is very, very unusual. I think that's coming from the fact that women all over the world are negotiating more space for themselves. And from women understanding that today's woman at 40 or 50 is much more interesting than she was earlier. Because earlier, by 40 that was the end of your life, there was very little experience that you could have. But today one is experiencing a lot, and wanting that to be seen. But that's only a small section of Indian cinema. Otherwise, they are saying that by the age of 30 she is already too old. The men can happily go on, being 60 and cast opposite a 20-year-old girl. It's changing slowly.

Q: Can I go back to your answer about your typical day, and ask what you would wear under those circumstances?

SA: I'd dress down. I would wear a cotton sari, because I wouldn't want to be conspicuous in the slums. Although, let me tell you, after I've been in the slums for a long time, some of the slum-dwellers complain, and say, Can't you ever come dressed as a film star? I'd much rather dress down.

Q: Do you have any plans to go into politics full-time?

SA: I don't think one can say, Never; for anything. But I find the idea of party politics excruciating. I think the party's truth becomes your truth; which is necessarily a selective truth. So I'd lose my independent voice. Also, constituency politics don't interest me as much as being in the Upper House, and getting involved with the debates. So I wouldn't see that happening; but I don't totally rule it out.

Q: But you don't have as much power?

SA: You have exactly the same power, except that you don't vote on the Finance Bill. Apart from that, there is no Bill that can be passed if the Upper House doesn't pass it.

Q: If your parents had so little money, how come you were sent to a good school?

SA: The thing is, my father was giving whatever money he was earning to the Communist Party, and he was left with only 40 rupees a month. So my mother had to go out to work, that's how she started working in the theatre, and her salary was 150 rupees. My school fees were 30 rupees - a huge sum of money. In fact, my mother said we couldn't afford it, and they sent me to a municipal school. I used to get zero in every single subject. My mother said, well, she doesn't look like a daft child, obviously she's rebelling, she doesn't want to go to that school. So at great stress to themselves, they started sending me to that school and paying that kind of money. It was not a rich, upper-class commune, at all.

Q: Was this in Lucknow?

SA: This was in Bombay.

Q: We've heard about Shabana the actress, the activist, the politician. Is there to be Shabana the director?

SA: I hope. But I'm too scared.

Q: Are there any parts you've played you'd like to go back and do differently?

SA: A lot of parts I'd like to change. I can see all the mistakes. But I think it's the whole process that's interesting. The journey has been good.


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