“India Lives in several centuries simultaneously…”

Interview with Shabana Azmi

Tim Sebastian talked to Shabana Azmi in London for the BBC's Hardtalk Interview just after the film, Fire, was released in India. Excerpts:

  • Congratulations on the new film Fire…in India they're stirred up to heights that people haven't seen before.

Yes, but its been amazing you know, because the censor board has not given it a single cut, it's got a clean "Adults" certificate whichis really saying something…

  • Why, is there a new wind of liberalism blowing through the censor department?

Well, I think if you can trust a woman to handle a difficult subject, she will do it with so much sensitivity that even the censor board can't object.

  • You intended to stir the country up, didn't you, why?

Because I think that when one speaks about human rights, and one talks about minorities' rights, that must also extend to the gay community. I think that the thing that Fire says to me is that when you come across people who have made choices that are different from your own, then rather than condemn them, if you can empathise with them, then perhaps you can extend that empathy to the other, in inverted commas you know, the 'other' gender, the 'other' race, the 'other' religion, the 'other' community, which I think is an extremely important statement to make in today's world.

  • It's also a statement about marriage, isn't it, the state of marriage in India, how shocking is that to the male population in India?

I think it is disturbing. Firstly I don't think India is a monolith, I don't think everybody will react in exactly the same way. I think some people will be outraged, some will be deeply moved, and for most I think it will start a process of questioning. But in India most certainly there is an insistence on keeping the marriage alive under all circumstances, which leads to women having to make many many hard decisions.

  • Did this force you to question…

My own marriage? (laughs)

  • Yes, among other things.

Well, my own marriage is a very special one and so is my father's, so it's not a very personal thing. But I do believe, I mean I don't have anything personal against the institution of marriage, 1 think that when people are in a nurturing relationship, it is wonderful, but 1 do believe that a lot of violence against women stems from the fact that there is this system, that the girl will go out and will not come back except on her funeral pyre, and I think that needs to be questioned a bit. 1 think that parents need to continually support their daughter even after she has been married into another home.

  • Is (his the best way in India of getting these subjects looked at?

I'm not saying that it's the best, or that it's the only way…I think cinema is always an extremely effective medium. 

  • How hard was this role for you, how hard was it for you to take this decision?

It was difficult. I was very moved by the script, I wanted to do it, and yet I took my own time considering it. Now I'm glad I did because in all the confusion that I had…by the time I reached the set I was quite clear. I was very convinced of the integrity of the film, and the sensitivity with which it was being handled, and I'm very happy to be in it.

  • And it's a more realistic film, isn't it? Because at one stage you said you were Jed up with films about this mystical third country..

You know, I really believe that India is a country that lives in several centuries simultaneously. You know we have people living back to back from the 19th, 20th, 21st century and her people at any given time and place encapsulate all the contradictions that come from being a multilingual, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. Instead we have this view of this exotic, despite famine and flood, you know this view of India as the Third World which I find very difficult to take…

  • When all the fuss has died down about this film in India, what do you think it will have changed?

It would have started a process of questioning, and I think that's important. And if a film can do that, that's really the maximum that it can.

  • You're a friend of Gloria Steinem's…has she helped you?

She loved the film. She really loved the film. I've read a lot of her work

  • You're called the Vanessa Redgrave of India, do you like that, do you like these terms

Well, in the sense it helps people understand, people who don't know my work, in as much as that, and also the fact that Vanessa is somebody who I deeply respect because she has really stuck her neck out for her political beliefs.

  • You talk about strong political beliefs, but people listen to your strong political beliefs because of your success as an actress

Most certainly yes, of course, and that's why I think people who have this position of influence, particularly in a country like India, must use it to make a positive contribution.

  • How much has that success meant to you, how much has the acclaim, the awards…

A lot. I think it has facilitated my life a great deal. It has also earned me a lot of respect. The people that I work with in the slums of Bombay, when I first started working with them, there was this awkwardness in the beginning because they had never had a film actor come into their midst…

  • What has that done for you, I mean you say the love they've given you, what has that done for you as an actor, has it enabled you to develop and go on to do more things than you expected to do?

Yes, in more ways than one. Because firstly I think acting, the remarkable thing about acting is that it's a two-way process. When I play the character of Radha, I give to her life everything that I have experienced as Shabana Azmi. Radha in turn gives to Shabana Azmi the experience of the world she inhabits, and so it is a richly rewarding experience. But I do believe that if I play a certain kind of part, from nine to six, I can't just switch off and say I'll get back to being somebody who had no connection with the person I had portrayed. I think that would really become a travesty of the trust people place in you when you become friends with them.

  • And you like being pampered… and lots of fans?

Pampered is not the right thing, pampered I like to be by my father and my husband. But by my fans…I have tremendous sense of responsibility towards them. I always get very overwhelmed by the affection of my fans and I feel terribly responsible. I feel I owe them something in return.

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