movies & entertainment

WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH: Shabana Azmi

Karthika S Nair | Mar 07 2020
Image credits: Twitter

Shabana Azmi: Charismatic Actress Who Is Vociferous And Socially Conscious

"Earning money minus the freedom to spend it is not empowerment." -Shabana Azmi.

Beauty with brains. Voice with grit and clarity of thought. Fearless and Graceful. 

Shabana Azmi made a niche for herself in both Bollywood and the field of activism. She is regarded as one of the best actresses of her generation and won various accolades including five Indian national awards. 

She is particularly known for her involvement in the Parallel Cinema, a new-wave movement known for its serious content and neo-realism. Her films are considered to be realistic and with her performance, Shabana Azmi created history for others to follow. 

Early Life, Personal Life And Education

Art was no stranger to Shabana. She was born on 18 September 1950 to renowned poet Kaifi Azmi and theatre actress Shaukat Azmi, a Sayyid Muslim family in Hyderabad, India. 

She has been exposed to social justice and activism at a very young age due to her parents' involvement in the communist party and several parties members who were also frequent visitors to her home. 

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Image credit: Instagram/shabanaazmi

Through her parent's motivation, her passion for intellectual stimulation developed over the years. 

When she was young, she moved to Mumbai with her parents. Shabana did her schooling in Queen Mary School and completed graduation from St. Xavier's College and got a degree in Psychology.

Shabana found her interest in the film field after seeing 'Suman', starring Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan. She got herself admitted in Pune Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) with a desire to develop the skills exhibited by Jaya Bachchan in the films. In 1972, she became one of the best students in the institute. 

She is married to writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar and is the stepmother of Farhan and Zoya Akhtar, who were both filmmakers today.

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Image credit: Instagram/shabanaazmi

Bollywood Debut, 'Ankur' And Stupendous Career

Shabana earned recognition in her first release 'Ankur', which was directed by Shyam Benegal and released in 1974. The role she played was offered to several actresses who had turned it down due to their unwillingness. She played a maid who goes on to have an affair with a college student. She won the national award for best actress for her performance in the film. Renewed filmmaker Satyajit Ray commented that she is one of the best dramatic actresses of her generation. 

She won five national awards in her lifetime starting with the best actress awards for 'Ankur' (1974). She got awards in the form of hattrick for Arth (1983), Khandhar (1984) and Paar (1985). She won her fifth national award in 1999 for 'Godmother'.

She was lauded for choosing experimental and parallel Indian cinema which has characters who are real. 

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Image credit: Youtube, 'Arth'

Shabana has said in several interviews that she is choosy in films to make sure that she doesn't cater to the male gaze or misogyny. She wants her characters and films to be strong in every way. 

She played strong and offbeat characters over the years like a woman who found herself and her independence in 'Arth', a political leader in a man's world in 'Godmother', a sex worker who called out society's hypocrisy towards women in 'Mandi' etc. 

She constantly called out the problematic depiction of women as damsels in distress, eye candies and items numbers. Criticising the item numbers, she said that women should celebrate their sensuality but in such sequences, women are reduced to "objects" of men's desire which is problematic. 

Her film 'Fire' was a milestone in Indian cinema as she played a lesbian who is in love with her sister in law (Nandita Das). At the time, the film saw massive protests for the depiction of homosexuality and female sexuality. 

She also did foreign films such as John Schlesinger's 'Madame Sousatzka' (British), Nicholas Klotz's 'Bengali Night', Roland Joffe's 'City of Joy' (French-British), etc.

She won international accolades such as Silver Hugo Award for Best Actress for 'Fire' at the Chicago International Film Festival and the Outstanding Actress award in a Feature Film, for 'Fire' in Los Angeles.

Her other memorable performances include 'Swami', 'Bhavna', 'Masoom, 'Sparsh', 'Tehzeeb' etc. She also did a memorable offbeat villainous role in 'Makdee' where she played a scary witch who turns little kids into animals. She was unrecognizable in her role and was praised immensely. 

Her performance as Rama Bhanot in 'Neerja' won her several awards. 

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Image credit: Instagram/neerjafilm

Read: Bollywood Women Who Are Committed To Social Causes 

Activism And Social Issues

Shabana Azmi often spoke about the atrocities faced by minorities, women and lack of access to healthcare and security faced by the poor and slum dwellers. Although she faced criticisms on the allegation of publicity-seeking, she went onto emerge as a high profile activist. Both Shabana and husband Javed Akhtar are socially conscious. She rallied for communal harmony in 1989 with Swami Agnivesh and Asghar Ali Engineer.

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Image credit: Instagram/shabanazmi

She voiced against the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits during their exodus by radical religious fundamentalists in Kashmir. She advocated for the welfare of Earthquake victims in Latur, Maharashtra. 

During the massive communal riots in Mumbai, Shabana was one of the loudest critics of religious-based extremism and fundamentalism. She often denounced Muslim fundamentalists, notably grand mufti of Jama Masjid who opined that Indian Muslims should go Afghanistan to fight. She retorted that he should go alone. 

Her commitment to purge out the stigma AIDs victims have been facing, as being spread as a disease transmitted through sexual activities, was also noted. She campaigned against their ostracisation saying that they need support. She was a member of National AIDS Commission of India and briefly worked in Rajya Sabha. 

The United Nations Population Fund appointed her as its Goodwill Ambassador for India in the year 1998 for her active social work. 

In 2012, along with several mainstream celebrities, she protested against the Nirbhaya gang rape and demanded stringent laws to protect women from sexual violence. She recently spoke about the violence and intolerance faced by minorities and dissenters. 

Awards And Achievements

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Image credit: pinterest

The Government of India conferred her with the civilian award Padma Shri in 1998 and Padma Bhushan in 2012. For highlighting women's issues in her work as an actress and activist, she received Yash Bharatiya award from the Uttar Pradesh government. For her work in cinema and society, the University of Michigan conferred her with the Martin Luther King Professorship award.

For her role as a versatile thespian, women's rights champion, advocate for civility and peace, the Power Brands awarded her with the Bharatiya Manavata Vikas Puraskar in 2018.

Read: WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH: Neerja Bhanot