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On February 18 at the U-M Union Ballroom, world-renowned actor, politician and activist Shabana Azmi spoke in celebration of "Bollywood and Beyond," a festival of South Asian films. Azmi was awarded the King/Chavez/Parks visiting professorship by the state of Michigan and the U-M. Glenda Dickerson, director of the Center for World Performance Studies, made the presentation.
The article that follows is based on excerpts from a keynote interview, moderated by Poonam Arora, associate professor of film studies and director of women's studies, U-M, Dearborn.
On getting into the film industry and making the segue from acting into active politics and social activism
I grew up in an atmosphere where my father, Kaifi Azmi, is a known Communist Party leader and my mother, Shaukat Azmi, is a very well known actor. Both of them believed that art should be used as an instrument for social change. So, it's inevitable that this would have happened.
One of the turning points for me was a film called Ankur (The Seedling, Shyam Benegal, 1972). The way I normally try to do my parts is to find a person close to the character that I'm playing and base myself on her. During the making of Ankur I made friends with this girl and I was observing her, observing the way she sits, eats, talks, moves. And we became friends in the process. And about on the sixth day, she took me to her little home and I was completely shocked. It was the smallest shack that you can imagine. It had no water, no air, no electricity, and there were eight people living in it. I was so deeply moved by the fact that somebody who was living in such difficult circumstances had the generosity to share whatever she had with me.
I felt that if I went back to Bombay without caring at all about what would happen to the lives of people like her, if I just used her, it would be a travesty of the trust that she had placed in me as we became friends. I felt compelled by that and it so happened that when I moved away I saw a film called Roti Kapra Aur Makaan (Bread, Clothing and Home) and it brought very sharply into focus for me the fact that the demolishing of the slums is not the answer; upgrading slums is the better alternative and from that, I got involved in Nivara Haq, an organization that means the right to shelter slum dwellers in Bombay.
I think that a point comes in an artist's life when you cannot treat your work like a nine-to-five job and portray a person fighting against social injustice and not concern yourself with her life. If you're an artist, that artistic sensitivity must move outside of yourself to ask the question why? Why is there injustice and why is there inequality? And if you ask that question then you necessarily get drawn into it.
The 1986 hunger strike in Mumbai (Bombay)
I was with this organization, Nivara Haq, and five of its members were going on hunger strike because their home had been destroyed and they were not getting any alternative place to live from the government. They had knocked at every door and had gone through all the channels and all the doors had been closed to them. The filmmaker was also going to go on hunger strike with them.
I was supposed to go to the Cannes Film Festival where my film, Genesis, was being shown, and I just felt it was impossible for me to go. I remember discussing it with Javed, my husband. He told me, "You have to be very careful of what this means because people are going to throw a lot of brickbats. Not everybody will say, ' wow, what a great thing you're doing.' You'll come into lot of criticism because they'll assign all kinds of motives for your doing it. But the people you really want to help will get help."
And I did it as an emotional reaction. It was very unusual at that time for a film actor to park herself in the middle of the street in Mumbai, and so people were totally unprepared for it. Some said I was aiming at politics, I was doing it for personal gain, etc. But after five days, that land was made available to the slum dwellers; in fact, there was a shift in the government policy about how slums had to be seen.
Popular culture and participatory parliamentary democracy in the Indian context
Film actors in India are admired greatly by the masses and have a large sphere of influence because when they speak about something people listen to them. I think it also comes from a general state of disenchantment with professional politicians. People feel let down by professional politicians and are looking towards other people who can be sources of influence. Film actors are alternatives that people look at because often times, they believe that your larger-than-life image is who you are in real life.
In 1983 I did a film called Arth (The Meaning, Mahesh Bhatt, 1983). It was about a woman who is abandoned by her husband for another woman and after falling apart, she finally draws herself together. Then her husband returns, and says, "I'm sorry. I made a mistake. Would you take me back?" She asks him, "If I had made the mistake, would you take me back? " And he says, "No." And so she replies, "No," and turns her back on him.
The distributors loved the film, but they believed that the ending should be changed because it was unthinkable that an Indian woman wouldn't take her husband when he was asking for forgiveness. But we went ahead with it. After that I had hordes of women coming into my house and asking me to resolve their problems. However, I was also facing a lot of hostility from men who said I was putting all these wicked ideas into women's heads.
The impact of Fire, in which Shabana Azmi plays a character who falls in love with another woman
I loved the script when I got it. I made the choice of doing the film believing that India is not a monolith, that not everybody will react in the same way and that when people saw the film, some of them would be very confused, some would be overwhelmed, some would be angry, some would love it.
I think what it was saying was that these are unfamiliar people, but they're presented in a way where you can understand them and do so with compassion rather than with contempt. We tend to do that with the other; we don't understand the other and so we treat them with contempt-the other religion, the other race, the other society, the other gender. And I think in today's intolerant world order, it's extremely important to shed our fear of the other and understand that person with compassion. I felt that if we could do it with these two women in the film, then we could extend that; and I think it was an important statement to make.
We were very surprised when the film was released because during the first three weeks, it ran to packed houses without any noise. Then suddenly, the Shiv Sena, which is a right-wing Hindu organization and political party in Bombay, decided the film was debasing Indian culture and putting wicked ideas into women's heads. They forcibly pulled the film out of the theaters, broke the seats in the cinema hall, tore the screens.
It is to the credit of civil society that this generated such a sense of outrage in people who said the Shiv Sena doesn't decide for us what we're going to see and what we're not going to see. And we'll decide for ourselves if we want to see it. There was so much mobilization against this intemperate act of the Shiv Sena and for the first time, not only human rights groups and women's groups, but all kinds of groups all across the country, came out in large numbers protesting. Finally the film went back into the theater so that was a huge victory.
Fire became the focal point of a lot of debate all over the world, particularly atuniversities. While the same-sex relationship became the focal point, there are many more things that are also said in the film- about joint families, repression, the fact that the woman is not allowed to express herself, the choices she finally makes, and this whole thing about desire being considered a bad word for a chaste woman. And this woman who's barren, who hasn't been able to bear a child, just unilaterally makes the decision that now her husband is not going to have any physical contact with her and she accepts it as part of the punishment for not being able to bear a child. When she comes in touch with desire by the end of the film, she says, "I don't think desire is bad, I think desire is something that makes me live," which is an important statement in the way it was placed in the film.
A lot of homosexual groups came out and said this film did much more for them than all the seminars and conferences that they've been part of.
On the issue of women's movements in India, where the emphasis is more on models of development than on gender distinctions
The family is a very important structure in India for both men and women. Consequently, women are negotiating more space for themselves within the structure of marriage. It's not about women just walking out of marriage and saying that they don't own that responsibility. In India, there's a tremendous sense of rights with responsibility even though in many instances marriage itself structurally provides a very oppressive model. That's why that change within that structure through negotiation of space is what Indian women are doing, which is different from the West.
Ms. Azmi is a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament, and has been appointed a UN Goodwill Ambassador on Population and Development. For her efforts in seeking justice for displaced slum dwellers, she was awarded the Padma Shri in 1988 by the Indian government, an award given to eminent citizens for excellence in their field and distinguished contributions to society. For her work in films she has received an unprecedented five National Awards in India as well as numerous international awards.