She walks in wearing a bright pink outfit that matches the pink flower she wears on her coiffured hair. The queen of Indian theatre who has ruled Indian cinema’s alternate space over three decades, Shabana Azmi enters the coffee shop at DUCTAC, Mall of the Emirates and there is a hush. Charm, intelligence, substance to acting, her very many roles on stage and cinema flash through your eyes as she poses for pictures and greets us warmly as we settle down over a cappuccino. She compliments my sari and tells me that she likes to speak to someone who has seen her work onstage. Shabana Azmi has been a regular to the UAE theatre scene – her plays Tumhari Amrita, Broken Images and Happy Birthday Sunita have been staged in the last few years. Manju Ramanan speaks to the diva with the warmest smile
Who would Amrita (Shabana’s character in Tumhari Amrita) read her letters to now that Zulfi (Farooqe Shaikhs’ character) is not alive?
I miss Farooq whenever I come to Dubai. We have performed Tumhari Amrita for over 19 years and in Dubai several times. Our last performance of the play was at the Taj Mahal in Agra in December 2013 where he told me that we would perform the play for 19 years more. He was gone in less than 19 days. I don’t see anyone playing Zulfi’s role. I will never act in Tumhari Amrita again. But the show will go on. The play will go on with new cast.
Activism, poetry, literature, cinema and activism – does life come full circle to its roots?
Yes it does. I grew up in a communist atmosphere. I grew up with poets, litterateurs, thinkers, special activists and people who believed in community living and being useful to society. However though I lived in that climate, my father (the late poet Kaifi Azmi) never imposed his thoughts on me. He knew that the climate he had given me in my childhood would lead me to do these things naturally. If you remember, I started acting in commercial films. It is by my own accord that I chose the cinema I am doing now. Activism too took its own course and happened eventually.
Did the play Broken Images keep Shabana Azmi on her toes?
You bet! In the play I emote with a pre-recorded video of myself. On stage there are these two characters who are sisters and are having a dialogue. So the real me speaks to the me on screen and the scenes had to be coordinated well. I could do the video in one take but there are many stories surrounding this play. It is written by Girish Karnad and directed by Alyque Padamsee. Once when we were staging the play at Rohtak, ten minutes before the performance, I was told that 90 percent of the audience was Hindi speaking and the play is entirely in English with the video in English too. I had to on-spot improvise the entire play in English. In my head I kept translating my dialogues mentally and then speaking my dialogues in Hindi and through the dialogues explaining what the onscreen character in English was speaking to me. I pulled it off but the thunder and lightning happened after the play (laughs). At another instance the screen went kaput during the performance – apparently the connection got cut. So I went around the screen speaking my dialogues, plugged it in and started emoting with the screen when it came to life. All theatre actors go through these challenges –and improvise accordingly.
Happy Birthday Sunita is a lighter role?
Yes it is. But it is a real role of women we might have all seen in the UK. It is empowering to play the role of Sunita’s mother. She has a mind of her own and takes her own decisions.
The first colour you saw was red you have said – how do you associate it with it today?
The red has become a shade of pink. The fierce red has now diluted to an ideology that has lost its place. Red is the colour of revolution, today where is the revolution?
What inspires you about women?
I am hugely inspired by women. Not just women actors but women at large. I believe that women have great stories to tell and are dynamic and amazing people. I am hugely curious about all the women I meet and to know the stories in their lives.
You once hid a black doll your father had got for you because you had wanted the one with blonde hair and blue eyes?
Like all children who see popular things around them and aspire for them, I grew up with the same aspirations. My father never tampered with how I felt because his ideologies were different. Yes, I did hide the doll but those were my formative years.