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Aden - Yasmine El Tohamy - The Indian film industry has never been so much in the news as it is now. The death of Sushant Singh Rajput, who was found dead in his home more than two months ago, has engaged members of the film fraternity and the public in a long-drawn fight for justice. Debates have been raging over issues such as nepotism, favouritism and mental health, and the voices are just getting louder and louder. Celebrities are engaged in mudslinging, TV channels have turned into 'investigation agencies' and even political parties have been drawn into the battle. But veteran Bollywood actor and social activist Shabana Azmi maintains a judicious view on this episode.
"This too shall pass," said the actress who had taken to Twitter earlier to condole the actor's untimely demise.
"There is one thing about hate. It attracts a lot of attention. But after a while, you get tired of it and then it changes. It's very unpleasant that it's happening because the industry is a sitting duck for everybody. Why aren't the same question asked of people from other professions? Why is it only the film industry that is being targeted? We need to have a much more mature look at the issue," she adds.
Another reason Azmi points out is the immense interest in all things Bollywood. Fans are obsessive and smitten by stars, however, she feels that celebrities should also be accountable.
"We (actors) get so much love (from fans), but we also have to be prepared to take the brickbats. You can't only say that all good things happen to us and bad things happen to others. This can't happen. People should be allowed to express their opinion. However, my problem with this is, I don't think it's their genuine opinion. I think they are doing it with an agenda and that is a sad thing because you are taking refuge in anonymity," the actor told City Times over a Zoom call from Mumbai while discussing her latest film Mee Raqsam.
The film, which premiered on ZEE5 Global on August 21 is a first of sorts for the actor and her cinematographer brother Baba Azmi. The film is very close to her heart as it also pays tribute to their late father, renowned poet Kaifi Azmi.
"Mee Raqsam, which means 'I dance', is the first film that my brother Baba Azmi who has been a successful director of photography (DOP) is directing. It is also the first film that I am presenting. It's a film that I love. It's a beautiful little gem that tells the story of a humble tailor's unstinted support for his daughter's passion to pursue Bharatnatyam dance. This draws the ire of the community, yet he stands up against all odds to support his daughter. So at one level, it's a film about a father's support and at another level, it deals with more complex issues. It celebrates India's pluralism, diversity, inclusiveness, composite culture and about how it's important to stand up against obscurantism of all hues. Obscurantism of any religion is a mirror image of the other and that's why I think it is a very important film."
The movie revolves around Salim (Danish Husain) and his daughter Maryam (Aditi Subedi) and also features Naseeruddin Shah in a formidable special appearance as a community elder.
"It's a heart-warming tale. It's also a 'David and Goliath' kind of story because this humble tailor stands up against the 'Goliaths' of his community and manages to overcome all the hurdles that come in his way because he wants to support his daughter. It also celebrates the worker, the tailor, the common man and has its heart in the right place. It offers hope and is elevating, so it's a movie that you must watch and I promise you, you won't be disappointed," says the actor who has done extensive work in art and commercial films.
Mee Raqsam is also close to Azmi and her brother's hearts as it was filmed in Mijwan (Uttar Pradesh) - the birthplace of their late father. The place holds a lot of memories for the veteran star.
"On my father Kaifi Azmi's birth centenary (January 14, 2019), Baba decided to make his first film in Mijwan, Azamgarh (in UP), a little village where my father was born. He worked there for the empowerment of the girl child until the end of his days. The Mijwan Welfare Society (an NGO) was founded by him and I have been carrying on his work after he passed away."
The film also helped Mijwan-born and raised girl Subedi to realise her dream of becoming an actor. The 16-year-old debutant, who plays the protagonist in the drama, has inspired other girls in the village.
"Little Aditi Subedi was born and brought up in Mijwan. The fact that she plays the protagonist today has opened up the doors for other girls from Mijwan who have been aspiring for bigger things in life rather than just getting married and raising children. So it has opened up new pathways and Aditi has become a role model for the girls which makes me very happy and I am sure that Kaifi saab would have been very happy too."
Explaining further how the story will engage audiences at a deeper level, Azmi said, "The takeaway for the audience is the fact that they have watched a small film with a very big heart. But at many levels, they will see other things too. We see a lot of toxicity in masculinity today. It's about power, guns and muscle power and things like that. Salim, the father in the tale, is a gentle person. Even when he stands up against the big leaders of his community, he does it with a gentle but firm resoluteness which is very attractive. In the process, he becomes the father and mother to the girl. So in a sense, it redefines masculinity but not toxic masculinity. It's about having the yin and yang perfectly balanced. It's about softening the edges and masculinity that can be redefined as being gentle and supportive and sensitive. That to me is very important."
Recollecting her own conversation with her father when she told him that she wanted to become an actor and how he supported her, the actor said, "I remember it very clearly. I was sitting in the lawn of his little cottage in Janki Kutir, Mumbai. I told him that I wanted to become an actor. He looked at me with so much love and said, 'I will support you in anything you decide to do. Tomorrow if you want to become a cobbler, I will support you, provided you tell yourself that you will become the best shoemaker in the business'. So to have that kind of unconditional support from him just gave me so much strength and courage. Parents need to do that for their children. That's exactly what Salim does for his daughter Maryam in Mee Raqsam."
The movie also features veteran star Naseeruddin Shah in a pivotal role. He plays a conservative community leader - a character which is in stark contrast to his real-life liberal persona. Azmi is in awe of the actor's commitment and craft.
"What strikes me about Naseer's (Naseeruddin Shah) performance is that he has played the exact opposite of the character that he is in real life. He is a very liberal and progressive man and here he plays a hard-nosed obscurantist, who looks so pasty in the film, that you almost feel as if his pores are oozing out the meanness from him. I find it very fascinating that actors have this ability to be so convincing and play characters that absolutely despise him in real life, and Naseer has done that beautifully. That's what strengthens the film."
"When we were starting filming, Naseer was suffering from serious back pain. At one time, he was lying flat in bed and we didn't even know whether he would be able to make it for the shooting. I was personally concerned because the entire shoot was scheduled around Aditi's schooling. She was just 15 years old at that time and we couldn't afford to change the dates. But Baba had almost a Zen-like belief that Abba's (Kaifi) blessings were with us and it would happen. And then, Naseer made that long journey (to the location). He was so warm and supportive of Baba. They've known each other for many years and have worked in movies like Woh Saat Din and Bezubaan."
Azmi is happy that her movie premiered on the OTT platform instead of cinema halls.
"The OTT platform has given chances to films like Mee Raqsam to be premiered. If it were a theatrical release, it would have been a small one with none of the wherewithal that's required to promote a film and it would have got lost in the din. Now, with the click of a button,190 countries are watching the film. The OTT platform has brought into focus the fact that content is king. Different stories and faces are being watched."
Even with more than four decades of experience behind her, Azmi is all praise for the transformation mainstream cinema and the acting profession is going through.
"The advent of the casting director has changed the ecosystem.They are now plucking out talent from hinterlands, small towns, from the back of beyond and theatre. These people are doing such deep-rooted, realistic work. That is changing the bandwidth for mainstream actors and we have to live up to that. About 10-15 years back, it would be perfectly possible to play a rockstar, without even knowing how to play the guitar or strum a chord, people would believe that. Today's audience wouldn't accept that. You would have to learn new skill sets and actors are doing that. They are working on one film at a time, they can change their body type or learn a new skill and get into their roles like they do in theatre. That's the new ecosystem. It's particularly good for senior actors because they are getting more meaningful roles now. I am very happy that I am working in a Steven Spielberg production called Halo, in Nikkhil Advani's TV series Moghuls, and Faraz Ansari's romantic film Sheer Qorma. They are completely different things that I am doing and I'm enjoying it very much."
Stage shows are Azmi's first love, however, her mother being noted theatre artiste Shaukat Kaifi. When asked how theatre is innovating in times of the pandemic, the actor explained. "Different things are being tried. For instance, a theatre has approached me to do a play which will be filmed so it will be available to a larger audience. But it won't be shot like a film, because in a movie you see a close-up, a mid-shot or a long shot, but in theatre, you have just one constant frame on stage that the audience will see at all the times. Different skills sets will be required. But rather than having no theatre at all, at least we can fill in the blanks doing this until the pandemic is behind us. What will happen then is because of the new demands, it will create new writing in theatre. It will make you look at situations anew and I hope it will create some exciting theatre."
Throughout her long acting career, Azmi has played strong women characters and made cinematic choices that reflect causes close to her heart, like women's rights. She said that Arth was sort of a game-changer and a victory for women in Bollywood.
"I have turned down several offers in which women were shown as second-grade citizens or the script endorsed the fact that women should be kept in their places or if the film had a message of hate or dividing society and historical untruths. In such cases, I have said no because I grew up in an atmosphere where it was believed that art should be used as an instrument for social change. Art can create a climate of sensitivity in which change can occur. Many years ago, we did a film called Arth. When we were screening the film, distributors said it was a wonderful film but the end was unacceptable. 'How can an Indian woman reject her husband after he has apologised?,' they asked. 'It won't be accepted'. We held our ground and said; 'No this was precisely the reason we were making this film'. It went on to become a cult film. Forty years later, people are still talking about it. Arth started the change in the (image of the) Indian heroine. It showed her as somebody who is her own person and makes her own decisions. Today, even in mainstream cinema, you will see that the heroines are not mere props. For one, the change is that they are working girls. This to me is very important because Indian women work, whether they are in rural or urban areas. But if you look at Hindi cinema about 15 years ago, you would believe that Indian women only wore yellow chiffon saris and danced in the Alps, that is changing now. I think that's also happening because female actors are now realising that there is a lot of traction in getting a meaty role and so they are making themselves available for it."
The availability of variety on digital platforms has been a blessing during the lockdown says Azmi.
"I think in the pandemic, what has become most prominent is that art has come to the rescue in difficult times. During the pandemic, we've been able to retain our sanity because we've been consuming a lot of (digital) content. We've also been reading and listening to music. There is great value in having art in our lives. I think art must be made an integral part of education, like academics or sports. How can you not expose children to any kind of art and then suddenly at age 21 expect them to have an immaculate taste (in music, movies etc)? Education cannot only be about academics. It has to be about love for sports and the arts. You need an all-rounded personality to cope with the demands of the new world that we are living in.
Mee Raqsam is streaming on ZEE5.
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