Wednesday, February 03, 2010

In Her Own Image

A good friend helped with some valuable contacts, and I got a chance to interview Shabana Azmi after watching her perform her latest play, Broken Images. Business Standard published it last Sunday. I'm pasting the piece here as well. But first, some things I wanted to say but didn't add to what I submitted for publication.

First things first, I should never have tried to interview her immediately after the performance. Reasons:
  • She was swamped by well-wishers right after. I flattened myself against a pillar as Dia Mirza, Mandira Bedi, Prem Chopra, Divya Dutta and other familiar faces rushed to congratulate her.
  • Watching her enact her role to near perfection was intimidating, and I felt that all my questions (if I remembered them) would sound silly and completely not worth her time.
  • My mind wandered during the play because I kept thinking I'd forget my questions.
  • She eventually said she didn't have time for the interview. Would I mail her the questions instead?
So I did, and in my naivete I actually took down her email address and asked, "You will reply, won't you?" Maybe that's what did it. Because between 10.30 pm when I mailed her my questions, and 8 am the next day, she'd sent in her answers, typing on her Blackberry. Read on below to know how I put them all together.

An actor of her caliber can’t be confined to one role. And Broken Images doesn’t try. In less than an hour of stage time, Shabana Azmi bewilders and stuns with many shades to her stage persona: good, bad, shrewd, cunning, lying, vulnerable, pitiable, helpless and neglected. It’s only a human urge, when watching a story unfold, to find one person on whom to pin our sympathies. While I’m still trying to decide who I should feel for in this play, Shabana says, “The best feedback I got for this role was that the audience can’t make up their minds who the victim is and who the victimizer. I am pleased with that because Girish (Karnad) has built in enough ambiguity to make it a shifting equation.” Ah. So we are not meant to decide. I may as well just go with the flow as I watch acting so spontaneous it seems effortless and natural.

But this spontaneity didn’t come easy. Shabana, who has also acted in international productions at London’s National Theatre and the Singapore Repertory Theatre, observes, “The rehearsal period abroad is from 9 am to 5pm daily. So you get a lot of time to explore, to add and to reject. Here, we rehearsed off and on for about three months, just about two hours in the evenings because we are involved in professions other than theatre. It’s a huge pity that you cannot make a living from theatre in India.”

Arundhati Nag, Padma Shri recipient for 2010, played the protagonist in the Kannada and Hindi versions of the play. Shabana admits that watching her made it easier to play the Image in one single take. The unusual thing in the execution of Broken Images is the presence of the “Image”, a recorded version of herself seen on a large TV screen on stage, opposite which Shabana acts. Usually actors watch their recorded performances to rate their performances by their own, exacting standards. So was it not hard, not to mention distracting, to act with and react to herself? Here, she acknowledges that her sister-in-law, Tanvi Azmi was invaluable. “A very fine actor, Tanvi played both parts during my rehearsals, so that when I actually had to act ‘opposite’ myself, I knew what to expect. And frankly, I find the Image completely different from anything I have done so far, so she surprised even me!” All that preparation paid off, and the shoot, for which they had budgeted two days, was done in a single take of 44 minutes! “Had I gone wrong in the 43rd minute, we’d have had to do the whole take again,” Shabana points out. Not the sort of tension many would handle with such √©lan.

But then, Azmi thrives on this very tension. Theatre is about being ready for the unexpected as there isn’t the luxury of a retake, “so the odds against you are higher,” she says simply. “But once you are out there, it is direct contact between you and the audience; you need to strike a very fine balance so you can play with the audience without playing to the gallery.” Of course, being in front of a camera is no easier, she observes, “where the close-up shot can betray fake emotion to even the least discerning viewer. So I think for an actor it’s enriching to work in both mediums.”

Since she has mentioned these mediums, I draw Shabana away from the play in question, asking about cinema and theatre in the larger context. The Padma Shri awards have just been announced; there are 20 awardees in the Arts category for 2010 while just 10 years back there were only seven awardees. Does this indicate a growing recognition of the arts’ contribution towards change in society? Shabana agrees, “About time, don’t you think? All art has the possibility of creating a climate of sensitivity in which it is possible for change to occur.”

If art can do all this, I am further tempted to ask my next question: there has been a burst of interest in Islam in the last decade and everyone wants to understand and depict their perception of Islam – its followers, its philosophy and its misuse by extremists. Can Indian film and theatre really contribute towards this understanding? “There have been attempts by film, though theatre, I am not so sure,” she muses. “To handle a subject as complex as this you need an in-depth understanding of the issue. It works in Khuda Kay Liye, which was technically weak but well written. Firaaq was a sensitive film that managed to stir you without manipulating you. But if the film just uses the issue as a peg on which to hang a routine story, it ends up doing more damage than good.”

Given that Shabana is one of those who firmly believe in doing good, she has worked to help slum dwellers over the last 25 years. As leader of the Nivara Hakk movement, Shabana ensured that 12,000 homes were built, free of cost for slum-dwellers evicted from Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park. This, the single-largest rehabilitation project in Asia, is a matter of pride for Shabana. “But it is not even a drop in the ocean in the larger scheme of things,” she confesses, realist to the core. It helped to be an MP in the Rajya Sabha (1993–2007), so that she could influence policy for the powerless, but she continues her work even now. “My father said to me, ‘When you are working for change you should build into that expectation that it may not occur within your lifetime. But if you carry on regardless, one day the change will come.’ And that is my mantra for life.”



Written by Girish Karnad

Directed by Alyque Padamsee

Produced by Raell Padamsee

Cast: Shabana Azmi

Running time approximately 55 minutes

The play opens with Manjula Sharma, a college teacher and extraordinarily successful first-time English novelist, seated in a television studio and telling us about the storm her success has generated. Coolly, she refutes allegations of being a money-grabbing, opportunistic writer who betrayed her first language, Hindi, to write in English. The tension between the glamour of English literature and the step-sisterly treatment of Hindi language novelists is finely nuanced and brought forth by a now defensive, now offensive Manjula, as she flaunts the huge publishing advance and the unexpected fame she has received. Inordinately pleased for having smoothly hit out at her critics on television, Manjula prepares to leave the studio. That is when the live TV screen flickers to life again, an Image of Manjula staring out from it as it engages the author in conversation. Thus begins a riveting dialogue, eliciting truths as it goes along, that eventually strips Manjula down to a reality she has always known and denied.

The confessions the Image extracts from Manjula through simple but incisive questions reveal much about the complexities of human relationships, the love-hate bond between siblings, the significance of intellectual companionship in a marriage, and the irreversible consequences of a lie told so often, it becomes the truth, even to the one who utters it. When we create an Image of ourselves for the outside world, we run the risk of the Image dominating over our sense of self, and that is what Broken Images brings out – not in a soft and subtle way but with the brutality of a reflection that tells the truth and will not be silenced.

Along on stage throughout, Shabana Azmi is not so much an actor as she is Manjula herself: Torn, self-interrogating, and devastated as she gives voice to the truth she has subconsciously been aware of all along. More than watching a performance the audience witnesses the many protective layers around a celebrity peel away till she stands exposed, for our pity and our judgment.

The TV screen on stage has its own significance. To quote Girish Karnad, the playwright, “New technologies whisper to us in shimmering figures, seduce us with moving lines, colors and luminosities. Softwares speaking through microprocessors mould our tastes, question our judgments, persuade us to take their messages as our own, so that simulation furnishes us with copies more real than normal reality.” And so this play turns reality on its head, blurring the line between good and bad, selfish and selfless, lies and truth, and the self and the other, making it all seem one. The play is, in director Alyque Padamsee’s words, “A masterpiece about self-delusion and phantom images.”

For fans of Shabana Azmi the stage actor, don’t watch this play expecting anything like Tumhari Amrita or Kaifi aur Main. But do watch it if you want to witness an engrossing performance about the darkness within us all as the dark of the theatre surrounds you.

Upcoming shows of Broken Images:


  • Sunday, 7 February, Sophia Bhabha Auditorium, Mumbai
  • Saturday , 20 February, Sophia Bhabha Auditorium, Mumbai
  • Sunday, 28 February, Sophia Bhabha Auditorium, Mumbai


  • Thursday, 11 February, Hyderabad International Convention Centre


Spirited Seeker said...

Hi Anamika, this is a great piece - and it makes the reader feel like you have had an intimate conversation with the talented actor. I would love to watch it. it is coming to my city also!

SBora said...

this is simply amazing, ana...she is such a prolific actor. loved your write up. congrats!

Rrishi said...

I liked it too. And your scene-setting intro here for the blog was both good & useful.

Note to thee: scribble your questions on a handy-sized piece of paper next time. :^) Also: if writing down responses, then limber up by writing a few random lines first, else your hand will be slow to start with the fast note-taking. Also also: if, as one hopes, you plan to do lots more interviews and articles, buy yourself a decent voice recorder. (Digital!!)

Thinking Cramps said...

Seeker: Oh, you must go and watch it when you can.

SBora: Thank you - it was quite an honour to meet her though I was disappointed not to be able to talk to her.

Rrishi: Thank you for the valuable pointers. Really appreciate that. I did note down my questions on a small spiral book, and yes, a recorder would be a good idea. Had planned to use my phone as a recorder with her, but the opportunity didn't arise.

A Muser said...

I really wanted to see this play when I was in Mumbai, and now I'm really bummed to have missed it! I love Shabana :( Great job on the article, Ana!

dipali said...

Great post!

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