The tangail sarees she wore in Basu Chatterji’s Swami (1977) made her “Bengali” enough to be discussed in most Kolkata homes, mine included. There was a “refined, educated look” about her, something so “attractive” and “interesting.”
All that was clinched for me even before I saw her on screen.
I remember an old Stardust black and white photograph down to its dust motes. Her hair was swept into a loose bun at the nape of her neck, flicks on either side enhanced her high forehead and a middle parting drew attention to the large bindi she wore. What really made me return to the picture though, was the absence of the “come hither” look in her eyes and the no-pout of her full lips.
She was Shabana Azmi, the year was 1974 and Shyam Benegal’s groundbreaking Ankur had arrived to create a legend.
In the dark ages sans VHS, DVD and internet, what stood adamantly between Ankur and me was the A certificate. But Shabana Azmi was too real to miss, so I settled for seconds, watching her in Dev Anand’s Ishk Ishk Ishk as Daddy’s girl Pammy flitting through trees in fur coats for all of ten minutes. In Kantilal Rathod’s Parinay, she was weighted with the largest beehive of hair I had ever seen. But Parinay gave her full screen time as a young city bred wife struggling to find contentment in her marriage to an idealistic, village-rooted husband (Romesh Sharma). At 14, I felt the film was subtly treated and that it was she who made all the difference.
The following year, defying hall ushers, I sidled in alone to watch Shyam Benegal’s Nishant. Here, she played Sushila, the village schoolmaster’s wife, abducted and then raped by a band of zamindar brothers. In a terse scene, when they meet by chance at the temple, Sushila unfairly accuses her husband (Girish Karnad) of having done nothing to rescue her. There is a deep resentment in her eyes and the contempt in her voice resounds for longer than the words she spits from her twisted lips.
Shabana Azmi was the booster dose I needed to learn that appearance and performance had to bind themselves together with nuance and inflection. That is what kept me in my seat despite her bright pink head gear (Amar Akbar Anthony) like Zeenat Aman or her Aruna Irani type qawwali garb (Khel Khilari Ka) or when she was lathered in a bathtub (Lahu Ke Do Rang) like many a desirable damsel of her time. My growing sense was that Shabana Azmi did not need to duplicate anyone. She was not even Shabana Azmi anyway – she was Pooja, Rama, Lakshmi – someone you could know, someone you should know.
In 1981, Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth was causing ripples across Kolkata college classrooms. There is a seminal scene in the film where Pooja makes a telephone call and pleads her husband’s mistress (Smita Patil) not to take him away. In riveting close-up, we see a distraught Pooja raking her fingers through her hair and then tugging at the cord of the telephone she speaks quaveringly into. Later, when her husband (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) emphasises his need for separation, she gnaws at her little finger, her eyes filling with tears of denial and disbelief. As she rises from the chair opposite and makes a shaking exit, we can almost feel the ground crumbling under her feet.
The ground actually does give way in Goutam Ghose’s Paar (1984), when the pregnant Rama and her Musahar husband Naurangia (Naseeruddin Shah) flee a burning village. The famished couple is offered an unlaughable price to herd 36 pigs across a swollen river and fear is a burden they cannot afford to carry. While the audience holds its breath, Rama and her husband carve their way through perilous waters, driving the unwilling swine before them. On the opposite bank, Naurangia is given his paltry pay while Rama collapses in a heap of rags and river sludge. They have made it, but she howls in panic for the baby she thinks she has lost.
Ten years after its release, I finally heard Lakshmi’s voice rip through the feudal air of Ankur and sat transfixed as she clawed up fistfuls of earth, screaming curses at the cowardly landlord (Anant Nag) who had impregnated her and had just whipped her deaf-mute husband(Sadhu Meher). It dawned on me that in those ten years, I had never seen such visceral energy or heard such vocal range in any Indian actress.
Even when unaided by dialogue and action, Azmi’s eyes speak the language of the heart. It is her heavy-lidded askance that captures the simmering of jealous, repressed women, of those betrayed, neglected and humiliated – irrespective of whether they are the grand begums of Shatranj Ke Khiladi and Junoon, the upright, uptight chhoti chachi Sheela of Apne Paraye or the contemporary uptown wife, Indu in Masoom. The allegorical Kissa Kursee Ka casts Azmi as Janta, a mute slum dweller who singly represents all the citizens of Jan Gan Desh .She uses her eyes to reflect trust, hope and her final exhausted defeat. While Lekha (Toote Khilone) uses quelling looks for her puerile lover and Stella (Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai) has a quiet resistance to her hotheaded boyfriend, Azmi gives her most heartbreaking expressions to the deserted Jamini in Khandhar.
Among my favourite Azmi characters is Chetna (Kadambari), an everyday middle class young woman who has to cope with the complexes of mummy’s boy Amit (Vijay Arora). In spite of his reluctance, she spends a night with him. It is an act she commits without giddiness and her decision to face consequences is tearless and calm. Another much loved Azmi character is Kavita of Sparsh, who battles her own inhibitions as well as the insecurities of the blind man whom she loves. And an all time winner is Rukmini the oversized, raucous brothel keeper of Mandi whose crimps deserve as many chuckles as her chaalbaazi.
1974-1984 were the best Shabana Azmi years for me – years of learning to recognise the truth of a performance. No Indian actress has come even close.