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Growing up with Shabana Azmi means that no actress has come even close

She was the booster dose needed to learn that appearance and performance had to bind themselves together with nuance and inflection.

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.

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‘Nishant’.

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.

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‘Koi Yeh Kaise Bataye’ from ‘Arth’.

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.

Shabana Azmi and Anant Nag in ‘Ankur’.
Shabana Azmi and Anant Nag in ‘Ankur’.

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.

Shabana Azmi in ‘Masoom’.
Shabana Azmi in ‘Masoom’.

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.

Shabana Azmi and Neena Gupta in ‘Mandi’.
Shabana Azmi and Neena Gupta in ‘Mandi’.

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.

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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.