I mentioned a couple of days ago my excitement at meeting my favorite Hindi film actress, the brilliant, talented, and beautiful woman who started it all for me, Shabana Azmi. This came about because Shabana jii and her husband, the revered screenwriter and songwriter Javed Akhtar, are in the United States touring a show they have put together about Shabana's father, who was also a famous poet. I saw the show as well, and I'll tell you about that later. The day before the show, Shabana and Javed made a hastily-arranged appearance at Harvard, which is where I met her and took the pictures I posted the other day.
I found myself face-to-face with Shabana not long after I arrived at the venue; she was sitting inconspicuously on a couch and I walked up behind her unknowingly after spotting my Hindi teacher Naseem jii nearby. I looked down at Shabana, she looked up at me, and my brain short-circuited; I think I managed to say "Hello, how are you?" and she responded politely. My teacher introduced us. "Shabana jii," she said in Hindi, "this is Carla, one of my students; she loves you very much." She shook my hand, which was warm and sweating, I later realized. She asked me a couple of polite questions; I was incapable of thinking of anything intelligent to say, and then it was over.
I returned to my seat behind her and just watched and listened as she interacted with other people who came by to say hello; some fans, some friends. I had the completely surreal experience of listening to her exchange email addresses with my teacher; that felt more like something I would have witnessed in a dream than in real life. Eventually she and Javed took their places at the front of the room and the event was underway. They were there, they said, to listen to what was on students' minds, so they opened the floor immediately, without any prepared remarks, for questions about art and activism, the twin foci of both their lives.
I took copious notes on the presentation, and I wrote them up for my friends at BollyWHAT? I also want to present them to you here, but they are quite long, so they continue below the jump.
Anyway, on to the event. Let me get the fangirly stuff out of the way post-haste. Having seen her up close and spoken to her, however briefly, I am now absolutely certain that Shabana Azmi is, in fact, the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She is as gorgeous in life as she is in the movies, perfect skin, perfect eyes, perfect. Love her! She seemed tired - not that she looked tired, it was more that she was conserving her energy. Before the event, when I met her, while Javed was engaged in an animated conversation with a handful of students, Shabana reclined restfully on a couch. When she wasn't being spoken to, she just sat quietly gazing into space. When she was addressed, she engaged the person who addressed her, but when the exchange was over she returned to her restful state.
The event was supposed to open with a screening of the documentary Shabana that was produced for the New York Film Festival retrospective of her career a few years back. Unfortunately, they experienced technical difficulties about 8 minutes in and didn't finish the film. It's too bad, because it was full of wonderful delicious quotable comments by Shabana (as well as glimpses of her home that are really a fangirl's dream). I need to find out if the documentary is available anywhere because I would love a copy. Anyhow, here are two wonderful quotes I got down in my notes before the DVD froze:
On gaining and losing weight for roles, Shabana complains that it is not easy on the body to have to do this; especially having to trim down after doing a role she had to be heavy for, when she went through a period of several months of eating whatever she liked. On making Mandi, for which she put on some weight, for example, she said, "What I enjoyed most about Mandi was that I could eat three breakfasts and no one could say a word to me."
And a delightful comment on where she finds the energy for her tireless pursuit of social justice: "When you are working for change, if you can build into your expectations the possibility that change will not happen in your lifetime, and still you continue that work, then there will be no room for frustration."
After our failed attempt to watch the film, Shabana and Javed moved to the front of the room and opened the floor. They said that they were interested in what students were thinking about, and so rather than preparing any remarks they wanted to jump right in and take questions. Javed did most of the talking, again confirming my impression that Shabana was reserving her energy. Because of the question-and-answer format, my notes are a little incoherent; I'll just try to give a context for each remark I took a note of and present them in the order they appear in my notes.
A first question was about the apparent remake trend in the movies, and whether they had any thoughts about re-working old classics for the younger generation. Shabana said, "That's your territory, Javed. You're the writer. I'm merely an actor; I just do what I am told." Big laugh. Javed looked around the room and said, "Well I see we are nearly all South Asian here, so I can just spill the secret - most Hindi films are remakes anyway." Big laugh. He went on to say that there is a fine line to walk in making a remake; if you don't change a thing, then why bother remaking? But if you change everything, then why bother remaking? There are always people who aren't satisfied in both directions. His aim is just to tell good stories in a way that propagates them onward into the next generation.
There were some excellent discussions about language. A young man asked some very aggressive questions complaining about how much Indian writing is in English and so inaccessible to many non-urban Indians. Javed spoke very firmly on this: "English has ceased to be a foreign language." It is an international lingua franca, but just as importantly it is an intranational lingua franca. The solution to the young man's issues, he said, is not to stop using English, but to make sure that it is taught throughout India alongside indigenous languages. He said that for science especially it is crucial to know and to use English. It is not practical to translate the world's scientific literature into 30 Indian languages.
Of course both Javed and Shabana spoke about the battles between secularism and sectarianism. (I have learned that the word "communalism" is used to describe sectarianism in South Asia; Javed and Shabana used this word, but since it means something else outside of South Asia I am going to use the word sectarianism in order to be completely unambiguous.) Javed said in no uncertain terms that "when secularism is under attack, democracy is under attack." He believes that tolerance is a necessary condition of democracy. Shabana added that "There is so much pressure to love your neighbor as yourself; it is not necessary to love your neighbor as yourself. It is okay to love yourself more. Just don't kill your neighbor and don't destroy his property." What they were getting at, I think, is that a person can subscribe to tolerance and secularism while still maintaining a distinct cultural and religious perspective.
I'm sure Shabana can't go anywhere in the United States without being asked about Fire. This time she was asked whether there has been any progress in gay rights in India in the last 10 years, since Fire. She said there has been a slowly creeping acceptance. In particular, people who advocate for "minority rights" are now starting to include sexual minorities in the collection of minorities they are advocating for. She acknowledged that male homosexual conduct is still against the law - the law is couched in terms of sodomy, so there is no recognition of (and no outlawing of) the existence of lesbianism in the law.
Javed wasn't very interested in the subject. He also noted that sodomy is a crime, but, he said, "there is no controversy" over gay rights. "We have other problems." From there, he launched into a discussion of one of those other problems: what the growth of corporate farming, and mechanized farming in particular, is doing to rural India. He said there are 65 crore farmers in India (that's 650 million - Javed can't think in millions; he kept asking people in the audience to translate from crores to millions for him), and 40% of them would like to quit farming today, but there is nowhere for them to go. While the middle class is thriving, the average farmer's income has not changed since 1985, while supplies are getting more expensive and profit margins are shrinking. Villagers are being sucked dry by farming conglomerates, Javed said. Mechanized farming will lead to massive unemployment.
Shabana agreed with this. Development is great, she said, "but the development model is a matter of concern." The model is increasing unbalance in the distribution of wealth - the rich are getting richer, while the poor are becoming ever more destitute. India needs to invest in its large infrastructure projects, indeed - but these have a social cost. It is necessary to provide social justice to those that are marginalized and displaced by such projects. If an entire village is uprooted to make room for a superhighway or an office park, then these people should be receiving a share of the benefits of those projects.
One of the students asked about cross-border terrorism and Pakistani-Indian relations. "No disrespect to our Pakistani neighbors," Javed said, "but our track record is much, much better than Pakistan's." He cited some examples of India's official magnanimity to Pakistan; in an example he provided in his own field, in the arts, Pakistani artists are welcomed like state visitors and given royal treatment, while the reverse is not true. The student who asked the question challenged him on that, and he clarified that he was talking about the official relationship between the nations, not the relationship at the level of the people. "There is no difference between the Indian people and the Pakistani people," Javed said - to applause.
That led him into a few more comments on language. He said that while Urdu is his mother tongue and he loves it, he believes that the differences between Hindi and Urdu is a "fallacy of partition" created by colonial interests bent on conquest by division and perpetuated by extremists on both sides. "You can't divide a language," he said. He also highlighted the political nature of the imposition of Persian script on Urdu - Urdu literature, he pointed out, is also published in Devanagari, and in the Punjab (on both sides of the border) it is published in Gurmukhi. He said that the undivided language - Hindustani - still exists and thrives; it is the everyday speech of most "Hindi" speakers and "Urdu" speakers; it is filmi language.
Shabana spoke a little about how she ended up becoming an activist. It was a story I had heard before; she repeats it in interviews from time to time, but hearing it in person was still pretty cool.
So Shabana grew up in an intellectual, progressive household; she was raised to appreciate the value of progressivism and of working for change from the bottom up. Nevertheless, at the beginning of her career she was working hard to build her career as an actor and didn't really see herself as someone with anything to contribute on the political scene. Then, in 1982, she made Arth. Arth, for those of you who don't know, is a story about infidelity; Shabana's character has to reinvent herself when her husband leaves her for his mistress. Shabana always gives the ending away when she tells this story but I don't want to do that, so I will just say that it has a very positive and feminist ending that was a shocker to the filmgoing public at the time, and it was a tremendous success. But, Shabana says, after the film she started getting visits from women who wanted her to solve their marital problems. She was stunned. She had thought of herself as just an actor; but she started to realize that when she makes films on progressive themes she affects people's lives, and it's irresponsible of her to reserve her activism for the fantasy world when real people in the real world don't get to stop when the film ends. Arth, she said, is her favorite film, because it changed her from "merely an actor to someone with a larger role to play."
She was asked how she chooses her roles. She said that while today she has the freedom to accept any role that interests her, early on the considerations were quite different, as she was trying to build a career. Today, she said, she can do a role for free if she thinks it's important that the film be made. Javed interrupted her here and said, "Let me tell you that she has never, ever signed a film just for the money. Much to my chagrin - she has turned down enormous sums." Laughs. Shabana continued: "I can say no to a film where I don't like the way the woman is being portrayed, but I can't stop the film being made."
Asked to identify her most challenging role, Shabana cited Morning Raga, because of all she had to learn about carnatic music. She said she felt that if she didn't portray the music credibly, than nothing she did emotively would matter.
The topic turned back to politics, this time to population issues. Shabana said that population control on its own is a shortsighted and poor policy. She compared India to China; in India, 50% of the population is under 25, and this is considered one of India's greatest assets as the 21st century unfolds. China on the other hand has an aging population because of its population control measures. Healthy population control (as opposed to China's pathological population control) requires emphasis on education, health care, and women's rights.
Questions were asked about corruption and the entrenched Indian bureaucracy. Shabana said that to fight entrenched bureaucracy there is a need for activism and for active participation in democracy at all levels. This brought her round to the communalism/sectarianism issues that Javed had spoken about earlier. Casting India's internal tension as Hindu v. Muslim conflict, she said, is divisive and counterproductive. The struggle is not Hindu against Muslim; it is liberalilsm and tolerance against extremism and non-tolerance. It is crucial to have Hindu and Muslim (and other religious forces) united on the same side against the forces of extremism in order to preserve democracy.
Finally, Javed and Shabana spoke a little bit about their current charity work. Shabana is still hard at work on social justice for the slumdwellers in Bombay. She noted that 60% of Bombay lives in slums that occupy 13% of the city's area, so there is considerable work to be done there. Javed is involved in an organization called Muslims for Secular Democracy. He didn't say much about it but he directed us to visit the organization's website and read its charter, which I found here: http://mfsd.org/msddeclaration.htm