Images of Life: Shabana Azmi

Gestures that speak

Having sat through endless interviews for print and TV, Shabana Azmi is not, apparently, in the best of tempers. So it is with some trepidation that one asks if her play, Broken Images — to perform which she was in Kolkata recently at the behest of Seagrams Black Dog, Sanskriti Sagar, and Weaver’s Studio Centre for the Arts — has anything to do with the way in which she views her life and career.

She pauses over the question, and her famous temper is, for the moment, kept at bay. Instead of answering directly, however, Azmi speaks of moments that are apparently random, and yet have a lot to do with the way she has evolved as a performing artiste.

One of the most recent is an incident that happened in Rohtak, where she was staging Broken Images. Originally written in Kannada by Girish Karnad as Odakalu Bimba, the play became Bikhre Bimb in Hindi and Broken Images in English, directed by Alyque Padamsee. “There I was in Rohtak, with an audience of about 1,800 people, when the organiser pointed out, minutes before the start, that only about 20 per cent of them spoke English, so could I please do the play in Hindi?” she says. “I was so astounded I didn’t know what to do, though I did feel like whacking him!”

Nonetheless, the actress prevailed over the nervous-as-hell woman, and she did do the play in Hindi, translating her lines on the spot as she went along. “See, I’m getting goose bumps even now when I think about how I did it,” she says, holding out her arm. “Actually, I must tell Girish this, and I don’t know if I can repeat it, ever. When I told Javed (husband Javed Akhtar) about it, he was thrilled!”

Indeed, such courage — or desperation — she says, is what defines an actor. “You put everything you feel through a sieve: your heart, mind, body, and then come up with a particular moment.”

Not all those moments can be captured, though. Take the classic scene in Goutam Ghose’s Paar (1984), which required Azmi and co-star Naseeruddin Shah to swim across the Ganga with a herd of pigs. “Naseer was not a good swimmer, so he was nervous to begin with. And the swineherd was about 90 and looked like he would collapse any minute. To top it all, one of the pigs died right at the very beginning of the shot, in front of our eyes,” she says.

Amidst the madness, Azmi was required to place her chin on the rump of one of the pigs, which she actually managed, but none of the three cameras aimed at the shot managed to catch it. “An actor’s life is full of such images, which is why it holds a certain random quality,” she muses.

Having mentioned Shirley Maclaine once during the conversation in the context of acting, she may well quote the great actress to sum up: “I think of life itself now as a wonderful play that I’ve written for myself, and so my purpose is to have the utmost fun playing my part.”

This article was first published in Hindustan Times on September 12, 2010

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Fall of Badshah Shah Rukh Khan!

Time to give it all he's got

Time to give it all he's got

Never having been a Shah Rukh Khan fan, it would be easy for me to gloat about his currently beleaguered condition. Particularly because, like most Kolkatans, it was irritating to watch SRK ‘buy’ a team that was nominally attached to the city I live in, waltz in, and try to become a Kolkatan overnight, giving us bumpkins a taste of Bollywood glamour by bringing in his entourage and camping in the city as the Kolkata Knight Riders played in the inaugural IPL Twenty20 championship.

Well, they fell decidedly short of greatness last year. But that, we thought, would change this year, because we would learn from our mistakes. That we didn’t is well documented, so I won’t dwell on the bad times. What IPL season 2 has unfolded, however, is a fascinating study of the rise and fall of Shah Rukh Khan — IPL team owner and apparent cricket expert. And his real estate dreams seem also to be turning sour, but more on that later.

Consider what SRK and his team management did as they went about trying to right last year’s wrongs. Badshah Khan bought Bangladeshi tearaway Mashrafe Mortaza for a ridiculous $600,000 (over Rs 3 crore at the current exchange rate) after a bizarre bidding war with Kings XI Punjab, ostensibly to replace missing Pakistani speedster Umer Gul, only for Mortaza to remain bench-bound thus far. This when Ishant Sharma clearly lacks a new ball partner, and the bowling attack comprises luminaries like Ajit Agarkar, Laxmiratan Shukla, and utility bowlers like Chris Gayle. And the less said about last season’s ‘find’ Ashok Dinda the better. Another new recruit, Ajantha Mendis, who so traumatised Indian batsmen on a recent tour of Sri Lanka, has also been used sparingly, and that is a mystery still waiting to be solved.

Evidently as a marketing manoeuvre — because let’s face it, Kolkata is not the most marketing-friendly name or destination in sight — SRK dropped Kolkata from the team name (for which many of us shall always remain grateful), even as Man Friday John Buchanan announced a four-captain policy that at first seemed like rubbish, then seemed like a clever ploy to get rid of old warhorse and KKR (well, KR) captain Sourav Ganguly, and then seemed like nothing at all when it was junked and Brendon McCullum appointed captain. See, many of us honestly felt it was time for Ganguly to go gracefully, and it seemed as though an exit route had been smoothly handed to him. True to type, he didn’t take it, but chose to make his displeasure and disappointment evident to anyone who would listen.

All this was before the tournament had even begun, and we were still adjusting to the venue shift from India to South Africa. And then, on day one of IPL Season 2 came the Fake IPL Player whammy. Someone implying he was part of the KR team began dishing out all the dirt from within the camp, complete with gossip about dressing room debates and invidious infighting within the team, as well as malicious but apparently authentic gossip about a few of the other teams. Particularly striking were the blogger’s delicious nicknames for the players and coaches he wrote about, indicating both a wicked sense of humour as well as some serious axe to grind.

As theories flew thick and fast about who the ‘fake’ blogger was, a further blow to KR came in the form of Ricky Ponting’s pull out. That left two big hitters at the top (McCullum and Gayle), an earnest Brad Hodge at number three, a vengeful former skipper at number four, and confusion to follow. And when I say vengeful, I mean it. Ganguly is not the man to swallow an insult and dedicate his services to those who have delivered it. He is unique in his ability to be part of a team without really being part of it, and spread the fire of disaffection and negativity if he so desires. SRK and henchmen seriously miscalculated the impact that removing Ganguly would have, especially in such a ham-handed manner. To add to KR’s woes, Cheteshwar Pujara has been sidelined with an injury.

Amidst jokes about KR having more support staff than players (courtesy Buchanan who seems to think nothing of packing his management with ‘support’ from his native state of Queensland in Australia), came the second whammy — that Shah Rukh was going to sell the team, a report that he and IPL supremo Lalit Modi have since denied, though doubts remain. As a result of the steady stream of KR losses, however, SRK is finally learning to stay out of the limelight, to not try and talk cricket at all (no matter how much he apologises later), and to scale down the smug know-all air that has infuriated many.

On top of all this are the reports that the $2.2 billion luxury apartment project associated with him in Dubai has been shelved owing to the recession. Can life get any worse? Well, going by their most recent performance, KR are trying their best to prove that it can indeed.

Badshah Khan, meanwhile, is back in India, having vowed to not go back to South Africa until ‘his’ team starts winning. Which ought to keep him home bound until at least the next season, going by the look of things. In the course of a single year, he has gone from hero to virtual zero in his ‘adopted’ city, managed to make a laughing stock of himself and his team in the eyes of the world, and mysteriously come under the thrall of John Buchanan, a man who seems to confuse cricket with rocket science, and infect everyone around him with that confusion.

The IPL’s ‘most glamorous team’ is thus nothing but a collection of demoralised and ill-picked individuals playing bad cricket, served by a bad coach and hampered by an owner who clearly knows neither his cricket nor his limits. Can anyone save them? Not this time, at any rate.

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Jodhaa Akbar: No History, Plenty of Gowariker

Before I say anything else, you will have to commend me for heroically resisting the urge to cram this post with visuals from Ashutosh Gowariker’s labour of love. If nothing else, Jodhaa Akbar is certainly one of the best-looking films to have released in recent times, and I speak as one who has paid shameless repeat visits to the multiplex to sneak yet another peek — if not at the costumes, then at the jewellery, or at the sets, or at Hrithik Roshan.

I have found it interesting that the Rajputs (or some of them) are up in arms about whether Akbar’s first Rajput wife (there were others, but she was the first, and she was the daughter of Raja Bharmal, so no historical inaccuracies there) was indeed called Jodha Bai, but no one has said a word about the disclaimer at the start of the film — which also lists all the alternative names that the queen was called — that this is just one view of history.

Similarly, no one has objected to one of the film’s pivotal segments — Jodha’s courageous stand that she would not convert to Islam and would continue to worship her deity within her mahal. History says that Jodha Bai (we’ll just keep calling her that, shall we?) converted to Islam but continued to worship Lord Krishna in her mahal, which seems just a far more radical and film-worthy gesture.

I just think Gowariker would have been better off writing a ten-paragraph disclaimer at the start, explaining that this was his view of what might have happened between Jodha and Akbar, because no one knows what their married life was like. It appears as though Jodha remained one of Akbar’s chief queens, but that’s about it.

For more on this, I would suggest an inconsequential but interesting little book called Private Life of the Mughals of India by R. Nath. Incidentally, I have come across various writings that talk about Akbar’s ‘insatiable sexual appetite’, and trying to visualise that, given the Hrithik-Aishwarya chemistry, is a temptation that I will not resist.

Finally, I have come across several online posts that criticise the script for making things seem too easy for the young emperor. Example, how could he win over his Hindu subjects simply by the one act of lifting the ‘tirath yatra mahsool‘? Or, how did he acquaint himself with the grassroots simply by paying a single visit to Agra Bazaar? Or, did he actually have time to get involved in the Jodha-Maham Anga saas-bahu saga?

To answer the first two questions, you mean Gowariker should have put all his acts of benevolence and all his visits to Agra Bazaar on film?

And for the third, I think Gowariker missed a trick by not making someone in the film point out that nothing that happened in Akbar’s life could be taken at face value. If Maham Anga — his confidante and vazir — could lie to him about Jodha, she could very well lie about far more important matters. Similarly, if Jodha concealed the truth from him, the entire political alliance with the Rajputs was potentially under threat.

So that’s it. That’s the only area I think Gowariker did not cover — he should have established the fact that for Akbar, political and personal often merged to create a third dimension. That, and and the absence of a clear disclaimer stating that this was the director’s view of what might have been ‘once upon a time in Agra’.

PS: I forgot to talk about Rahman’s lovely, no-fuss music, but I suspect I’ve said enough already. However, I still have to say that I expected to see some acknowledgement of the fact that the background score that played during the sequence when Amer is taken away from Sujamal (and during the puja that precedes it) is the prelude to the song Baala Main Bairagan Hoongi (Vani Jairam, with music by Pt Ravi Shankar), from Gulzar’s underrated 1979 classic Meera. I know, because we had the LP at home and I was hooked on the song for the longest time. Did I miss the acknowledgement somewhere?

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Mithya: The Truth?

As I emerged from the theatre after watching Mithya, I made two promises: a) I would henceforth watch everything that Rajat Kapoor directs; b) I would henceforth watch everything that Ranvir Shorey features in.

It is admittedly too early to tell, but Mithya is likely to find pride of place in many top 10 lists, if only for the performances. It has been aeons since I have come upon acting of this calibre — from the entire cast — in a Hindi film. In fact, the only two offhand examples I can think of are Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Masoom. I am talking about the entire cast here, you understand, and not just a couple of actors. From start to finish, it is impossible to spot a weak link in the performances. They blend seamlessly and flawlessly into each other.

I would have said the same about the script (Kapoor-Saurabh Shukla) had it not been for the Neha Dhupia bit at the end and the bit about where the two are allowed to run after Neha has killed an important gangster.

But I’m quibbling. And splitting hairs. What I should be doing is thanking Messrs Kapoor and Shukla for coming up with such a taut, racy, unpredictable, disturbing script. I hope to God it’s original, too. It would be devastating to discover later that what the two men have given us is actually a copy of some French film somewhere.

What Mithya has done is become the first genuine Hindi black comedy since Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. And during its 100-minute run, the film raises enough questions about morality, fate, love, friendship, crime, and hate to last about seven full-length films. Unravelling all of that is likely to take you a lifetime, too.

I haven’t given you a Mithya plot summary here. So anyone reading has to watch the film. Or you could go to the official site of the film’s producer Planman Motion Pictures, but not advisable. All I want to tell you is that do not believe the fools who tag it a ‘comedy’ just because the team contains many of the Bheja Fry gang.

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