Nasreen Khan

The actor is known for her convincing portrayals of characters as varied as her own self. She’s taken on extremists head on, gone on hunger strikes, fought against AIDS, spoke up for the girl child, voiced her opinion on various subjects and never minced her words. She has acted in plays and in innumerable films both national and international. There is no pinning down Shaban Azmi to one role or one identity. “I am a daughter, a wife, a mother, a woman, an actress, an Indian and a Muslim. Each of these identities is important to me,” she repeats for the umpteenth time. “I am the cumulative whole of all this and more,” she smiled.
Looking bright and cheerful in her orange and cream churidar the actor looks relaxed and ready to answer queries. Some queries irritated her or someone’s oversight causes her to show her “starry tantrum”. Clearly not an easy person to chat with. But before some pesky journalist invites her cold look she is the smiling and cheerful conversationalist who you could chat with for hours.
Her mother Shaukat Azmi once wrote of Shabana while she was in school, “I noticed that her shoe was ripped near the small toe, but instead of asking for a new pair Shabana had cut out a piece of cardboard and glued it on the hole.” Such was little Shabana. And she grew up no different. “Shabana had three months before going to college. She found herself a job selling Bru coffee at petrol stations, earning thirty rupees a day. She did not tell me, and I am afraid that I was so busy rehearsing that I did not notice her absence,” recounted the lady. Remind Shabana about this and she smiles at the pleasant memories. “Maybe that’s what bound us so close as a family. Till date we share an amazing bond,” she shares.
But Shabana is also not the kind to take the credit where it’s not due. Speaking about her ability to portray various characters so uncannily close to reality she pins it down to her training. “Even when I took up psychology instead of literature for my graduation my father had reminded me that I wanted to be an actor. And I was trained to be an actor. So all the ‘good work’ that you see has been part of my training,” she reminds. The one role that is essentially Shabana, she says, is the one she portrayed in Aparna Sen’s 15 Park Avenue. “Aparna is today’s woman. She is strong, she is talented, she is what she is and it comes out in her films. She is not pretentious and that makes us very similar,” she shares.
Ditto for her involvement with the NGO Mijwan Welfare Society started by her father the late Kaifi Azmi. Prod her to speak about it and the lady proudly goes on about all that the NGO has been doing. “Mijwan is a small town in the undeveloped part of UP. We started computer training for the children ten years back. Much before it was common even in some cities,” she says. And the pride is evident when she speaks of the efforts of the NGO in stopping child marriages so rampant in that part of the country. But the lady is not taking credit for it herself. She places the crown on Namrata Goyal, daughter of Jet Airways’ Naresh Goyal. “With people like her the work of Mijwan Welfare Society is going in the right direction. Our girls won the first place in the national cultural programme,” informs a proud Shabana.
And rightly so, for this lady is known for her hypersensitivity. People touch her heart and so do issues, be they social or political. “My father was a card holder of the communist party. It is natural for me to believe in communism and speak up when I need to. It does not mean we don’t make mistakes. But we must learn from our mistakes,” she says speaking of the Left’s present electoral debacle. Ask her if she would join mainstream politics and her answer is a prompt no. “But you never know,” she adds.
Coming to the subject of the Girish Karnad play Broken Images that she is in Kolkata to perform, Shabana is enthusiastic like any newcomer. “It is a wonderful play that all must watch. It is something I have not done before. There is a tv screen that is pivotal to the play. If I went wrong there then there is no helping me. That 40-minute shot I did in one go,” she exclaims. Clearly stagnation has a long time before it sets in. She is as excited about her forthcoming play, SEVEN, a documentary play about seven women around the world fighting for justice. “Meryl Streep has performed in the European tour and I was wondering why they have not got in touch with me. Surprisingly within a few months I got a call from them to play Meryl Streep’s part,” shares the enthusiastic lady, sounding like any other starry eyed teenager. And she gave up an international project to be part of this project, she adds with aplomb.
There is so much that Shabana has on her plate, yet she is raring for more. She is toying with the idea of an autobiography as well. Or at least a biography. “But I’m not getting the time,” she rues. For now she is busy flying from one assignment to another. As for her relationship with writer Javed Akhtar, “Our marriage has worked so well because we hardly meet,” she grins. “I do not believe in today’s concept of empowerment. We must know how to strike a balance. It is not about compromise. It is about finding the solution. And we cannot find solution by being trying to be heard alone. We have to hear the other person as well.”
The quintessential icon representing Stree Shakti, for Shabana is no bra burning feminist. It is the one who is aware of her femininity and has a mind of her own. She is not the one who lives in the shadows but the one who throws the light. No wonder Shabana’s personality is the one thing that gets talked about in private circles as much as her work. She is clearly one woman who gets the attention and knows she deserves it. “We all have to earn our place in this world through our work,” she smiles.