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Shabana Azmi: Why can’t masculinity be about love and grace?

  • Published at 01:19 pm August 29th, 2020
Shabana Azmi

Legendary actor Shabana Azmi is presenting her brother Baba Azmi’s directorial debut film Mee Raqsam (I, Dance), a tribute to their father, poet Kaifi Azmi. Released on August 21 on Zee5 Global, the film stars Naseeruddin Shah. The story chronicles the journey of a Muslim girl following her dream to become a Bharatanaytam dancer amid hostility from everyone except her father. In an exclusive interview with Dhaka Tribune Showtime’s Sadia Khalid, the iconic actor shares her personal connection to the story and theme of this thought-provoking film

This is your brother’s debut directorial venture. He has been working as a cinematographer since ‘75. You weren’t in the film, but you worked on the film. What was the nature of your involvement in Mee Raqsam?

I am presenting the film. I have previously worked with my brother as an actor in many films in which he worked as the Director of Photography. But this is the first time I am presenting a film.

What I found interesting is how deftly the film illustrates the power of art to unite people.

Yes. This is a tribute to my father, who was a highly respected Urdu-language poet. We are celebrating all the values that he instilled in us and the tolerant lens through which he taught us to look at our pluralist country. 

At a time like this, any piece of art that talks about love, inclusion and hope is important. I was brought up in a family where we believed that art should be used as an instrument for social change and art has the capacity to create a climate of sensitivity in which true change can occur. My mother through the acting roles she carefully chose and my father through his poems taught us these lessons.

I was surprised by the degree of difficulty that befell on the young girl for wanting to learn Bharatanatyam. Is this problem so widespread in India?

It is better if we don’t think of it as a problem unique to India. You have to think of it as a problem of mindset. This is a struggle between two worldviews, one that promotes intolerance and one that promotes brotherhood.

Mee Raqsam features Naseeruddin Shah in a pivotal role.

Yes, his work was outstanding. When you think about it, he is the complete opposite of the person he is playing in the film.  Even his complexion looks pasty as if his inner meanness were seeping out of his pores. And he does it with such conviction! I cannot see anybody else in that role. Every time he enters into the frame, he injects a very menacing quality to the story.

Tell us how you wanted to pay a tribute to your father.

He was such a generous, progressive man, you know. We wanted to shine a light on his magnanimity. I remember once asking my father if I could be a professional actor. He said, ‘if you want to become a shoemaker, I will support you.’ His love for me was unconditional.

In today’s world, masculinity has become such a toxic word. In the film, the father character is a refreshing change in that regard; he plays the roles of both the father and mother for his daughter.  He redefines masculinity for me. Why can’t masculinity be about love and grace, rather than denoting power and power only? This too I learned from my father.

In one of the loveliest scenes in the film, a few characters assume that the father of the girl must be highly educated for letting his daughter, a Muslim girl, learn Bharatanatyam. But the daughter turns around with such pride, and says, ‘my father is a tailor.’ That is exactly the dignity inherent to labour that my father taught me.

Was shooting the film an emotional experience?

Very.  The film is set in the town my father was born in. When he was alive, one day he wistfully asked my brother if it would be possible to make a film in his town. After all these years, we had come to fulfill his dream.

What do you have to say to struggling artists who face paramount obstacles like Maryam?

Don’t do it unless you think you could die from your passion. In that case, learn to be disciplined, enlarge your vision, look at life with a wider heart, expand what you recognize to be your ‘self.’

The film, which is a tale of hope, has come out at a very difficult time for everyone around the world.

Yes. It has been very painful to witness the sharp divide between poor and rich amid the pandemic. One of the greatest lessons I received was to be able to differentiate between need and want. Also, we need to reconnect with nature in a sustainable way.

Any last words for your Bangladeshi admirers?

I come every year to Dhaka to work with BRAC. The kind of love and affection I get from the ladies on the street overwhelm me to this day. They are so generous in their warmth and praise that I feel validated and blessed. I love Dhakaiya saree, Kacchi Biriyani, Shingara and so on. I hope the bond between our two cultures continues to thrive.

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