Shabana Azmi at Apsara Film Awards, 2012
|Born||Shabana Kaifi Azmi
18 September 1950
Hyderabad, Hyderabad State, India
(now in Telangana, India)
|Occupation||Actress, Social activist|
|Spouse(s)||Javed Akhtar (1984–present)|
|Parents||See Akhtar-Azmi family|
Shabana Azmi (Hindi: शबाना आज़मी; Urdu: شبانہ اعظمی; born 18 September 1950) is an Indian actress of film, television and theatre. Born to two members of the Communist Party of India who were both leading lights of IPTA, Azmi made her film debut in 1974. She soon became one of the leading actresses of Parallel Cinema, a left wing "New Wave" movement which received tremendous government patronage during the regimes of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. During those years, Azmi was showered with honours and awards, including a record of five National Awards, four Filmfare Awards and several international honours. Her films, of which there are around 120, are among the best examples of a form of Progressivism which reveled in reviling and deriding Indian society, its customs and traditions, thereby securing the appreciation of international audiences and Indian "intellectuals" of a left wing persuasion. Since 1988, she has acted in several foreign projects, but made no mark in that field.
In addition to acting, Azmi is a social and women's rights activist. A champion of liberalism and modernity, she had a prolonged affair with the poet and screenwriter Javed Akhtar, the married father of two young children, who divorced his wife in order to marry Azmi. Herself a barren Muslim woman, she is a "Goodwill Ambassador" of the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) which seeks to spread contraception and abortion in India in order to limit that country's population. In appreciation of Azmi's life and works, the Congress party's government gave her a nominated (unelected) membership of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament.
Early life and background
Shabana Azmi was born into a Muslim family in Hyderabad, India. Her parents are Kaifi Azmi (an Indian poet) and Shaukat Azmi (a veteran Indian People's Theatre Association stage actress), both of whom were members of the Communist Party of India. Her brother, Baba Azmi, is a cinematographer. Her parents had an active social life, and their home was always thriving with people and activities of the communist party. It was not unusual for her to wake up in the morning and find members of the communist party sleeping about, from a previous night's communist social that ran late. Early in childhood, the environment in her home inculcated into her a respect for family ties, social and human values; and her parents always supported her to develop a passion for intellectual stimulation and growth.
Azmi did her schooling at the premier girl's school, Queen Mary School, Mumbai. She completed a graduate degree in Psychology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, and followed it with a course in acting at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. She described the reason she decided to attend the film institute, saying, "I had the privilege of watching Jaya Bhaduri in a (Diploma) film, Suman, and I was completely enchanted by her performance because it was unlike the other performances I had seen. I really marvelled at that and said, 'My god, if by going to the Film Institute I can achieve that, that's what I want to do.'" Azmi eventually topped the list of successful candidates of 1972.
Azmi graduated from the FTII in 1973 and went on to sign on Khwaja Ahmad Abbas' Faasla and began work on Kanti Lal Rathod's Parinay as well. Her first release, however, was Shyam Benegal's directorial debut Ankur (1974). Belonging to the arthouse genre of neo-realistic films, Ankur is based on a true story which occurred in Hyderabad. Azmi played Lakshmi, a married servant and villager who drifts into an affair with a college student who visits the countryside. Azmi was not the original choice for the film, and several leading actresses of that time refused to do it. The film went on to become a major critical success, and Azmi won the National Film Award for Best Actress for her performances. Upperstall.com described her work in the film as "an outstanding psychologically penetrating performance very different from those seen normally till then in mainstream Hindi cinema", and famous independent filmmaker Satyajit Ray commented, "In Ankur she may not have fitted immediately into her rustic surroundings, but her poise and personality are never in doubt. In two high pitched scenes, she pulls out the stops to firmly establish herself as one of our finest dramatic actresses".
She went on to receive the National Film Award consecutively for three years from 1983 to 1985 for her roles in movies, Arth, Khandhar and Paar. Another film Godmother (1999) earned her another National Film Award, taking her tally to five.
Azmi’s acting has been characterised by a real-life depiction of the roles played by her. In Mandi, she acted as a madam of a whorehouse. For this role, she put on weight and even chewed betel. Real life portrayals continued in almost all her movies. These included the role of a woman named Jamini resigned to her destiny in Khandhar and a typical urban Indian wife, homemaker and mother in Masoom.
She also acted in experimental and parallel Indian cinema. Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire depicts her as a lonely woman, Radha, in love with her sister-in-law. The on-screen depiction of lesbianism (perhaps the first in Indian cinema) drew severe protests and threats from many social groups as well as by the Indian authorities. Her role as Radha brought her international recognition with the Silver Hugo Award for Best Actress at the 32nd Chicago Film Festival and Jury Award for Best Actress at Outfest, Los Angeles.
She was the initial choice for Deepa Mehtha's Water which was actually planned to hit the floors in 2000. Few scenes were already shot. Shabana Azmi had to shave her head with Nandita Das to portray the character of Shakuntala. However, due to political reasons, the film was shelved and later shot in 2005 with Seema Biswas replacing Azmi.
Some of her notable films include Shyam Benegal's Nishant (1975), Junoon (1978), Susman (1986), and Antarnaad (1992); Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi; Mrinal Sen’s Khandhar, Genesis, Ek Din Achanak; Saeed Mirza’s Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai; Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh and Disha; Gautam Ghose’s Paar; Aparna Sen’s Picnic and Sati; Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth; Vinay Shukla’s Godmother. Her other films include the commercially successful Manmohan Desai's Amar Akbar Anthony and Parvarish and Prakash Mehra’s Jwalamukhi. Azmi starred in Hollywood productions such as John Schlesinger’s Madame Sousatzka (1988) and Roland Joffe’s City of Joy (1992).
Azmi debuted on the small screen in a soap opera titled Anupama. She portrayed a modern Indian woman who, while endorsing traditional Indian ethos and values, negotiated more freedom for herself. She had participated in many stage plays, and notable among them include M. S. Sathyu’s Safed Kundali (1980), based on The Caucasian Chalk Circle; and Feroz Abbas Khan's Tumhari Amrita with actor Farooq Sheikh, which ran for five years. She toured Singapore on an assignment with the Singapore Repertory Theatre Company, acting in Ingmar Bergman’s adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll's House, which was directed by Rey Buono.
Pointing out the differences in all these media, she once remarked that theatre was really the actor’s medium; the stage was actor’s space; cinema was the director’s medium; and television was a writer’s medium.
She married Javed Akhtar, a lyricist, poet and Bollywood scriptwriter on 9 December 1984, making her a member of the Akhtar-Azmi film family. It was Akhtar’s second marriage, the first being with Bollywood scriptwriter, Honey Irani. However Shabana's parents objected her to being involved with a very much married man with 2 children Farhan Akhtar and Zoya Akhtar. Indian actresses Farah Naaz and Tabu are her nieces and Tanvi Azmi is her sister-in-law.
Shabana Azmi has been a committed social activist, active in supporting child survival and fighting AIDS and injustice in real life. Azmi has voiced her opinion on a variety of issues. Initially, her activism drew scepticism and was dubbed by some as a publicity gimmick. However, she proved her critics wrong and used her celebrity status to emerge as a high-profile social activist.
She had participated in several plays and demonstrations denouncing communalism. In 1989, along with Swami Agnivesh and Asghar Ali Engineer, she undertook a four-day march for communal harmony from New Delhi to Meerut. Among the social groups whose causes she has advocated are slum dwellers, displaced Kashmiri Pandit migrants and victims of the earthquake at Latur (Maharashtra, India). The 1993 Mumbai riots appalled her and she emerged as a forceful critic of religious extremism. After the 11 September 2001 attacks, she opposed the advice of the grand mufti of Jama Masjid calling upon the Muslims of India to join the people of Afghanistan in their fight by retorting that the leader go there alone.
She has campaigned against ostracism of victims of AIDS. A small film clip issued by the Government of India depicts an HIV positive child cuddled in her arms and saying: "She does not need your rejection, she needs your love". In a Bengali film named Meghla Akash she played the role of a physician treating AIDS patients.
Since 1989, she has been a member of the National Integration Council headed by the Prime Minister of India; a member of National AIDS Commission (of India); and was nominated (in 1997) as a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament. In 1998, the United Nations Population Fund appointed her as its Goodwill Ambassador for India.
She has acted in more than one hundred Hindi films, both in the mainstream as well as in Parallel Cinema. Several of her films have received attention in the international arena and Scandinavian countries, including at the Norwegian Film Institute, the Smithsonian Institution and the American Film Institute. She has appeared in a number of foreign films, most of which have won international acclaim, including John Schlesinger’s Madame Sousatzka, Nicholas Klotz’s Bengali Night, Roland Joffe’s City of Joy, Channel 4’s Immaculate Conception, Blake Edwards' Son of the Pink Panther, and Ismail Merchant’s In Custody.
- Ankur (1974) – Laxmi
- Nishant (1976) – Sushila
- Fakira (1976) Geeta / Neeta C I D Police Inspector
- Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977) – Khurshid
- Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) – Laxmi
- Parvarish (1977) – Shabbo
- Junoon (1978) – Firdaus
- Swami (1978) – Saudamini
- Sparsh (1980) – Kavita
- Arth (1982) – Mrs. Pooja Inder Malhotra
- Masoom (1983) – Indu D. Malhotra
- Mandi (1983) – Rukmini Bai
- Khandhar (1983) – Jamini
- Paar (1985) – Rama
- Shart (1986)- Kiran Dutt
- The Bengali Night (1988) – Mrs. Sen
- Madame Sousatzka (1988) – Sushila
- City of Joy (1992) – Kamla Pal
- In Custody (1993) – Imtiaz Begum
- Son of the Pink Panther (1993) – Queen
- Fire (1996) – Radha
- Saaz (1997) – Bansidhar (Bansi) Vrundavan
- Side Streets (1998) – Mrs. Chandra Bipin Raj
- Earth (1998) – voice of older Lenny
- Godmother (1999) – Rambhi
- Makdee (2002) – Makdee
- Tehzeeb (2003) – Rukhsana Jamal
- Morning Raga (2004) – Swarnlatha
- 15 Park Avenue (2005) – Anjali "Anju" Mathur
- Waterborne (2005) – Heera Bhatti
- Umrao Jaan (2006) – Khannum Jaan
- Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. (2007) – Nahid
- Loins of Punjab Presents (2007) – Rita Kapoor
- Sorry Bhai! (2008) – Mother Gayatri
- It's a Wonderful Afterlife (2010) – Mrs. Sethi
- Kalpvriksh (2012) – Gypsy Woman
- Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (2012) – Chaudhari Devi
- The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013) – Ammi
- "A Decent Arrangement" (2014) - Preeti Mehta
- 24 (Indian TV series) (2013) - Abhilasha Grewal
Awards and honours
- 1975 – National Film Award for Best Actress, Ankur
- 1983 – National Film Award for Best Actress, Arth
- 1984 – National Film Award for Best Actress, Khandhar
- 1985 – National Film Award for Best Actress, Paar
- 1999 – National Film Award for Best Actress, Godmother
- 1978 – Filmfare Best Actress Award for Swami
- 1984 – Filmfare Best Actress Award for Arth
- 1985 – Filmfare Best Actress Award for Bhavna
- 2006 – Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award
- 1975 – Filmfare Best Actress Award for Ankur
- 1981 – Filmfare Best Actress Award for Thodisi Bewafaii
- 1984 – Filmfare Best Actress Award for Masoom
- 1984 – Filmfare Best Actress Award for Avtaar
- 1984 – Filmfare Best Actress Award for Mandi
- 1985 – Filmfare Best Actress Award for Sparsh
- 2003 – Filmfare Best Villain Award for Makdee
- 2004 – Filmfare Best Supporting Actress Award for Tehzeeb
- 1993: Best Actress award for Libaas in North Korea
- 1994: Best Actress award for Gautam Ghose’s Patang at the Taorima Arte Festival in Italy
- 1996: Silver Hugo Award for Best Actress for Fire at the Chicago International Film Festival
- 1996: Outstanding Actress in a Feature Film, for Fire in L.A. Outfest
- Azmi won the award for Best Actress (Hindi) at the Bengal Film Journalists' Association Awards (BFJA) for Ankur in 1975, Paar in 1984, Ek Pal in 1987, and Godmother in 1999. She won the Best Supporting Actress (Hindi) award for Tehzeeb in 2003.
- 1998: Star Screen Award Best Supporting Actress for Mrityudand.
- 2004: Zee Cine Award Best Actor in a Supporting Role- Female for Tehzeeb.
- 2005: Star Screen Awards – Best Performance in an Indian Film in English for Morning Raga
Honours and recognitions
- 1988: Awarded the Padma Shri from the Government of India.
- 1988: Yash Bhartiya Award by the Government of Uttar Pradesh for highlighting women’s issues in her work as an actress and activist.
- 1994: Rajiv Gandhi Award for "Excellence of Secularism"
- 1999: Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image, Significant Contribution to Indian Cinema.
- 2002: Martin Luther King Professorship award by the University of Michigan conferred on her in recognition of her contribution to arts, culture and society.
- 2003: She was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate by the Jadavpur University in West Bengal in 2003.
- 2006: Gandhi International Peace Award, awarded by Gandhi Foundation, London.
- 2007: She was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate in Art by Chancellor of the University Brandan Foster by the Leeds Metropolitan University in Yorkshire
- 2008: She was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate by the Jamia Milia University on Delhi in 2008.
- 2009: She was honoured with the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award
- 2012: Awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India.
- 2012: She was honoured by Walk of the Stars as her hand print was preserved for posterity at Bandra Bandstand in Mumbai.
- 2013: Awarded the Honorary Fellowship by the National Indian Students Union UK
- 2013: She was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate by Simon Fraser University.
- 2014: She was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate by TERI University on 5 February 2014.
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50th Annual BFJA Awards at the Wayback Machine (archived May 1, 2008)
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- Arif Roomy (21 March 2013). "Tweethood – Azmi Shabana mentioning 'Azmi'". The Telegraph. Retrieved 21 March 2013.
- "TERI university honours Shabana Azmi, Anshu Jain". Business Standard. 5 February 2014. Retrieved 5 February 2014.
- India’s 50 Most Illustrious Women (ISBN 81-88086-19-3) by Indra Gupta
- Holt, Julia; Phalke, Shubhra; Basic Skills Agency. Shabana Azmi. London : Basic Skills Agency, 1995. ISBN 1-85990-022-4.
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