India and Pakistan must collaborate on projects: Shabana Azmi

Venerated star discusses Indo-Pak relations, Harvey Weinstein and upcoming film

Mahwash Ajaz December 31, 2017

DUBAI: Shabana Azmi needs no introduction.

Regarded as one of the finest actors in India, Azmi's performances in films in a variety of genres have globally earned her praise and awards, which include a record of five wins of the National Film Award for Best Actress and several international honours.

She has also received five Filmfare Awards, and was honoured among "women in cinema" at the 30th International Film Festival of IndiaIn 1988, the Government of India awarded her with Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honour of the country.

Shabana has appeared in over 120 Hindi and Bengali films in both mainstream and independent cinema, and since 1988, she has acted in several foreign projects.


Several of her films have been cited as a form of progressivism, which portrays society, its customs and traditions. In addition to acting, Azmi is a social and women's rights activist. She is the wife of poet and screenwriter Javed Akhtar.

The UNPFA Goodwill Ambassador, politician, social activist and multiple-award winning actress was recently in the UAE for the Dubai International Film Festival 2017. She was here for her latest film 5 Rupya, where it was screened here for a global audience. In this film, the seasoned actress plays the grandmother to a young boy and her performance, as always, is authentic, powerful and persuasive.

The film is based on Munshi Premchand’s short story, Idgah and is directed by veteran ad film-maker Piyush Panjuani. What intriuges me however is why Shabana chose to do a simple, ‘children’s story’ film like 5 Rupees. What made her connect to the film? “Idgah was played as a children’s play by IPTA (Indian Peoples Theater Association) a group of which my father was the president,” she tells me. She also says she always connected to this well-known story by Premchand. “I was very familiar with it. But I was a bit skeptical about how it would translate into a full-length feature film. But I think Piyush managed that well.”

The film is shot in valleys and along picturesque streams where children run and play and seem clearly disconnected from the modern world and its troubles.


“Ultimately it’s just the simplicity and innocence of the tale in today’s age when everything is about violence and there’s so much disruption and unhappiness, it would be nice to tell a story,” Shabana talks with a smile about her film, “so simply, so beautifully, calling into play nature in all its beauty, shot in this outstanding location and ultimately the sheer innocence of this child’s love for his grandmother.”

“The film moves you and because it has a certain timeless fairy tale quality in a way that its been shot – moves you with its beauty.” There are numerous graphics in the film, ranging from fire of a whirling dervish to flowers springing up out of old cars. “Films, instead of having a direct message to give say a lot,” says Shabana, “art can create a climate of sensitivity and I think that’s what 5 Rupya does.”


But art in Pakistan and India isn’t a straight cut matter nor does it have the chance to thrive and grow and create the aforementioned climate of sensitivity. In fact, both countries have spent more time warring than actually coming together for peace and unity.

“For the longest time I’ve been saying that people to people contact should be renewed,” Shabana says about the relationship between India and Pakistan, adding “So that through that contact our governments would come to know that we need a sense of brotherhood and we as people want to work together because we have so much in common, Indians and Pakistanis.”

The actor who is now taking over Netflix with A Decent Arrangement further clarified, “I’ve said this to every single head of state in Pakistan and India - that what we really need to do, is to make co-productions with India and Pakistan.”


Sure India and Pakistan often play matches and are seen together on award shows or some occasional festival here or there but rarely do they come together to make films or projects together. “Because even with cricket there comes a certain amount of competition but a co-production is a collaborative effort,” the Jazbaa actor says. “So what you do is through that film that imagine all over the world, how much you tap into an audience that is Pakistani or Indian. We have talent on both sides of the border and that’s what we should we really aspire to do.”

Shabana is a vocal and outspoken feminist and a well-respected activist for womens’ rights. In the recent wave of women speaking out against sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, dozens of women have come out speaking against Hollywood giant Harvey Weinstein. Is that possible in our culture? In India and Pakistan, can the women in our industry find their voices and speak out against the negative practices that have almost become norm? Can women from our culture speak out about it?


“I think there is a shroud of secrecy in our cultures and it’s frowned upon,” Shabana answers, “but it’s all changing now, in both India and Pakistan,” she adds. “I do think there is a growing awareness, that men can’t get away with things anymore, the way they used to. Because of this heavy mix of power and position, they’re in a more vulnerable position. And it’s going to take time, it won’t happen overnight. I think this ‘larki chup ho jae gi’ mentality is coming to an end now.”

Speaking about the Harvey Weinstein issue specifically, Shabana said, “What Hollywood has done with Harvey Weinstein is really quite amazing. I was in Sydney at the AACTA awards jury, where the film Lion won 12 awards.” Lion is a biographical film starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara directed by Garth Davis, based on a book by Saroo Brierly. “The executive producer of the film accepted the awards and said, ‘I have to acknowledge that the film had Harvey Weinstein as the executive producer and I want to applaud all those women who spoke out against him and thus paved the path for other women to take.’ It was stunning.”

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