Shabana Azmi is undoubtedly the best dramatic actress of India, ahead of the greats in the category like Meena Kumari, Nutan and Smita Patil. As my friend Sanjay Leela Bhansali says, “When Shabanaji gets emotional she rips the screen apart.” We’ve all seen her in Ankur, Arth, Paar, Khandhar, Godmother,ete etc. Here are five classic Shabana performances which you may have missed.
1. La Nuit Bengali (1988): Based on the Bengali litterateur Metreyi Devi’s amorous experiences, this Kolkata-based steamy film on the fruits and fangs of forbidden love is one of the unsung gems of Shabana Azmi’s career. Just the joy of watching her team up with the legendary Soumitra Chatterjee is worth the ticket. Shabana and Soumitra play a couple whose daughter Supriya Pathak has a torrid affair with her Romanian house guest played by the affable Hugh Grant. Metreyi Devi objected to the film and it never got released in India. Now is your time to catch this unsung Shabana classic. “Hugh Grant was a huge British star. There was also the legendary John Hurt in the film. And of course Soumitra Chatterjee. I was overshadowed,” Shabana laughs. Not quite.
2. Ek Pal (1986): The first time I met Shabana, Ek Pal had just been released. I was completely taken up with her performance as a lonely wife in Gauwhati who gets impregnated by her ex-flame (Farouq Sheikh) while her husband (Naseeruddin Shah) is away. Director Kalpana Lajmi who died young and largely unsung, allowed the woman to keep her extra-marital baby. “Back then it was a huge scandal. Naseer and I did any number of films together. He was one co-star I could rely on to catch when I would fall,” says Shabana.
3. Log Kya Kahenge (1983): This is vilest character Shabana has played. Roma is forced into a loveless marriage with a widower (Sanjeev Kumar). When her stepson sees her with her lover (Navin Nischol) Roma throttles the little boy. Shabana told me she was frightened when she saw that murderous look on her own face while killing the child. “I remember seeing that completely evil look on my face and I was shocked by it. Was I capable of such evil?" Shabana asked. This B R Ishaara directed shocker was completely rejected by the audience. But it is one of Shabana’s monstrous master classes in method acting.
4. Sati (1989): Being married to a tree is not easy. Ask Shabana Azmi about it. She played a mute woman in the 19th century married to a tree, as the horoscope predicted death for her husband. Shabana and director Aparna Sen did a number of films together. None as evocative and seductive as Sati. Most of the film was shot in torrential rains where the loveless luckless woman rages against her bad fortune. Shabana was seriously ill with pneumonia after the shooting Sati. We have no information on the fate of Shabana’s leading man. You could say it’s a Miss Tree.
5. Bhavna (1983): I’ve watched this story of deserted wife who turns a sex worker to fund her son’s education, umpteenth times. Every time I sob like a child. Shabana as the sacrificial mother out-did Nargis in Mother India. Shabana and I have endless discussions on why I consider Bhavna to be her greatest performance, ahead of other milestones like Arth and Genesis. She isn’t convinced as yet. Someday soon I hope to convert her.
Image source: SpotboyE archives