Shabana Azmi is incontestably the finest living dramatic actress of Indian cinema. Her range of performances and the layers she brings into every character from Ankur to Paar to Khandhar to Godmother to the recent web series The Empire has earned her the reputation of being India’s Meryl Streep, though many would disagree with that description, arguing that she has an even broader range of histrionics than Streep. In an interview with Subhash K Jha, Shabana discusses her first foray into the digital platform, her career choices and her marriage.
The Empire is your first experience on the OTT platform. What was it like? Is it any different from doing a feature film?
It was challenging because we started shooting during Covid and in spite of all the precautions that were taken, our producer Nikkhil Advani succumbed to it and so did the director Mitakshara’s sister Shama who is also her right hand. There was considerable anxiety but then the spirit of the show must go on, over. And I enjoyed it very much. It is different from doing a film but for an actor adapting to any medium whether film, television or theatre is part of the game.
The women in the Moghul dynasty have never before been shown to be so assertive. Was that your main incentive in doing the series?
I was intrigued by Esan Daulat’s character. She has many layers and there is very little reference to her except for one painting. So we had to take from whatever was offered in the book and then build a backstory for her. She is the kingmaker who puts Babar on the throne when he is only 14. Obviously, there is intrigue and machinations to be associated with her and yet we had to explore the vulnerable side to her as well.
How did you succeed in finding the moral centre of your character?
We base all historical performances on a template of Mughal-e- Azam for instance. I had to find both public and private persona to her. Cate Blanchet in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth had a perfect balance of both and I took some inspiration from that.
Your physical appearance for the part is striking. How did you decide on the look?
The women in the series are all strong and not peripheral like they often are. I've put a lot of effort into Esan’s look. I cut my eyebrows in half because I feel eyebrows change the expression on a face. I put a mole on the nose and some others on the face and neck to give a more tribal look. I pulled out a lot of my personal Central Asian antique jackets and Sheetal Sharma pulled out a lot from them. We decided to do away from the usual emerald and diamonds associated with kings and queens and opted for silver and beads. When I watch the series I feel that worked really well. Mitakshara the director has a very keen eye and she used colour palettes exquisitely helped greatly by the production designer.
Incidentally, you have always played strong characters. Would you be willing to play a victim, say of domestic abuse or political manipulation?
I would play a submissive woman if she has an arc and rebels in the end. Or if she doesn’t then the intent of the maker has to be clear. Is her submissiveness endorsed by the maker or does it result in revolt by the viewer that this cannot be allowed and the film acts as a catalyst for change?
Do you think the future of cinema is on the digital platform?
I do think the digital platform is going to become even stronger because people have changed how they view content. Films will always remain but I think the more experimental stuff is happening on the digital platform. Films will become more participatory. Audiences will be able to choose different endings, they will experience the weather, the smells etc. Big-screen films will have to develop an identity different from the digital world. For actors, it is an exciting time. So much CG and green screens are used that actors have to hone their imagination techniques. It’s like relearning.
In your staggeringly spectacular career of nearly 50 years which of your films do you consider to be a milestone and why?
I do not consider myself as a guru but truly as a learner. I learn from everyone the young and the experienced. It would be preposterous for me to say I glimpse Shabana Azmi in so and so! The actors I like are Vidya Balan, Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Nawazuddin and many many character actors. The advent of the casting director has changed the ecosystem. Earlier we had stock characters played by Om Prakash, Jeevan, Murad etc. Today they are being found from the hinterlands and from the theatre. They bring a lot of freshness and also inspire the lead actors to work harder. Seema and Manoj Pahwa are both very good.
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