Shabana Azmi's on-screen debut, as peasant woman Lakshmi in Shyam Benegal's Ankur (1973), includes an ironic prophecy. "You look like a film star today," says Anant Nag, playing her urbane, arrogant young landlord, intent on seducing his attractive serf. "You know, heroines in films who sing, dance, make love." Surprised by his candor, the married Lakshmi registers a quick flash behind her demure countenance, then turns away. The moment is not merely one of transgressive sexual attraction made manifest. She recognizes her boss's desires could likewise offer her a forbidden taste of self-determination.
Following Ankur, an elegant and powerful treatise on rural feudalism that crossed over from the New Indian Cinema's government-sponsored purview into commercial success, Azmi indeed became a film star. And the characters she plays in over 60 features since then do, at times, sing, dance, and make love. But she forged a path decidedly unlike that of the coy beauties who skip and twinkle through Bollywood's famous musical confections.
Raised in a family of prominent Marxist artists, Azmi trained at the Film and Television Institute of India, incubator of parallel cinema auteurs like Mani Kaul and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Atypical for a marquee movie star, her diverse filmography includes small-release art pictures, mainstream masala epics, international co-productions, and a little Hollywood fare (including John Schlesinger's Madame Sousatzka and Roland Joffé's City of Joy).
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