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).
Azmi became famous for depicting characters who, through hardship, undergo an inner transformation, gain new self-awareness, and in turn reject the conventional strictures of class, caste, and gender that imprison those around them. Working within an industry that, like its Western counterpart, favors escapist entertainment, she shaped a career based on an unabashed commitment to the political role of cinema. The distinctive Azmi style is cool, composed, and quietly determined. Even when she’s silent, her subtly expressive eyes bespeak deep contemplation and resolve, particularly at moments of decision or epiphany. This unspoken quality is pushed to its limit in Aparna Sen’s Sati (1989), which casts Azmi as a mute, orphaned villager.
The New York Film Festival’s retrospective offers a wide selection from Azmi’s output. In Jagmohan Mundhra’s Brechtian melodrama Kamla (1985), an acid caricature of the intelligentsia, Azmi plays Sarita, the privileged wife of a contemptuously ambitious journalist who purchases Kamla, a slave girl, in order to expose the provincial traffic in souls. Disgusted by her faux-liberal husband’s careerist exploitation of Kamla, Sarita grows to realize that she, too, is a slave, albeit of the golden-cage variety. In the title role of Muzaffar Ali’s lyrical Anjuman (1986), Azmi depicts a humble Muslim embroiderer who pens poetry and dreams of a better world. Compelled to action by her Marxist woman doctor, who teachers her that “the world of profit and loss is a swindle,” Anjuman battles corrupt industrialists and politicians to create an embroiderers’ union. Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) is Azmi’s most infamous feature; she appears as an unhappy wife who finds erotic solace in the arms of her equally dissatisfied sister-in-law. In India, riots broke out in response to the film’s relatively explicit sexuality.
As with Fire‘s controversies, Azmi’s dedication to societal change spills over into the real world. She is an advocate of numerous causes, including AIDS education and the rights of women and the poor. As several Indian screen actors have done, she crossed over into government roles, serving as a member of Parliament and a UN goodwill ambassador, while using her star power to leverage big-budget Bollywood productions with social-realist flavor like Mrityu Dand (1997) and Godmother (1999). Azmi’s strategic use of her own celebrity brings to mind Anjuman’s mentor: An eye doctor, she teaches her patients to see their own oppression.