August 3, 2007

Geek's Guide to Shabana Azmi, part 1 - Iconic roles

Welcome to the Geek's Guide to Shabana Azmi, part 1 - Iconic roles. For an introduction to the Guide, see this post. You can click on any of the film titles to see the corresponding Filmi Geek review - I've tried to keep the Guide brief by not duplicating what can already be found there.

ICONIC ROLES

These are what I see as Shabana Azmi's career-defining films, the films that encapsulate her essence. They are iconic both of the woman herself and of her place in Hindi film. They are also (not surprisingly) much beloved by me.

Ankur (1974). Shabana ji's first film, and Shyam Benegal's too, Ankur is not just career-defining but genre-defining, setting a standard for Hindi parallel cinema. Shabana ji was fresh out of school, very green, with glamorous aspirations. But she worked very hard at her preparation, and nailed the role of an illiterate villager well enough to snag the first of her five National Film Awards with a performance that is taut and physical. The story is as iconic of Shyam Benegal as the role is of Shabana ji - it explores grand themes of class and caste conflict (as well as the male-female power dynamic) through a close study of the interactions of a very small number of people.

Arth (1982). What a film. The first time I tried to watch Arth, the copy I got from my local grocer turned was defective and wouldn't play. Once I told this story to my teacher. "Ooooh," she said, "that's not good. Don't mess with that movie." Shabana ji's character, Pooja, is inspiring, a woman who has no idea of her own strength until her life falls apart around her. Shabana ji cites Arth as both a personal and professional turning point in her life, and it's not hard to understand why. Thank goodness that she and Mahesh Bhatt had the tenacity to fight for the bold ending when their distributors wanted it softened and traditionalized. Oh, and National Film Award #2 for Shabana ji.

Masoom (1983). A number of very good films feature the pairing of Shabana Azmi with Naseeruddin Shah; their understated styles are well suited to one another and they interact with an ease and naturalness that is very unstylized and believable. Masoom offers Shabana as a grounded character stretched to breaking by tension of strong emotions - pain and anger at her husband's infidelity, and a mixture resentment and maternal compassion toward the innocent boy who is the product of it. Watch with hanky close at hand - there are some truly heartbreaking moments.

Fire (1996). The first time that I saw this film, it resonated on many levels simultaneously; among other things, it was my introduction to Shabana Azmi and can fairly be said to have started me down the path I'm on today, the path that includes Filmi Geek, my involvement with Jaman, my study of Hindi, and so much else. I know some people perceive Deepa Mehta's work as exploitative, as propagating among western audiences denigrating stereotypes of Indian life and culture. I don't see her films that way; her work, Fire and Earth in particular, fed what became my great interest in Indian culture and Indian movies. As for Shabana ji's work in Fire - masterful is not too grand a word to describe it. She takes a quiet, introspective character, a woman of few words, and fills the screen with silent emotion, intensity within stillness. It's a performance as good as any of Shabana ji's National Film Award performances.

Godmother (1999). One of Shabana ji's most entertaining characters, and a performance that netted her fifth National Film Award. Rambhi is an illiterate village woman who enters politics after her husband's assassination, starting out intent on fixing the system from within, but becoming as corrupt as those around her. To give you a sense of the kind of woman Rambhi is, there is a scene in which there is an attempt on her life - all the windows of her car are shot out and she is run off the road. When it's over, she lifts her head, peers over the seat at the destruction, and says, "Politics is a tantalizing game." The method actor in Shabana ji here is on full display, and her performance takes on a broad physicality that was less evident in some of her earlier work.

5 comments:

daddy's girl said...

'Godmother' sounds really intriguing, I would love to see it. I haven't seen any of these iconic performances yet, but I hope to start soon, with 'Masoom'. Thanks for a beautifully written piece - I'm looking forward to the rest of the Guide.

Filmi Geek said...

Oops, DG, your comment appeared three times, so I removed two of them.

I of course think everyone should watch all of these films! ;-) But *Masoom* and *Godmother* are both good choices. I should have said about *Masoom* that I discovered, when I posted about it on Filmi Geek, that it is much cherished by many Indians; my post seemed to create a delightful rush of nostalgia for it. And *Godmother* is just a very unusual film, if for no other reason than that it is entirely about a woman.

Daddy's Girl said...

Guess who finally got a copy of 'Masoom'? I'm really looking forward to watching it this weekend...

Daddy's Girl said...

'Masoom' is beautiful and heart-rending. I loved it. I work very long hours, so I usually stay away from movies on weeknights (otherwise I get very little sleep). So last night I had planned to watch only half of Masoom, and to save the rest for tonight. But once I started, I simply had to finish it, I just had to know how the characters dealt with the issues they were facing. It's a thoroughly lovely film and I know I'll come back to it again and again, even if it did make me cry. I think the Shabana-love must be catching - I found her face so compelling in this film that I couldn't stop myself from 'capping' it many times over...

Filmi Geek said...

Daddy's Girl - I am so delighted that you loved *Masoom* - such a moving, lovely film it is - and even more delighted that you loved Shabana ji in it. There was something particularly lovely about her at that time; perhaps she was at her most glamorously movie-star beautiful in those days, and positively stunning in *Masoom*. I'd like to see some of those screencaps ... :D