January 16, 2008

On reconciling actor and activist

My work as an actor or as an activist or as a Parliamentarian are not separate boxes. They are part of who I am; all aspects of my identity are there.
-- Shabana Azmi

(Source: the Lehren video linked in this post.)

In a discussion on another post, commenter Maru raised a thought-provoking question: What to do when admiration for Shabana Azmi the actor conflicts with one's views about Shabana ji's offscreen endeavors?

Perhaps more than any other actor, Shabana Azmi's activism is an integral part of who she is, as she notes in the quotation at the top of this post. For me, this is a large part of what makes her so remarkable - she is not merely an effective performer, someone I enjoy watching on screen. There are lots of stars who can captivate me temporarily in a movie, but I've only founded a blog in praise of one of them. Her presence in the movies is what caught my attention; her commitment to social change is much of what continues to hold it.

Shabana ji's dedication is not enough, though; if she were devoted to causes that I felt were wrong-headed I obviously would not admire her as I do. So it's essential, for me, that I happen to agree with her ideals, at least in an abstracted, theoretical way (as I discussed at length in these comments, I am not really equipped to evaluate her specific implementation-level ideas).

But what if you, like Maru, don't share Shabana ji's ideals, and believe that the changes she works so hard to effect will not be beneficial to Indian society?

Maybe with other actors, one can put aside their off-screen foibles and just enjoy watching them do their thing in the movies. Maybe you think Salman Khan is a cutie but can't bear to think about him shooting deer or running over pedestrians in his SUV. Maybe you're riveted by Amitabh Bachchan but wish he didn't have that creepy Amar Singh by his side all the time. Maybe Kajol is enchants you in the movies but strikes you as vapid and bitchy in real life.

These things might be easier to sweep aside than a fundamental disagreement with Shabana ji's politics. Most actors don't project the kind of personal link between their on-screen work and their off-screen activities that Shabana Azmi does. With Shabana ji, it's harder to separate the one from the other. She doesn't, as she notes in the interview linked above: "My work as a Parliamentarian ... is a continuity of my work as an activist which is a continuity of my work as an actor."

This is because the roles that Shabana ji takes, and the roles she is most revered for, are both an expression of her social and political views and a vehicle that she uses to advance them. Any reader of this blog will have seen the statement dozens of times: "Art is an instrument for social change."

I don't think this means that one cannot enjoy Shabana ji's work in the movies without signing on to her ideals, but I do have some sympathy for why that might be a difficult line to navigate. Some stars may cultivate a separation between their off-screen lives and their movie personae; Shabana Azmi does the opposite; the role she plays as a political activist is as important, and as public, as any role she plays in a movie. It is difficult to separate the two, and I think Shabana ji wants it to be that way. She wants her movies to make people think. And I don't know for sure, but I'd like to think that she'd be content so long as watching her movies makes someone think - even if that person conscientiously reaches a conclusion that is at odds with Shabana ji's own favored viewpoint.

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