September 3, 2007

What it's really about

Well, isn't this grand - a whole blog, just about Shabana Azmi.

Who am I kidding? I'm going to let you in on a secret - though if you've read more than one or two posts on this blog you'll have already figured it out on your own. Here it is: Sounds Like Power is as much a blog about me as it is a blog about Shabana Azmi.

My admiration for Shabana Azmi tells you something about the kind of woman I would like to be (if not, yet, the kind of woman I strive to be). She is fearless, opinionated, dedicated, talented, strong, hardworking, intelligent, committed, steely, confident, poised, beautiful. I am at most three or maybe four of those things - I won't tell you which ones - but others are within my reach if I apply myself.

But there's also something to be learned about me from my fascination with Shabana Azmi's unformed youth, the rawness of her young adulthood when most of those qualities were, as they are now in me, mere potentialities. I am as drawn by her mistakes as I am awed by her successes. When I look at myself today, most of what I see is flawed; when I look at Shabana Azmi, very little is. But she is 22 years my senior; studying her youth reminds me that I have time, and something to work towards.

And there's something to learn about me from my sheepishness at this whole enterprise. I can't help but be a little embarrassed because, after all, Shabana Azmi is a movie star. There's a voice in my head that constantly chides - why a movie star? Can't you lavish your obsessive devotion on a scientist? a head of state? an author? or better still, if you have to turn to a heroine for inspiration, how about a real person that you actually know, rather than one you idealize and read about in gossip magazines?

There's some deep prejudice within me that insists on trivializing the art of acting, demeaning it, so that every word of praise I write about Shabana ji's mastery of it must be balanced by a corresponding word of praise for her as an activist. It's a point of defensiveness - yes, I have a blog dedicated to a movie star but wait, she's so much more than just a movie star! Even Shabana ji's own pride in herself as an actor - and her astute reasoning that if she weren't a famous actor she would be far less effective as an activist - is not enough to overcome this bias against mere movie stars that makes me slightly ashamed of my Shabana-pyaar.

And it would be disingenuous to pretend that I only admire Shabana ji for her off-screen accomplishments. While I may not be a vapid teeny-bopper fangirl, it's patent that sometimes I just pop in a DVD, sit back, and go all goo-headed. Because whatever else she may be, Shabana Azmi is one freaking gorgeous woman. Sometimes there's just nothing to say but "guh".

There is a part of me that wishes I could keep thoughts like that to myself. Ultimately, though, I am an exhibitionist - how can a person with three blogs be anything but? - and I'm crazy about Shabana Azmi. So I'm here day after day, holding forth both effusively and a little sheepishly about her. But I know that in doing so I am telling you as much about myself as I am about her. And so I am that much more honored that you visit and read. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.


Anonymous said...

I read your prose often... And I start to know the sort of person you are. What you write here did not surprise very much, and the part which did, a little, was your "sheepishness"; I wonder what you call that is not made of pure admiration too, you use the word. You seem to want to shrink away from too much admiration... Yes, you're right in a way, but is it sheepish to admire? I'm not sure. It's sheepish to idolize, I'd say, but not to admire.
Now about the fact you've chosen a film star, and feel a little guilty that this celebrity isn't a scientist or somebody close to you in real life: I'd say you're right to be wary (but you are) that indeed the star isn't the same figure as the actress, the public person not the same as the private one. The cinema does indeed play a game of delusion on us, and has a manipulative power which is often stronger than other media.
Yet even if a film star is nothing but a film star, even if s/he plays no political or social role, I don't see that there'd be anything wrong in chosing him/her as a model, or an inspiration,, because, as you quite rightly allude yourself, there are many ways that actors can conduct their careers and define the sort of influence they want to have on society. For a number of actors, acting is like being an activist. For example, refusing to play certain roles, and choosing other ones, that's often being an activist in today's materialistic and manicheistic movie world. I realize that when I say this, I am partly playing with the word activist, and like you I admire Shabana Azmi for her involvements, political and otherwise, but I think I could dig up certain actors and actresses who correspond exactly to this idea.

Anonymous said...


It was with tremendous understanding and empathy that I read your words of slight embarrassment about admiring an actor so passionately. I believe that you called it an "[insistence]on trivializing the art of acting." Ah, yes -- THAT!

My understanding comes not exactly from feeling the same thing but from encountering it in others. You see, I am an actor myself (as well as a teacher of acting to inner city high school students) and I've encountered this prejudice quite frequently among colleagues, bosses, friends, family members, and the general public. In fact, it's as old as the profession itself. My empathy, on the other hand, comes from also having been something of a scholar in my youth (with a 40th birthday at the end of the month, I can safely say that that time is gone!), from having been shaped by teachers and mentors who truly believed in the social, political, and spiritual power of theatre/performance, and from having pursued my work with a conviction of that power and integrity, but from knowing firsthand that our world does not always allow us to remain in that high place.

We live in a culture of celebrity and stardom, which of course is visited upon the very few. Still, this "movie star-ness" in itself trivializes the ART of the actor. Celebrity glosses over the fact that actors might actually be employing craft and intelligence in their work. Indeed, it is not just intuition and talent that make an actor tick. They are significant elements, yes, but so is craft. To use an analogy that you might appreciate a lot, it's what makes Derek Jeter Derek Jeter and A-Rod A-Rod, rather than some hot-stuff kids playing ball for a local team, chugging out homeruns every now and again.

Also, I have always contended that one MUST be highly intelligent to be a truly great actor. One simply cannot be dumb or uninformed! Look at Shabana...Meryl Streep...Vanessa Redgrave. These are fiercely intelligent and intellectual women. Giants, in a way. Imagine getting their lot together for a lunchtime conversation about, say, the current state of affairs in the Middle East!!! Even moreso, their brilliance works on so many other levels, not the least of which is on a level WITHIN each of their audience members...

Remember the moment that you were first moved by Shabana in "Fire". Remember, perhaps, when Ashok confronts her in the kitchen after having discovered her in bed with Sita. Remember the sorrow in her face as he shakes her and demands that she touch his feet. Do you remember what you felt yourself at that moment? Where did that come from and how did she make that moment happen, both on the screen and in your heart? Aha! THIS is the art of the actor. It is in creating not only that moment but in helping to inspire the ensuing experience in you. That ability to use oneself, inside and out, to illuminate the human condition...that is the art and craft of acting and that which the actor seeks to master. It does not come about randomly or thanks to luck but with great effort, deliberation, practice, and skill. Like writing a brief or mixing a compound, in fact! Indeed, the actor splits the atoms of the inner world -- an experience without which many of our lives would be just a shade more arid and barren.

Look: I love Elton John. More specifically, I love OLDER Elton John -- that is, the Elton John of the 70's. I have listened to and sung European art songs, progressive jazz, theatre music, and compositions from the great American songbook. Still, when I hear Elton John play his songs, particularly those from the 70's, I can literally be moved to tears. Why? BECAUSE HE HAS BROUGHT SUCH JOY TO MY LIFE WITH THEM. These songs have made me HAPPY. And my tears embarrass me! Still, I realize at 40 years of age, that is a pretty big and important thing -- to be made happy and full of joy.

Of course, you know all this! I KNOW you know! I just wanted you to also know that "it's all good," as my students would say. In other words, it's fine to love those crazy thespians! And when one of them comes in the form of someone as gorgeous, as charismatic, as informed and informative, as socially and politically aware and active as Shabana, what could possibly be the problem?! You're doing just fine!

You have indeed said a lot about yourself in this blog, Carla -- quite bravely, I must say -- and how fantastic it's been so far. YOU GO, GIRL! Keep up the wonderful work/words!

With great respect and love,

Filmi Geek said...

Yves: By "sheepish" I mean "shy" or "bashful"; not "behaving according to some herd instinct."

I started to write more on the substance of your comment but it got long and so I think it will be its own post, later.

Susan, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your words of support (and those of others that have been emailed to me). In writing my response to Yves alluded to above I started to understand more about what makes Shabana ji special and I will talk about it in subsequent posts.

Your loving description of some of *Fire*'s crackling moments reminds me how important it is that my first encounter with Shabana ji was in that film, at the particular time when I saw it, when the pump was primed for the character of Radha to push every single button I had. If I had "met" Shabana ji in any other film, we might not be having this discussion. If I had watched *Fire* a year earlier, we might not be having this discussion. Interesting, isn't it?

Anonymous said...


I was thrilled to read your post here: what you say about acting is fascinating. I was wondering (because here we are, talking about this magic interaction between the screen and our emotional response in an INDIAN context): for you, is that magic contained (that's not the right word...) more in the Indian cinema? I tried to defend this idea here:
What's your point of view?

Anonymous said...


I think I perhaps need more clarification about what you mean by the magic being more "contained" before I can really comment, though I do so look forward to. So, please, send it on!

I must admit, though -- with great...well, sheepishness!!! -- that I am not the fan of traditional masala/Bollywood that you and Carla are, except where it can afford me a little kitsch. And this coming from someone who has years of experience in American musical theatre!!! Imagine??? Still, I am more attracted to and impressed by what is known as Indian "parallel cinema" -- that is, the art cinema in which Shabana and Smita Patil and Naseerudin Shah and Om Puri first found their footing. In these films, I find the same depth of interpretation on the actors' part that I experience in the best of American and European dramatic cinema.
Still, I would love to know more about what you mean by "contained" and look forward to contemplating my art in relation to this concept. Till then, all my best...


Anonymous said...

Oh, and THANK YOU for your kind words about reading my post! I can say the same about yours, your blog, and all that Carla offers here on Sounds Like Power!


Anonymous said...


In all honesty, I don't think I'm going to be able to convince you about the Indian cinema containing more "magic" than any other. I'm not convinced myself.

What I probably meant is that the popular masala cinema is a medium where there is a certain innocence yet. Does this mean that it has not yet reached that stage of self-consciousness of its own worldliness that the art in the West has reached, I don't know. I sometimes put it down to our sense of loss (or even guilt): our art is more thoughtful and searching, less free, so to speak. And what I feel in the Indian cinema (specifically NOT in the "parallel-cinema" which you allude to, and which pleases us perhaps because it is close to our concerns) is a welcome freedom from that concern, that soul-searching, or that level violence by which this attitude often expresses itself. There is a sort of mindless celebration of life in many of the best Masala movies which I crave, and which I too rarely encounter in our cinema today.

Well, I don't know whether you'll understand me, or if you do, follow me!
All the best,

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