November 15, 2007

Child of a poet, spouse of a scriptwriter, method actor

Believe it or not, the title of this post does not refer to Shabana Azmi. Last week's New York Times magazine had a very interesting profile of the excellent actor Daniel Day-Lewis, and if you can forgive me for meandering somewhat off mission I'd like to highlight it here.

The title hints at some superficial, but slightly spooky, similarities between Shabana ji and Mr. Day-Lewis. Like Shabana ji, Daniel Day-Lewis's father was a famous poet, Britain's Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis. Like Javed sahib, Mr. Day-Lewis's wife Rebecca Miller is a scriptwriter (though not as famous for it as Javed sahib), and also like Javed sahib she is the child of a famous writer herself, American playwright Arthur Miller. And Mr. Day-Lewis is an actor in the tradition of the Stanislavski method.

As a method actor, though, Daniel Day-Lewis is perhaps more in the American mold than Shabana ji, taking the techniques made famous by actors like Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman to a mind-boggling extreme. Mr. Day-Lewis almost seems to lose his own identity in transforming himself for a role. This may be not so much a difference in acting philosophy between Mr. Day-Lewis and Shabana ji, but rather a difference in the filmmaking styles of Mumbai and Hollywood. Notwithstanding some recent trends in Hindi films, Hollywood still tends to adopt a grittier sort of realism; as mentally centered and emotionally present as Shabana ji is in a role, I don't think I've ever seen her unwashed or sleep-deprived when performing, as Mr. Day-Lewis often is.

Still, while it's hard to imagine Shabana ji staying in character when not in front of the camera, her approach to acting does require a lot of meticulous study and thought about what it would really be like to be her character, and the struggles of her characters do stay with her when she goes home after a day's work. So the differences between Shabana ji's studied approach and Mr. Day-Lewis's all-consuming one may be a difference in degree rather than in kind.

It may also be a difference in personality. Shabana ji has a lot going on besides acting, and even earlier in her career, when more of her life was spent in front of the camera, she often worked on several films at once (as was the practice in the industry). Mr. Day-Lewis, in contrast, only does one film every couple of years, and seems to suspend the rest of his life in service of his perfectionism when creating a character for a film. Mr. Day-Lewis shuns the movie-star aspect of his position, retreating from public view unless he absolutely must appear. In contrast, Shabana ji thrives on her fame, and both cultivates and utilizes her public image in a variety of contexts, from film promotion to activism to commercial endeavors - though she prides herself on being a fine actor, she also seems to love being a movie star.

I do recommend that you have a look at the article; Mr. Day-Lewis is insightful and very well-spoken (though he claims not to value the latter), and his story makes for interesting reading.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... Interesting "rapprochement", Carla. Even if surprising, your comparison of Shabana Azmi and Daniel Day-Lewis made me muse... There is something connecting the two, you're right, and it's not only professional. There have a certain personality trait in common: determination? And a desire for creation?