February 28, 2008

Shabana Azmi's columns in *Harmony*

In a democracy, people need to become active participants, not passive recipients of government policy.
-- Shabana Azmi

Source: This column which Shabana ji wrote for Harmony magazine in 2004. I have to send a hearty thanks to SLP reader fadista di mouraria for bringing these wonderful columns to my attention. Harmony magazine is the publication of the Harmony for Silvers Foundation, which is an NGO dedicated to improving the lives of India's senior citizens. The foundation's mission is "to create an environment where silvers, irrespective of their cultural beliefs, can retain their dignity, self-respect, pride and self-confidence."

The foundation's website features about fifteen brief pieces that Shabana Azmi wrote for the magazine between 2004 and early 2007, in which she urges seniors not to be complacent, not to settle for less than their due rights and respect. She encourages seniors toward grass-roots mobilization, taking advantage of their leisure time and connections:
A positive force that can bring about revolution, senior citizens have so much in their favor. To begin with, they have the time. There's also the tenacity and perseverance that come with age and wisdom to see projects through. They know that impatience won't get them anywhere. The youth, with all their energy, are no match for the elderly as they lose patience easily and may take the easy route out. Not seniors. For them, the harder, the better.
(She writes with awareness that the readership of the publication, which is in English, is educated and middle-class.) In one column she holds up the powerful US lobbying organization AARP as an example of what mobilized seniors can achieve, and suggests that there is a need for an Indian organization to step up to that level.

In addition to her calls to activism, some of the columns are touchingly personal, including anecdotes about her mother and other elderly people close to her heart; I particularly liked this one about her mother (in which she calls herself a "spunky lass"). I also liked this one, in which she talks about several elderly people who inspire her. In this column, she describes rushing to help and elderly man struggling to get down the stairs in a train station. Can you imagine a movie star helping a stranger in a train station? If I weren't already completely in love with this woman before, I would be now.

These articles are lovely, just a wonderful find.

February 27, 2008

Omigod, gorgeous!

... and I am not talking about Shabana Azmi.

That is Javed Akhtar, isn't it? I've never seen a picture of Javed sahib from that era. Oh my stars and garters, what a beautiful man. No wonder Shabana ji lost her head.

This picture comes from a most amazing collection of pictures of Shabana that was brought to my attention by HemaMalini of the BollyWHAT forums (not that Hema Malini, just someone named in her honor :D). The collection is full of shots I have never seen before. I could give you the link to the collection but ... that would just spoil my fun (*). Instead, stay tuned, and I'll post the highlights here over the weeks to come.

(*) Okay, if you ask me nice I'll share it with you.

February 24, 2008

Gratuitous screencaps: Shaque (1976)

I'm still a couple of reviews behind at Filmi Geek so it will be some time before I get around to writing about Shaque. But there's no reason to make you wait for the harvest of screencaps!

Shaque was, I believe, Shabana Azmi's first move with Vinod Khanna, and it shows the great potential of the pairing: Vinod is manly yet sensitive, and he matches appealingly with Shabana's slightly edgy femininity. Here, though, Shabana is very, very young, and the character is quite weak and naive. It's not her best character ever, but at this early stage in her career I think that's forgiveable.

At any rate, there are some nice visuals in the film, as well as lots of cuddling between Shabana and Vinod. As to the latter, Shaque includes a very steamy scene between the two of them, brief (and interrupted by the police!) but well worth waiting for. Enjoy the screencaps.

February 22, 2008


I just bought this via eBay:

This was an unaccountably silly purchase. I don't usually buy items like this, but I think that signature threw me off my game. It's not even a real autograph - it's printed! But I temporarily lost my head.

At any rate the good news for all of you is that along with the stupid not-autographed picture I also bought a couple of old movie magazines with stories about Shabana Azmi in them, and that means unusual pictures and interesting features for you, here on SLP in the coming weeks.

February 21, 2008

Stern, but lovely

For some reason I love pictures like this one, in which Shabana ji is unsmiling and looks like she is about to scold someone. If I am to get my head bitten off, this is the way I would like to go. Also: that sari is more like it.

Thanks to filmifan at the BollyWHAT? forums for the image.

February 20, 2008

"Rice Plate" from Dus kahaniyaan

I missed Dus kahaniyaan in the theaters, but when I noticed recently that someone had snuck parts of it up on YouTube, I couldn't resist taking a look at Rice Plate, Rohit Roy's segment starring Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah.

It was worth it.

Rice Plate is a fantastic piece of Shabaniana that every reader of this blog should take 10 minutes to watch. (What I've linked up there lacks subtitles, but I think you'll be able to follow what's going on even if you have no Hindi at all.) It's ten minutes of Shabana Azmi doing what she does best - a vibrant, physical performance in which she just transforms into an entirely different human being. In Rice Plate Shabana wears the skin of a cranky, bitter Tamilian grandma having a very, very bad day. Even though her character is dour, bigoted, and mean, I smiled through the whole thing, because her performance was a total delight. Do watch it.

February 19, 2008


Still no further news about the Rituparno Ghosh film, but a reader brought this small item to my attention, according to which Shabana Azmi is working on a project called Sorry Bhai. The film is by Onir, who directed Bas ek pal and My Brother Nikhil, and purportedly stars, in addition to Shabana ji, Sanjay Suri, Boman Irani, Sharman Joshi, and Chitrangdha Singh. Once again there's very little out there about this; here is a tiny little story that identifies the film as a romantic comedy with Shabana ji and Boman sahib playing the parents of the leads. That sounds like fun; more news when it comes.

My next item isn't directly related to Shabana ji - it merely mentions her in passing - but it piqued my interest enough to share with you. It's a report that cites Andrew Cooper, a Canadian scholar of political affairs and diplomacy, as saying that Hindi film stars ought to be pressed into diplomatic service. (Here's an interview with Mr. Cooper about the same.)

I haven't thought about this much, but it seems a little simplistic and paternalistic. I mean, yes, Bollywood celebrities have global reach and broad influence, but that's what makes them good at selling watches and fashion; it's not all that's needed for diplomacy. While our lady Shabana ji and a few others mentioned in the piece have gotten involved in political affairs, I think it's safe to assume that if the likes of Shah Rukh Khan had interest in using their celebrity in this way, then they could figure out how to do so without some Canadian wonk instructing them. The difficulty of being Shabana Azmi is that she has to take positions that some of her potential audience is uncomfortable with; she's ordered her priorities as she sees fit and has made the decision to do that, but not all celebrities are up for it.

Next, here is a nice little video from Lehren TV about the launch of writer Javed Siddiqui's book Shyam Rang (evening color), a celebration at which Shabana Azmi was present last week. (I'm sorry to not offer a translation of the video at the moment but I need to get going to the office.) I post this mostly to counterbalance the painful pictures from the Jodhaa-Akbar premiere; for Javed Siddiqui's book launch, Shabana ji looked quite herself in a lovely orange sari with a pink choli. There are a few stills here at Smash Hits.

February 15, 2008


I hate to have to criticize Shabana Azmi, it just pains me. But her usually-impeccable fashion sense has led her seriously astray at the Jodhaa-Akbar premiere, and if I won't point it out, who will? (Actually the folks I mentioned here probably will, but that won't stop me.)

I am not any kind of fashionista but this outfit is just bizarre. Nothing in this peculiar pastiche bears any relationship to anything else. Even the individual parts are at war with themselves - the choli's harlequin body and paisley sleeve are at odds, the body of the sari disagrees with its border. What is going on?

Javed sahib got a little color on for the occasion, and he looks positively dashing:

But I just have to wonder why Shabana brought the bedspread along. Maybe the two of them were planning to have a little romp in the back row when the movie got boring?

February 12, 2008

Why Hindi films?

People have asked me many times to tell my story - the story of how Hindi films found me and became my obsession. That's right - how Hindi films found me. I don't like to say I discovered Hindi films; it seems arrogant to credit myself with the discovery of something that has decades of rich history and an audience measured in the billions.

I haven't ever gotten around to writing up this tale, and for a while I wasn't even sure where I'd put it. Filmi Geek seems the most natural place, but the format I've developed there is pretty strict, limited to reviews and the occasional administrative metapost - I've not put anything substantive there that wasn't a film review. Geek of All Trades is where I usually put musings of this nature, but the truth is that GOAT's readership would find this a lot less interesting than Filmi Geek's.

Then a recent post by my friend Greta at Memsaab Story prompted me to personify my story - the short version of the story, anyway - it's Shabana Azmi, herself. And so it was clear that Sounds Like Power was the place this tale should be told.

It began about seven years ago, when an idea for a novel started brewing in my head. I am not much of a fiction writer - though I love writing and usually think I'm pretty good at it, I have no experience with fiction. Yet I had some characters kicking around in my mind, and as I thought about them they took on lives and personalities of their own. And as they took shape, I realized that one of them was Indian. It wasn't a choice I made for her; it was just something she asserted about herself. To this day I really don't know why.

Since I knew so little about India, I set out to learn more so I could understand my character better and shape her in a way that would be interesting and real. In a process that developed in dribs and drabs over several years, I started to learn more about India's history and culture, so I could understand my character's backstory. As part of that I started listening to filmi music - I'd always been interested in music from around the world, so naturally I picked up a compilation CD with some classic Bollywood tunes on it, and was particularly affected by Asha Bhosle and the music of RD Burman. The first time I listened to that CD, the first song - "Dum maro dum" - was like a musico-religious experience; it was the best music I had ever heard, and it felt like coming home. This prologue, properly interpreted, was a hint of things to come.

In the fits and starts of researching my character, about three years ago, I heard about a movie called Fire. Fire seemed like it would have something to say about my character's life and experiences, and I thought I ought to see it. So I got a hold of the movie and one night, alone at home when David was away at a conference, I watched it.

I still don't really know what hit me that night.

I was so deeply moved by the film - and especially by the arc of its main character, Radha - that I watched it three times in eight days. It's safe to say that Fire pushed every button I had, and affected me far beyond the point of researching my character. It resonated both literally and in metaphor at every level in my mind. And Radha in particular - her stillness, her sadness, her introspection, her awakening, her power - got under my skin in a way that I never could have anticipated.

I've never been obsessed with movies or movie stars - I've been obsessed with lots of things but not that - and I never considered myself a connoisseur of fine acting or even someone particularly able to identify it when I saw it. Yet I knew instinctively that the crafting of Radha was a performance for the ages, and in the age of the internet it was a trivial matter for me to look up the actor behind it and find out who she was, this Shabana Azmi.

I was stunned.

I had been blindsided by something, and someone, completely extraordinary. This wasn't merely a good performance; this was a brave and expert turn by the most decorated actor ever, anywhere. And as if that wasn't enough to feed my penchant for accomplished, beautiful older women, she was a Parliamentarian and an activist as well. My favorite actors at the time were Katharine Hepburn and Emma Thompson and Susan Sarandon; Shabana Azmi was like the three of them blended, on steroids, and run through an amplifier turned up to 11.

I hadn't just watched a sweet and moving film; I'd brushed up against a giant whose storied career had been raging my entire life, and yet of whom I had been, until that moment, completely ignorant. I was awed and ashamed. I wanted - needed - to catch up, to learn everything about her that I could, and place that information in its context. I set out to watch Hindi films. I started learning Hindi.

The rest almost seems like epilogue. The next several films I watched followed two main branches outward from Fire. On the one hand, to learn more about Shabana Azmi, I watched Ankur and Mrityudand, two of her films that were available from Netflix. On the other, since I liked Fire, I watched Deepa Mehta's other film Earth, and liked that very much too. From there, the branches continued to grow and split. In Earth Aamir Khan impressed me so I watched Lagaan and Dil chahta hai. In Mrityudand I was charmed by Madhuri Dixit and so I watched Hum aapke hain kaun. Continuing to investigate Shabana Azmi's work I watched Amar Akbar Anthony and was gobsmacked by the presence of Amitabh Bachchan. And on, and on. By this time I was reading BollyWHAT and learning the landscape of significant actors and films. Each new film I watched introduced me to a new actor who piqued my interest and beckoned me to explore further. It took me a few tries to really surrender to the aesthetic of Hindi films, to learn to appreciate masala and to shed my western bias against melodrama and displays of strong emotion, but surrender I did.

I have a dozen "favorite" actors now and three times as many "favorite" movies. Very early on, when I'd only seen two or three films in Hindi, I told a desi acquaintance that Shabana Azmi was my favorite Indian actor. "Well, I've only seen a couple of Indian movies," I immediately backpedaled, "it's not really right to call her my favorite."

"Oh," my friend smiled knowingly, "you never forget your first love."

I've not yet written that novel. But I've written a whole different story, this story, in which I lost my heart and my head over an actor and an art form that I feel blessed and lucky to be able to enjoy. I love the color and chime, the intensity and range of emotion, and the transcendent music that really is the best music in the world. I love Shabana Azmi, and her passion for and pride in Hindi cinema is, by extension, a source of pride for me. And above all I love the window Hindi films give me into aspects of Indian culture and the opportunity they have given me to meet and learn from interesting folks from all over the world. So to all of you, again, thanks so much for reading.

February 11, 2008

Kya haseen sitam?

Reader Aung Phyoe reports in a recent comment that Shabana Azmi is signed for a Rituparno Ghosh film with Naseeruddin Shah and Vidya Balan. I hadn't come across that news yet and I can't find any more about it at the moment, save this sourceless post on the Radio Sargam blog. I'll keep you posted.

I'm sorry to say that I don't share Aung's enthusiasm for the project; I've yet to be positively impressed by a Rituparno Ghosh movie and I hope he doesn't make a botch of this one as well.

I do like the tentative title, "Kya haseen sitam" - what a beautiful affliction - almost certainly a reference to the gorgeous song "Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam" from Kaagaz ke phool, a song written by Shabana Azmi's father Kaifi Azmi.

February 6, 2008

February poll: Pyar ka mausam

Stumped for ideas for this month's poll, I went to my friend Beth, a veritable font of creative and diabolical ideas. "Valentine's day is coming," she said, "why not ask what everyone's favorite Shabana jodi is?"

Pure genius, I tell you. So here it is, in honor of the season: Which actor is your favorite romantic pairing for Shabana Azmi?

I've listed all the significant choices I could think of here; but remember that I've still seen fewer than a quarter of Shabana ji's films - if I've overlooked your favorite, please let me know in the comments, and accept my apologies. Otherwise, get to the right-hand sidebar and vote!

Shashi Kapoor

This dashing star was Shabana Azmi's own favorite when she was a girl, and when she grew up she got to appear opposite him in films. Whether in commercial films or art films, the combination was always searing and edgy.

Vinod Khanna

Vinod was, for a while, the biggest star in Hindi films not named Amitabh Bachchan, and Shabana Azmi was his Heroine Number 1. I have not yet seen many of their films, but the pairing was popular, and I've got a few queued up for the not-too-distant future.

Naseeruddin Shah

I think everyone loves this pair. Their understated acting styles mesh well together in a pairing that is always real, believable, and sweet - and occasionally steaming, as in the scene from Sparsh from which this screencap is taken.

Rajesh Khanna

My feelings about Rajesh Khanna are a matter of public record, and the only film I've seen of this pairing is Avtaar, which left me rather cold. But he was a massive star, and Shabana ji was paired with him frequently, so I am sure there are folks out there who love the match-up.

Sanjeev Kumar

One of my favorite actors, I've only seen Sanjeev Kumar with Shabana ji in Shatranj ke khilari, in which chess had already pretty much killed whatever spark there might have once been in their marriage, leaving poor Shabana ji's character bitter and scheming. But I know they've been cute together in other films I haven't yet seen, as can be seen in the adorable song linked in this early Shabana-gaana post.

Kulbhushan Kharbanda
[picture to be added]
It's a little twisted to include Kulbhushan ji in this collection, as he only seems to play a neglectful husband to Shabana ji. Even in their portrayal of troubled marriages, though, there is something about these two that connects, an earthiness I guess that makes them good to watch together.

Om Puri

Om Puri has played in a variety of types of roles opposite Shabana ji, but their romance in Mrityudand - still one of the finest seduction scenes I have ever seen in any film - earns him a spot on this list.

Nandita Das

You didn't think I'd leave her out, did you? I know Fire is not for everyone, but I think most who have seen this film would agree that the pairing was intense, smoky and sweet all at the same time.

Boman Irani

A very recent pairing, Shabana ji and Boman Irani played off one another with delightful humor and tenderness in Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd., and had a briefer and more acrimonious turn together in Farhan Akhtar's Positive from the AIDS JaaGo series. I know lots of folks would like to see them together again.

What do you think? Vote on the right.

February 1, 2008

January Poll results

Well the results are in: you share my bias toward Shabana Azmi's 1990s looks.

Our ultra-superficial January Poll asked: in which decade is Shabana ji at her loveliest? And the winner, by a large margin, was the 1990s, taking 11 votes, almost half of the total. The 80s are not far behind with six votes, followed by a split between the youthful 70s and the formidable present, three votes each.

I recently commented elsewhere that I generally think women are most beautiful in their 40s (some just continue improving even beyond that), and that this basic fact is obscured by our youth-obsessed culture; I have seen numerous young fans of Hindi film shocked to discover that Madhuri Dixit, or Juhi Chawla, or even Sridevi look even better today than they did in their so-called "primes". That the 40-something Shabana Azmi should be the clear winner of the January poll shows that SLP readers are already well aware of this fundamental truth.

Coming up: a seasonally appropriate February poll that is genius from the mind of Beth. Stay tuned.