Our flaws are what make us human: Shabana Azmi

Shabana Azmi, one of Indian cinema’s most iconic actresses, who was in the city for a performance of the critically acclaimed Broken Images, speaks about the play which has her character engaging in a constant dialogue of words and wits with her twin image
Our flaws are what make us human: Shabana Azmi
Shabana Azmi

Chennai

The very mention of her name commands immense respect, for she has left an indelible impression with every hat that she has donned. While her artistry on celluloid continues to be nonpareil, in matters close to her heart, such as women empowerment, child rights and upliftment of the downtrodden, her voice is equally powerful. Shabana Azmi is in true sense of the word a woman of substance, who has excelled in cinema and social activism, her two spheres of public engagement. 
In her illustrious film career spanning over four decades, Shabana has been at the helm of an Indian cinema that is grittier and more real, and which deals with more challenging subjects than its mainstream counterpart, while also winning a litany of national and international honours. Films apart, Shabana has also been a formidable force in theatre. She was exposed to the world of theatre even before she could barely speak. Her mother used to strap her on her back and take her to rehearsals, when she was member of Mumbai’s reputed Prithvi Theatre. 
“Theatre has been an integral part of my life. It is as important as films are to me. However, what theatre does to you is, it allows you to connect with the audience directly. On camera, you do have a chance to redeem yourself if you make a mistake. But, in theatre, everything is live and that’s what is challenging for an artiste. You learn a lot about improvisation, practice and rehearsals. Theatre also keeps you from getting complacent. Acknowledging one’s own greatness is the biggest stumbling block for an artiste’s growth. It is all these things that make theatre a very powerful medium,” explains Shabana. Her fascination for theatre had her performing in several award-winning plays including MS Sathyu’s Safed Kundali (1980) and Feroz Abbas Khan’s Tumhari Amrita with actor Farooq Sheikh, which ran for five years. She also toured Singapore on an assignment with the Singapore Repertory Theatre Company. Her play, the British production Happy Birthday Sunita, by Rifco Arts, was toured extensively across the UK, Dubai and India, performing to packed houses in 2014.
She is now back on stage touring yet another critically acclaimed play, Broken Images, that was performed in the city on Saturday. Written by Girish Karnad (originally in Kannada titled Odakalu Bimba), and directed by Alyque Padamsee, this adaptation of Broken Images presented by Ace Productions, tells the story of Manjula Sharma, a not-so successful Hindi writer who becomes an international bestselling author after writing a book in English. But Manjula wonders if she has achieved success at the cost of her ideals and her Hindi readership. One day, her own image, that also shares an uncanny resemblance to her sister Malini, turns inquisitor, putting her on trial for what she did. The constant dialogue between the two characters, or rather the two facets of the same person, is facilitated by digital technology used on stage, a first of sorts in India. 
Performing the soliloquy (one actor performance), was challenging, even for Shabana, because, there was simply no room for errors. “It is technically the most challenging play I’ve been part of. Malini is a pre-recorded image on the TV screen and Manjula is the live character on stage. I had to do Malini in a single shot of 44 minutes and surprisingly, I got it right in the first take. It was a first in my career. At the same time, if I miss a line or two while playing Manjula, I have no co-star to rescue me. In theatre you expect other actors to quickly make up for you. So, the timing is crucial and it requires fierce concentration. The experience is terrifying yet exhilarating,” explains Shabana, who received standing ovations across the US and Dubai for her performance in the play that has been touring for the past seven years.
The play also raises important questions on language politics, identity crisis and the invasion of technology. Most importantly, “The play tells you about how complex human emotions actually are. It shows how every individual has both positives and negatives – how each of us is flawed in one way or the other. It is these flaws that make us human,” finishes Shabana.

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