One can safely say that Shabana Azmi has been one of the pillars of the art cinema moment in India. Her body language, her beautiful face, her expressive eyes make for one hell of a combination. She makes acting look easy. She can seep into any character, be it that of a disillusioned wife in Arth, a madam in Mandi, a social worker in Sparsh or a girl trying her hard to just exist in Khandar. She has worked with the best of directors and has brought grace to every role she has enacted. On the occasion of her birthday, which falls on September 18, we bring you a list of some of her best movies down the years…
Director: Shyam Benegal
Cast: Anant Nag, Shabana Azmi, Sadhu Meher, Priya Tendulkar
Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi) works as a housemaid in the landlord’s house and is married to a deaf-mute drunkard (Sadhu Meher). She has an affair with the landlord’s son, Surya (Anant Nag), who has come to the village on his father’s insistence to run the family business but finds life stifling in the backwater community. After being accused of stealing, Lakshmi’s husband faces the wrath of the villagers and later disappears. That’s when Lakshmi and Surya’s bond grows beyond physical boundaries. Things change when Surya’s wife comes home. Lakshmi is pregnant and Surya refuses to accept any responsibility towards her. Instigated by his wife, he throws her out of the house. At this juncture, her husband comes back in her life to make amends. This was Shabana’s first release and the film won her the National Film Award for Best Actress for her performance.
Director: Basu Chatterjee
Cast: Shabana Azmi, Vikram, Girish Karnad, Utpal Dutt
The film was adapted from a Sarat Chandra novel of the same name. Saudamini “Mini” (Shabana Azmi) has grown up idolising her forward-thinking uncle (Utpal Dutt). Like him, she loves to read Western literature, likes Western philosophers and is an atheist at heart. Her god-fearing mother doesn’t like her growing intimacy with the neighbourhood boy Naren (Vikram), who is smitten by her beauty as well as her intellect but takes a tremendously long time to make his intentions clear. Mini gets married off to a wealthy wheat trader Ghanshyam (Girish Karnad). He’s the epitome of patience and doesn’t react to her tantrums and mood swings. In her mind, she has become a prisoner in her husband’s house and wants to break free. But it’s only when she takes the actual step does she begin to realise her foolishness. She understands the largeness of heart of her husband and the last scene, where he asks her to come back home, completes her transformation from a rebellious girl to a wife. While Utpal Dutt and Girish Karnad shone in their individual ways, the film belonged to Shabana Azmi. Her quicksilver expressions carried the day.
Director: Shyam Benegal
Cast: Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Jennifer Kendal, Naseeruddin Shah, Nafisa Ali
The film, based on a story, A Flight of Pigeons by Ruskin Bond, is a poignant love story set against the backdrop of the 1857 war of independence against the British. Shashi Kapoor plays a Pathan feudal lord who isn’t interested in the politics of the era and would rather breed carrier pigeons. This apathy by India’s royalty towards the realities of the hour is captured beautifully in the film. He gives sanctuary to a British woman, Miriam Labadoor (Jennifer Kendal), her daughter Ruth (Nafisa Ali) and mother (Ismat Chugtai) after Indian soldiers go on a rampage against the British. He falls in love with Ruth despite being married and she too is attracted towards him. His wife Firdaus (Shabana Azmi), naturally is upset with this and so is the girl’s mother. The two women conspire against him, leading to much heartburn for all parties concerned.
Apne Paraye (1980)
Director: Basu Chatterjee
Cast: Shabana Azmi, Amol Palekar, Girish Karnad, Utpal Dutt
The film is based on Sarat Chandra’s novel Nishkriti. Utpal Dutt, a senior advocate based in Kolkata dotes on his younger cousin, Chander (Amol Palekar). Chander is a bit of a slacker, not interested in taking a permanent job and is only interested in music. His wife, Sheela (Shabana Azmi), practically runs the household and is considered quite strict. The advocate’s wife Siddheswari (Ashalata) too likes them both. Everything is fine till Utpal Dutt’s younger brother Haish (Girish Karnad) lands up with his wife Naintara (Bharti Achrekar). Naintara’s gets jealous of Sheela’s hold on the household and plots against her. She gets Sheela and Chander thrown out of the house with her husband’s help. Harish also files a suit against them. Suddenly, life is on a downward spiral for them. It’s only on the intervention of the elder brother that things smooth up once more. The rivalries and politics of a joint family are amply brought out in the film.
Director: Sai Paranjape
Cast: Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Sudha Chopra
Anirudh (Naseeruddin Shah), a visually-impaired man, is a principal in the school for the blind. He’s highly motivated towards making his children self-reliant. He values his self-respect above everything else and hates being pitied. One day, at a party, he meets Kavita (Shabana Azmi), a young widow, and the two form a bond. She soon starts volunteering at his school and later even becomes a teacher full time. They fall in love and even get engaged. It’s at this juncture that Anirudh begins to doubt their relationship. He feels Kavita has agreed to the marriage not out of love but out of pity. And maybe being close to him and the blind children are her means of filling the void in her own life. He fails to notice the genuine joy she feels in the company of the children or that she actually loves him. Differences crop up between them and soon it becomes apparent that one of them has to leave the school. How they learn to come back together forms the crux of this sensitive film.
Director: Mahesh Bhatt
Cast: Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Raj Kiran
We don’t know if Arth was pure fiction or director Mahesh Bhatt took a leaf out of his own life and wove a story around it. Shabana Azmi won her second National Film Award for her seminal performance in the film. Inder (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), an egotistical film director is married to Pooja (Shabana Azmi). He has a successful association with an actress Kavita (Smita Patil) and starts an affair with her. Inder divorces Pooja for the sake of Kavita. A heartbroken Pooja is consoled by a good-natured singer Raj (Raj Kiran). Ironically, Kavita leaves Inder and Pooja too rejects him when he wants to make amends. She’s fond of Raj but ultimately doesn’t want to depend on him. She wants to give meaning to her life herself and not be dependent on any man to do so. She embarks on a journey of self-discovery, making her peace with Inder’s infidelity towards the end. The film’s highlight was the confrontation scene between Shabana and Smita, where the former let go of all inhibitions and goes hammer and tongs against the woman she perceives as a housebreaker.
Director: Shyam Benegal
Cast: Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Shabana Azmi, Amrish Puri
Shabana played the ‘madam’ of a brothel in the film, who is overly protective of her protege. The relationship between Rukminibai (Shabana Azmi) and Zeenat (Smita Patil) is one of the main focuses of this movie; Rukminibai loves Zeenat like a daughter but feels threatened when Zeenat wants to assert her freedom. She eventually alienated herself from all the women who worked for her and had to leave the brothel to eke out a new existence. The film was a dark comedy, teeming with colourful characters like the servant Tungrus (Naseeruddin Shah), a horny photographer (Om Puri), a baba-like figure (Amrish Puri), a businessman with a secret (Saeed Jaffrey), a novice courtesan (Sreela Majumdar) and some other odd characters. Shabana brought out the nuances of a brothel-keeper through her role and was vastly lauded for it.
Director: Shekhar Kapoor
Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Jugal Hansraj, Urmila Matondkar
The film was based on the novel, Man, Woman and Child by Erich Segal. Gulzar wrote the screenplay, as also the songs. The story revolves around DK (Naseeruddin Shah) who’s happily married to Indu (Shabana Azmi). They’re the proud parents of two lovely girls Pinky and Mini (Urmila Matondkar and Aradhana). However, their happy married life suffers a blow when it’s learnt that DK had an affair with an old schoolmate Bhavana (Supriya Pathak) and even has a son by her. Bhavana succumbs to illness and despite Indu’s objections, DK brings the child Rahul (Jugal Hansraj) to live with them. Rahul doesn’t know DK is his father, however. His son gets along with his daughters but Indu doesn’t want him in the house. When DK sees the friction Rahul’s arrival has created, he plans to send him to a boarding school. When Rahul learns who DK really is, he runs away. He doesn’t want to leave his father and Indu, witnessing the turmoil, forgives DK and admits Rahul as part of her family.
Director: Mrinal Sen
Cast: Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Sreela Majumdar
Styled like a Maupassant story, it revolves around a group of friends stepping out for a picnic in some ruins, only to find a mother-daughter duo living there. The mother is blind and bedridden and under the delusion that one among the visitors is a young man betrothed to the daughter, though it isn’t so. The photographer among the group (Naseeruddin Shah) takes pity on the girl (Shabana Azmi) and decides to play along. However, the charade leaves all of them with some tense situations and they spent some dark, brooding days in the ruins. The film won Shabana another National Film Award for Best Actress.
Director: Gautam Ghose
Cast: Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Utpal Dutt
It tells the story of a young couple, Naurangia (Naseeruddin Shah) and his wife Rama (Shabana Azmi) who are forced to flee the village because of atrocities committed by the landlord (Utpal Dutt). While on the run from their enemies, they agree to herd a large flock of pigs across a flooded river. Rama is pregnant and there’s a danger that she might lose the baby during this difficult endeavour. Yet, human will triumphs and the couple, despite coming close to drowning, manage to succeed in the end. The dangerous river crossing symbolically sums up all worldly burdens and trials. Both Shabana ane Naseer was superb in the film. Shabana won another National Award for her true-to-life performance.