'Race is not an issue today'

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By Shabana Azmi is just back from Singapore after having done a play. By Subhash K. Jha
  • Published 30.09.05

Q: You’re as usual brimming over with joie de vivre.

I’ve come back from Singapore and am on top of the world. I’ve lost weight. I cut my hair for the play. I think it rather becomes me?. This play that I did ? Harold Pinter’s Betrayal ? is by the Singapore Repertory Theatre.

For the Theatre, I had earlier done Nora which was Ingmar Bergman’s version of Ibsen’s Doll’s House. My interest in the Singapore Repertory?is to do with their ‘colour-blind’ casting. By this definition the best parts needn’t automatically go to White Caucasians. Indians and Black Americans are also eligible.

Q: You had the main role?

Pinter’s Betrayal is such a clever piece of writing. Javed simply adores it. When they offered me the play I wasn’t aware of its content. But Javed was. Although my name is Emma and I dress in Western clothes, the accent is clearly Indian and some of my gestures are markedly Indian. I even get to hum Dekha ek khwaab to yeh silsilay huey during the play. But there’s no mention of my being an Indian. Race is not an issue today. There was one English, American and Indian character.

Q: Does a stage performance rejuvenate you?

I’ve always believed it’s essential not only for film actors to do theatre, but also for theatre actors to do cinema. They’re different disciplines, both important.

Betrayal was a very important step for me. It featured me with the twice Tony-nominee Peter Friedman. Just being around such a seasoned actor teaches you so much about theatre acting, for instance, how to carry your voice from stage to the last row. Here, you can forget your line in front of a live audience. In cinema you use your voice differently. Cinema makes you smug. Ek take nahin theek hua to kar lenge. I say, why? Why shouldn’t we attempt to get it right the first time?

You know, during my earlier phase as a film actor I used to give so much of myself to the rehearsals that I’d dry myself up at the final take. It was Vinod Mehra who taught me to hold back. He’d hold my hand and say, ‘Remember this a rehearsal.’

Q: What have you come back to?

At the moment in terms of films there’s just Umrao Jaan. Doing my mother’s role is such an exciting thought.


Trust Shabana Azmi to spring surprises galore. Even as she returned from Singapore for her birthday on September 18, she flew down to Santiniketan for the release of a very unique project.

“It’s a Bengali album called Tomar Akaash Dao, containing a recitation of Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry which I’ve done with Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee,” she says, delighted. “Somnath Chatterjee is a big Tagore fan and he has the most gorgeous voice. He has recited some of Tagore’s poems in Bengali while I’ve recited six of Tagore’s poems in English. His daughter, Anusheela, has sung some poems.”

Shabana isn’t the first film personality to have done a serious album of poems. Amitabh Bachchan has recited his own father the illustrious Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s poems, and Shabana’s father, the distinguished Kaifi Azmi did an album of his own poems. But this is certainly the first time that an Indian actress (or, for that matter, an actress from any part of the world) has got together with a politician to cut an album.

“You’re telling me!” Shabana laughs. “Somnath Chatterjee wrote to me asking if I’d do this album. He’s such a lovely man. I readily agreed. It was a very, very nice experience. Now let’s see what the Bongs do with it. I recorded the album very quietly when I was shooting Aparna Sen’s 15 Park Avenue in Calcutta…you know I don’t like brouhaha about anything I do. I’m very superstitious about things going wrong. To woh maine kar liya chup-chaap baith kar. Now when I came back from Singapore, Javed and I went straight to Santiniketan for its release. Javed released the album.”

This isn’t the first time that Shabana has cut an album. In Shyam Benegal’s Mandi she sang a song for composer Vanraj Bhatia and in Muzaffar Ali’s Anjuman she sang the entire album.