A lot of Indian celebrities are often asked ‘Which actor’s career path would they like to follow?’ and more often than not, they reply – Meryl Streep. In many of these interviews, I have often wondered if Shabana Azmi is the Streep that India got decades ago but somehow, our industry did not really know how to celebrate her the way Hollywood celebrates Meryl Streep. Of course, she is a stellar actor who has won multiple awards, is known for her charismatic screen presence, and is all-around an institution in herself but the way Shabana Azmi carved her path through mainstream as well as ‘parallel cinema’ of the day is a guiding light for those who came after her.
Shabana Azmi’s career started at a time when the lines between mainstream cinema and the Indian ‘Parallel cinema’ movement were wedged deep. There were very few actors who could flow seamlessly from a Manmohan Desai movie to a Shyam Benegal film and Shabana was one of them. When she made her debut with Ankur in 1974, she became the woman who was another glorious addition to the stellar soldiers of the parallel movement. But soon enough, the audience found out that she was truly an enigmatic actor who could mold herself to any genre.
It might have come as a shock to indie loyalists back in the day when they saw her sing “Humko Tumse Ho Gaya Hai Pyaar” with Vinod Khanna in Amar Akbar Anthony or when she was shaking a leg to “Jaate Ho Jaane Jaana” in Parvarish but in hindsight, it was Shabana diversifying herself. As many actors are often heard saying – ‘one for them, and one for me’, Shabana has been doing that even before it was a thing in India. In the same year as Amar Akbar Anthony and Parvarish, Shabana played a wife stuck in a dilemma between love and duty in Basu Chatterjee’s Swami and even won a Filmfare Best Actress award for it.
While the 1980s are generally regarded as one of the worst decades of the mainstream film industry, this was the time when the parallel films were thriving and for Shabana, this was her time to shine. She appeared in Arth, Masoom and Mandi, among others, and was highly acclaimed for her performances in all. Playing a wife who does not depend on her husband’s whims and fancies, Shabana made Arth’s Pooja a character who is still pretty relatable. Even in Masoom, her conundrum in accepting Jugal Hansraj’s Rahul is so delicately balanced that you get to see a non-filmy mother, which was a big deal in the 80s. But while she was championing the alt-thinking in these films, she went mainstream with Avtar. Starring alongside Rajesh Khanna, and humming “Chalo Bulava Aaya Hai Mata Ne Bulaya Hai”, her act of an ideal wife and mother had the audience in tears.
While she had been balancing both sides of the scale for a couple of decades, Shabana was hit with intense criticism when she appeared in Deepa Mehta’s Fire, alongside Nandita Das. The film had them playing sisters-in-law who find love in each other. An LGBTQ film is still taboo in our country, and back in the 90s, a film that explored the subject invited a lot of controversies.
Godmother, 15 Park Avenue, Neerja, and many other films have seen Shabana Azmi completely stealing the show with her awe-inspiring performances and though her journey is still going on, her filmography continues to impress with the unique and diverse choices, that have been her trademark since the 70s.