Sep 18, 1950 in Hyderabad, Telangana, India
Sep 18, 1950 in Hyderabad, Telangana, India
Shabana Azmi’s cinematic choices are a reflection of her ideologies and matters close to her heart. She, for decades, represented the Indian Parallel Cinema Movement of the 1970’s and 1980’s. An Indian film and theater actress, Shabana Azmi has worked with celebrated art-house filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, Shyam Benegal and Aparna Sen. Through her films, the actress has attempted to bring to light many societal issues like women exploitation, problems of minorities and communalism. In a career spanning 40 years, Azmi has appeared in some path-breaking films such as Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975), Sparsh (1980), Arth (1982), and Godmother (1999). For her contribution to the field of performing arts, the multiple National Film Award recipient was honored with Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in India, in 1988, and with Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award, in 2012.
Apart from being an actress par excellence, Shabana Azmi is a passionate philanthropist and has been extremely vocal about women’s rights. A Goodwill Ambassador for United Nations Population Fund, she is also a member of the Rajya Sabha.
Born to the renowned Indian poet Kaifi Azmi and the famous theater actress Shaukat Azmi, Shabana also has a younger brother Baba Azmi, who is a cinematographer in the Indian film industry. Her parents were the members of the Communist Party of India, and since childhood, she was always encouraged to participate in various intellectual discourses, thus shaping her beliefs and theories about the society.
Shabana completed her schooling from Queen Mary College, in Mumbai, after which she attended St. Xavier’s College, where she graduated in psychology. She then did a course in acting from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. Aside from being the noted performer, Tanvi Azmi’s sister-in-law, Shabana Azmi is also the aunt to the Indian film actress Tabu, and her sister Farah Naaz.
Shabana Azmi was all set to marry the theater and film actor Benjamin Gilani, who she was also engaged to. But, unfortunately, the two parted ways after the rumors of her romance with Shekhar Kapur started surfacing. It was on the sets of Ishq Ishq Ishq that they met and what started off as just a friendship, grew into something much more. Although, they separated, but Shabana still agreed to a play a lead in Shekar Kapur’s first feature film Masoom. The actress later married, lyricist and screenwriter Javed Akhtar. Azmi’s parents were extremely skeptical about this match, as it was Akhtar’s second marriage; first being to Honey Irani, who was also a writer in the Hindi film industry and with whom he had two children: Zoya Akhtar and Farhan Akhtar. However, Akhtar and Azmi’s love was too strong and the affair continued for six long years, till he divorced Honey Irani, in 1984.
Starting her career with neo-realistic cinema, Shabana Azmi made her big-screen debut with Shyam Benegal’s first film Ankur, which along with her also starred Anant Nag in the lead. Based on a true story in Hyderabad, the movie went on to receive colossal critical acclaim, with Shabana Azmi taking home the National Film Award for Best Actress. She then appeared in a mix of commercial and parallel movies such as Ishq Ishq Ishq (1974), Nishant (1975), Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Kissa Kursi Ka (1977), and Swami (1977) for which she received her maiden Filmfare Award for Best Actress Award. A Hindi drama film Swami was directed by Basu Chatterjee and co-starred Girish Karnad, and Utpal Dutt in important roles.
From 1983 to 1985, Azmi’s career saw new heights, as she starred in films, which are till date considered some of her best works. She was also honored with three consecutive National Film Awards in three years. First one for Mahesh Bhatt’s semi-autobiographical film Arth; second Mrinal Sen’s drama film Khandhar and Goutam Ghose’s Paar. For Arth, which along with her also starred for Mrinal Sen’s her contemporary Smita Patil and Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Azmi won her second Filmfare Award for Best Actress. She soon came to be recognized as a character artist, who only depicted real characters. All her films had a strong social message, which often reflected the evils of the society.
In 1989, the actress starred in the Bengali film, Sati. Directed by Aparna Sen, the movie chronicled the life of a mute girl, who because of a fault in her horoscope is made to marry a tree. Along with her, the movie had Arun Banerjee playing the lead role. This was regarded as a very important film, making Aparna Sen one of the first directors to boldly speak about women’s problems and gender issues.
Be it the portrayal of Rukmani Bai in Mandi (1983), or Kavita in Sparsh (1980), her roles and the choices of films highlighted the exploitation a woman in Indian society back then went through. Shabana Azmi never gave up on trying to bring about her change via the medium of art. After continuing to do great work in Hindi cinema in the late 80s, Azmi made her international movie debut with the French-British drama film City of Joy (1992), which along with her also featured Patrick Swayze and Om Puri in the lead. In 1996, she forayed into the genre of experimental cinema, when she essayed Radha in Mira Nair’s “controversial” drama film Fire, which was also the first installment of Mehta's Elements trilogy; it is succeeded by Earth (1998) and Water (2005). Fire, loosely based on Ismat Chughtai's 1942 story, Lihaaf, also stars Nandita Das in the lead and openly explores homosexual relations, because of which the movie landed in a lot of trouble in India. Her 1999 release Godmother gave Shabana Azmi her fifth National Film Award for Best Actress. A biographical drama, Godmother follows the story Santokben Jadeja, a mafia-turned-politician, who was the mastermind behind many operations in the late 1980s. Directed by Vinay Shukla and starring Shabana Azmi in the titular role, the movie also bagged National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi and the Filmfare Award for Best Story.
In the 2000s, Azmi became extremely selective of her work and some of her most notable films in that decade include Makdee (2002), 15 Park Avenue (2005), and Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. (2007). She also appeared in quite a few international productions like Gurinder Chadha’s British comedy It's a Wonderful Afterlife, Deepa Mehta’s Canadian-British film adaptation Midnight’s Children and Mira Nair’s American political drama The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
The year 2016 saw Shabana Azmi return to more commercial cinema with two back to back releases- one being the Juhi Chawla starrer Chalk N Duster, which was a flop at the box office and the second one being the super-hit biographical film Neerja. For the latter, Azmi won the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress. Directed by Ram Madhvani, the movie starred Sonam Kapoor in the titular role, with Shabana Azmi playing her mother. Her 2017 release includes critically acclaimed director Aparna Sen’s venture Sonata, which is a film adaptation of an eponymous play by the same name. The movie along with Shabana Azmi and Aparna Sen stars Lillete Dubey in an important role.
Shabana Azmi made her small screen debut with the TV series Anupama, where she essayed a traditional woman who wanted more freedom from the society. Years later, she appeared in a cameo on the Indian television drama, 24, aired on Colors TV. Based on the American series of the same name, the show starred Anil Kapoor in the lead.
In the course of her career, Shabana Azmi has been a part of many stage productions such as M. S. Sathyu’s Safed Kundali (1980), and Feroz Abbas Khan's Tumhari Amrita. In 2014, she performed in the British production Happy Birthday Sunita, which was staged in Dubai, UK, and India.