1950; daughter of the poet Kaifi Azmi and the actress Shaukat.
Attended Indian Film Institute, Poona.
Married to the screenwriter Javed Akhtar.
1974—film debut in
, the first film of Shyam Benegal; 1980—on stage in
, the Hindi version of
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
; 1994—on stage in
, the Hindi/Urdu version of
; member of the UN Human Rights Commission.
Best Actress, Indian National Film Awards, for
, 1983; and
The December Evening (short); Munshiji (short); Ankur ( The Seedling ) (Benegal)
Parinay ; Ishq, Ishq, Ishq (Dev Anand); Faslah (Abbas)
Sewak ; Kadamberi ; Nishant (Benegal)
Fakira ; Shaque ; Vishwasghaat
Aadha din aadhi raat ; Hira aur Patthar ; Amar Akbar Anthony (Desai); Chor Sipahi ; Ek hi rasta ; Parvarish ; Khel Khiladi ka ; Kissa Kursi Ka ; Karm ; Swami ; Kanneshwara Rama ; Zamanat
Devata ; Atithee ; Swarg narak ; Khoon ki pukar ; Toote Khilone ; Junoon ( Obsession ) (Benegal); Shatranj Ke Khilari ( The Chess Players ) (Satyajit Ray) (as Mirza's wife)
Bagula bhagat ; Amar deep ; Lahu ke do rang ; Sparsh (Paranjapye); Jeena yahan
Jwalamukhi ; Albert Pinto ko gussa kyon aata hai ( Why Albert Pinto Is Angry ) (Mirza); Ek baar kaho ; Apne paraye ; Thodisi bewafai ; Yeh kaisa insaaf ; Hum paanch
Ek hi bhool ; Shama ; Sameera (Shulka); Raaste pyare ke
Namkeen ; Ashanti ; Anokha bandhan ; Suraag ; Yeh Nazdeekiyan ; Arth (Mahash Bhatt); Log kya kahenge ; Masoom ( Innocent ) (Shekhar Kapur)
Doosri Doolhan ; Sweekar kiya maine ; Avtaar ; Mandi ( Market Place ) (Benegal); Khandahar ( The Ruins ) (Mrinal Sen) (as Jamila); Pyaasi Aankhen
Aaj ka M.L.A. Ram Avtaar ; Bhavna ; Kamla ; Itihaas ; Lorie ; Libaas ; Sparsh (Paranjapye); Kamyaab ; Paar (Goutam Ghose); Gangvaa ; Hum Rahe Na Hum ; Yaadon K.I. Zanjeer ; Mr. X ; Ram Tera Desh
Rahi Badal Gaye ; Uttarayan ; Khamosh (Vidhu Vinod Chopra) (as herself); Shart
Anjuman (Muzaffar Ali); Ek Pal ; Samay Ki Dhara ; Nasihat ; Susman ( The Essence ) (Benegal); Genesis (Mrinal Sen) (as the woman)
Itihaas ; Jallianwala Bagh ; Pestonjee (Vijaya Mehta)
Mardon Wali Baat ; Madame Sousatzka (Schlesinger) (as Sushila Sen); Ek Din Achanak ( Suddenly, One Day ) (Mrinal Sen); Nuit Bengali ( Bengali Night ) (Klotz) (as Indira Sen)
Oonch Neech Beech ; Libaas ; Jhoothi Sharm ; Rakhwala ; Main Azaad Hoon (Tinnu Anand); Sati (Aparna Sen)
Disha (Paranjapye); Picnic (Aparna Sen—for TV); Amba ; Muqaddar Ka Badshah ; Ek Doctor Ki Maut
Immaculate Conception (Jamil Dehlavi) (as Samira); Dharavi ( City of Dreams ) (Sudhir Mishra) (as Kumud)
Adharm ; Jhoothi Shaan ; City of Joy (Joffé) (as Kamla Pal); Antarnaad
Son of the Pink Panther (Edwards) (as the Queen)
Patang ( The Kite ) (Goutam Ghose) (as Jitni); In Custody ( Hifazaat ) (Merchant) (as Imtiaz Begum)
Fire (Deepa Mehta)
Side Streets (Gerber) (as Chandra Raj)
Mrityu Dand (Jha)
Godmother (Shukla) (as Rambhi)
"Tsentr pritiazheniia," interview with A. Solodov, in Ishkusstvo Kino (Moscow), no. 5, 1986.
Interview with M. Sen, in Cinema in India (Bombay), vol. 3, no. 1, 1992.
Gahlot, D., "Great Expectations," in Cinema in India (Bombay), vol. 4, no. 7, 1990.
Rajadhyaksha, Ashish, and Paul Willemen, in Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema , New Dehli, 1994.
* * *
Shabana Azmi shares with Smita Patil her position as the most important contemporary actress in Indian cinema (though not necessarily the most popular with the public) because of her unusual ability to successfully straddle the two worlds of commercial and art cinema. Many themes of the new cinema revolve around the personalities of women, providing opportunities for actresses to demonstrate their histrionic abilities. Azmi, like Patil, was not a conventional glamour girl, but through sheer personal magnetism found herself cast in Shyam Benegal's first film Ankur , a landmark in India's new cinema, after being turned down by him for a modeling assignment.
Azmi had always hoped to succeed in commercial films in order to cultivate a following for her art films. Her career was undoubtedly aided by the box-office success of her first big-budget movie, Fakira , which succeeded in spite of her. After several years and 60-odd films, making a dent in all kinds of cinema—from the lowest budget to the most crassly commercial—it is remarkable that she has been consistently shrewd enough to know which roles would suit her and yet impress the public with her versatility as an actress. From such roles as the madam of a brothel in Shyam Benegal's Mandi , a bellicose part for which she had to gain considerable weight, or the subdued Jamila in Mrinal Sen's Khandahar , where the camera lovingly explores her beauty amongst decaying ruins, she can switch to the tear-jerking melodramas which have won her a wider following.
Her secret lies in an ability to throw herself completely into the part, not worrying about what her friends think about a "dancing around the trees" routine. As she has said, "After a while, I realized that even such scenes needed a measure of talent to carry off convincingly and decided to throw myself into it wholeheartedly."
Azmi's multifaceted talents bring a three-dimensionality, depth, and freshness to every character she takes on. She is the child prodigy's grasping mother in Madame Sousatzka , the poet-pretender second wife of the aging poet Nur in In Custody , the unwedded tough mother Jitni in the Bengali film Patang , and the scheming queen in Son of the Pink Panther . Whether she is engaged in a war of wills with her son's teacher, or trying to push her own poetry above her husband's, or trying to bridge the gap between her son and lover, or planning the kidnaping of her stepdaughter, there is one common characteristic: she is vivacious.
More recently, Azmi tried her hand at stage acting in Tumhari Amrita , an adaptation of A. K. Gurney's Love Letters . Azmi and Farouque Shaikh, who formed the duo cast, sat on the stage just reading letters and pouring their hearts out in the process. The play was critically acclaimed and had rave responses from audiences, adding another to Azmi's impressive forte of talents. Azmi's commitment not only to the portrayal of the weaker sections of the society, but also to their upliftment has been manifested in many of her activities. Staging a hunger strike to stop the evacuation of slum dwellers, protesting the killing of noted playwright Safdar Hashmi, organizing the film industry to help the Bombay riot victims—her convictions earn credit to her as a concerned human being, as much as her histrionics bring her acclaim as an actress.
Azmi, called the activist actress, is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and presented their Peace Award to South African President Nelson Mandela in 1994. She was also honored at the General State of Human Rights Conference at Paris in 1989.
—Behroze Gandhy, updated by Usha Venkatachallam