August 29, 2007

Indian Actress Addresses Social Issues Through Film

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Here is a hint to the un-initiated American audience: do not ask Shabana Azmi — an A-list celebrity of the Indian film industry with over 100 films under her belt as well as a political activist turned member of the Indian Parliament — to share her feelings on “Bollywood.” She may dismissively cut the conversation short, showing her disdain for Bollywood’s caricatured connotations, like she did during a free public discussion in the Statler Auditorium last evening. “I hate Bollywood. It seems to say we are an imitation of Hollywood. We are the biggest cinema in the world, we make two times the number of films Hollywood makes a year,” she said.

Following the public screening of the controversial 1996 Indian film Fire, starring Azmi and written and directed by Deepa Mehta, and Shabana, a short documentary on Azmi, the actress fielded questions from a large, receptive and often adoring audience. The event, “In Conversation with Shabana Azmi,” hosted by the Cornell South Asia Program, highlighted a life devoted to conscientious acting, activism and national politics, often undertaken against the grain of public opinion. Topics during the discussion ranged from slum-razing and Muslim-Hindu tension in India — Azmi is a “secular Muslim” — to embracing film as a medium for social change and making friends with city prostitutes.

Snubbing Bollywood culture and the traditional images it conjures of the melodramatic despair of a singing, dark-eyed beauty separated from her equally star-crossed lover is just the job for the tradition-defying actress of Fire. Although the first few minutes of the film are deceptively suitable Bollywood material, replete with flower meadows and singing girls, it is soon clear why the film, which won Best Actress honors at the Chicago International Film Fest, wound up sending its director Deepa Mehta into exile in Canada. The film ignited national conservative outrage, including a few riots and a theater being torn apart, by spinning the plot of two women whose unhappy married lives become much more complicated by discovering they are in love with one another.

Cornell South Asia Program Events Coordinator Durga Bar explained during intermission the groundbreaking nature of the work as it is the first film of its scope, distribution and popularity addressing homosexuality in India. “The thing about Fire is that is was released everywhere, even though it was not mainstream,” she said.

The zesty Indian samosas that Bar and other attendees enjoyed during intermission were sold by a student group, Asha-Cornell. Asha means “hope” in Hindi, and its fundraising profits are donated entirely to impoverished partner schools and organizations in India.

Although prepared to face controversy, Azmi is not willing to play the shock-and-awe role of insensitive rebellion. “I think Indian audiences are absolutely ready to accept social change. It is how you present the idea … and if you are being too forceful about these issues, you are being condescending,” Azmi said. She considers her character in Fire, Radha, who discovers her homosexuality over the course of the film, to be natural and believable.

“[Rhada] does not turn into a flaming feminist over-night … [she decides] I am going to break the rules, because they are not working for me,” she said.

In fact, Azmi advocates the film as being more about “how you treat ‘the other’” and less about specifically “gay or lesbian” issues. “If you could give dignity to these two women in Fire, maybe it could spread out [to other minorities].”

Repeatedly, the theme of film as a channel into greater empathy for “the other” surfaced during the discussion. Responding to a question posed by Lili Xu ’08, Azmi mentioned watching the film documentary Bombay Our City as a catalyst for her activism in the slum-dwellings and anti-slum-razing debates.

While preparing for a role as a “street walker,” Azmi once invited a group of prostitutes into her office to talk about their profession. She formed a friendship by the end of the interrogation. “Later, driving through the neighborhood, they waved and shouted ‘Hi, Shoshana!’ I couldn’t explain to people, but I had gained empathy [for their world],” she said.

Audience member Guarvika Lal ’10, from Pune, India, appreciated getting an up-close-and-personal look at the national celebrity. “She is a lot more insightful than I thought. I thought today would stay at the surface, but she really said some thoughtful things,” she said.

The event was co-sponsored by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Society for the Humanities, Office of International Initiatives, Hans Bethe House, the Department of Theatre, Film and Dance and the U.S. Department of Education.