“Are you satisfied with the way world is? If not, then work towards your idea of worldview, work towards your idea of social change through dissent, contesting voices and debate!”
With these words, actress Shabana Azmi spelled her vision and drive to work towards social change - an India driven by women’s emancipation, where slum dwellers and economically weaker sections of the society have access to shelters as a fundamental right, and a country where dissent, debate, contesting ideologues and voices are welcome.
YourStory caught up with the veteran actress and daughter of famed Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi, where Shabana, recalling her father’s poetry, discussed the role of cinema and art to drive social change.
“The purpose of art is to entertain, provoke, ask hard questions, soothen — it is up to different artists to decide in what way they want to use art,” the 68-year-old actress said.
Shabana, who made her film debut in 1974, became one of the leading actresses of parallel cinema — a new-wave movement known for its serious content and neo-realism and received government patronage during 1970s and 80s. She has won many international and national accolades for portraying different characters and exploring different facets of women and the Indian society, its customs and traditions through progressive lens.
Well-known for portraying serious characters and themes, Shabana believes that art and cinema should not be restricted to a single genre or theme.
“It is up to the audience to choose the type of cinema they want to view. People often tell me that parallel cinema is dying, but it is not. Change is inevitable. Parallel cinema is still there and the form is independent of movies. It might not be dealing with the feudal system or village life anymore, but it still talks about issues which are not mainstream,” she says.
Further, she hopes to see exchange of ideas and cultures with a room for innovation in the coming days. She says exploring new themes with the help of technology has opened a whole new world and has made way for interaction between the west and the east, enabling a global village network.
The idea of social change and reforms in the society is individualistic. “My idea and what I am satisfied with might not be your idea. But whatever it is that concerns you and if you feel that certain things are good or bad - you need to act on it. When you talk about social change, you will have to start with change,” she shares.
Inspired by her father Kaifi Azmi’s poem Makaan, she has been actively involved in the rehabilitation of Mumbai slum dwellers through her NGO Nivara Hakk. Her work for women empowerment, girl child education, livelihood and skilling opportunities began through Kaifi’s poem Auraat, inspiring her to start the Mizwan Welfare Society (MWS).
Kaifi Azmi believed that in a country like India, where 80 percent of the population lives in the villages, there was a need to empower villages if India is to make any real progress. He said, “When one is working for change, one should bring into that expectation the possibility that the change may not occur in one’s lifetime and yet one must work towards it”.
Carrying forward the legacy and dream of Kaifi through MWS, the society aims to achieve its vision of employment, self reliance and sustainable development of the Mijwan village in Uttar Pradesh through education programmes, provision of primary healthcare centres and promotion of small-scale industries, supporting it with marketing skills and strategies, thereby facilitating self-employment.
“Poetry is my constant companion - I find solace, encouragement, philosophy, and I find that it gives me strength. I always read Kaifi’s books for answers,” she concludes.