Shabana Azmi has given us several memorable films like 'Ankur', 'Mandi', 'Arth', 'Makdee' and others in the past. Known for her power-packed roles, she has always made a special place in our hearts.
As her upcoming movie 'Chalk N Duster' gears up for a release this Friday, the veteran actress gets candid about her film, pay gap in B-town and several other things.
Excerpts from the conversation-
Can you can tell us what 'Chalk N Duster' is all about?
'Chalk N Duster' is the story of two school teachers who are sacked from their job by an ambitious principle who wants to revamp the school. It's a feel-good film.
With many women-centric films being made these days, do you think that women are taking over in Bollywood these days?
I think that 'taking over' is a very sweeping statement. But certainly this place is being created now for women-oriented films. I think that there is a difference because we had women-centric films even in the early years. Look at the works of Meena Kumari, Nutan and Waheedaji! What is different in today's time is that women who are playing female protagonists are today's women who are either standing up against the system or reclaiming space in family, relationships or society or whatever. And within that I think these films are successful commercially and more importantly it will encourage producers to put more money in women-centric films.
Recently Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra's performances have been applauded. There were reports of Deepika hiking her pay. You also have been in the industry for a long time. So do you feel there is still the pay gap issue?
Firstly, I have different views on pay gap. Films are becoming unviable today. That's because actors are charging so much. Even if they're not directly taking the money, they take so much of the profit that ultimately the producer spends 200 crores and makes 8 crores at the end of the day. That's why it's not viable, which is why I think we all have to rework on our prices. You can't kill the goose that lays the golden egg. The reason why there is so much disparity between male and women centric films is because (even though it's unfair) but it's the male star who brings the distributor in and determines the price of a film. Today's younger male stars are aware that this disparity needs to be bridged. Shah Rukh Khan made a gesture and put Deepika's name before his own. I would urge them to do a little more than that - which would be basically to encourage women centric films. Male superstars should agree to be at least once in a film where a female has a bigger role than them. There are a lot of movies where male stars have very important female stars in secondary roles. Why can't it also be reversed for equal pay? If you can develop this sensitivity in them, then that will become a way of seeing that some parity happening in pay scales.
Recently Priyanka Chopra became the first South Asian woman to bag the People Choice Awards..
It’s such an amazing thing; I mean she has really made this country proud and she has taken a huge decision. It’s not easy to leave everything what you have got over here and say alright let’s get into uncharted territories, but the fact is that she has made much news and also been appreciated and to get Popular Choice Award is a very big thing that means people have love you and so really hats off to her and I am really proud of her achievement.
These days once the trailer is out we start thinking how much business this movie is going to make, may be 100 crore or 200 crore. Do you think this is the right parameter for the success of a film?
It depends on how much money is spend on the movie. So if it is a film of huge budget then obviously these all marks seem to be important. But, this complete sort of focus in only getting in first week right, might work for the film with huge stars, it won't work for smaller films and do you think 'Dum Laga Ke Haisha' become a successful film filling the theatres in first week? It did not! With word of mouth and that proper nursing it did. I think 'Chalk N Duster' falls within the category of the 'Dum laga Ke Haisha'. So, I don't think we will get a fabulous opening, but I do believe that word of mouth will help this film. The film kindles warmth in you and a sense of elation which you take back.
What message you want to convey from the movie to the audience?
See I don't want to say that it is a huge message film because ultimately it's a story within that the background of that of school teacher. But I think what the film does is kindle the warmth in you for that teacher has been responsible for shaping you and making you who you are today. But you were to young to recognize then. Now you have lost touch and you don't even know where they are. What this film does is even when I talk about it I get goosebumps.This makes you feel I lost the touch with that teacher who was really there for me in my life. So that's a good thing.
Did you go back in your school time while shooting for the film?
No, but it did strike me, it’s extremely ironical, is that I was a very good student but completely hopeless at Maths and my Maths teacher completely hated me. She was Mrs. Barucha. She would come into class and because of my name being Azmi, I would be first on the roll call. She would say Azmi Shabana, I would say present and she would then say out of the class. Here, I’m playing a Mathematics teacher. The irony of it doesn’t seize to amaze me. The toughest time I had was to learn the theorem and understand what hypotenuse is and that really took all my time. I used to act so much that I remember one time, I had a maths test (for which I wasn’t prepared) and I pretended that I had a very bad stomach ache. My teacher didn’t quite believe me but she took me to the health centre of the school and there I continued to do even more natak. So my aunt, who was close to the school was called and I was admitted in J J hospital and I was still acting. Can you imagine that I called it all the way there? It proves two thing- that my acting ability was even then and the fact is that Maths is something that would give me stomach cramps even if I didn't have them. So the only real acting I had to do was when I was teaching Maths.
Have you taken any inspiration from that teacher of yours while playing a Mathematics teacher?
No, I haven't played a grumpy teacher (laughs) unlike her at all. In fact I have based my character on my own sister-in-law Sulbha Arya who is very well-known in theatre, television and film because she has been a teacher. And you know, around her I have seen her coming back and marking papers and carrying books and things like that. So even the way I look in the film and the way I behave is very closely based on Sulbha. So if you like me in the film that means you liked Sulbha and if you don't like me then blame her. She is my role model.
What was the most difficult subject that you hated the most?
Maths, I just told you.
What was that one thing which drew you towards 'Chalk N Duster'?
When I was offered this film I really liked it. Ranjeev has written it. He is an actor and his wife Neetu is a teacher. So they have observed teachers a lot. But I was not so enthusiastic because I didn't know either the director or the producer or anybody in it at all. But then Juhi came to my house and I could see that she was really taken up by the project and that she was willing to give her everything to it. In fact that encouraged me to say yes to the project because film is a very collaborative medium and if you have one person who is at the helm of affairs and is willing to go beyond their own role and really give the film the kind of push that it needs, so that person then acts as a complimentary to the director's and writer's efforts. And really it was that thing that made me decide that I will do the film.
If later in life if you get a chance to be a teacher then would you like to be one?
I would be a student. I am a student by temperament. The fact is I am a visiting professor of several universities in America. I am the visiting professor of Michigan University. I have taken classes at Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania etc. But then that's taking a class. But what I really enjoy being is a student. So if I could be in a university and just do that, I would love it.
We all know that you are one of the finest actresses that we have in our country today and you have a lot of experience? Are you planning to use that experience as a director and go behind the cameras?
It is so easy being an actor. When you are an actor everybody is working to make you comfortable. But when you are a director, you have to nurse everybody's egos and I have not interested in doing that. I am happy being an actor.