Q. What drove you to choose the profession you are in? What would you attribute your success to?
Ans. It was predestined in a way. My mother Shaukat Kaifi who is a very respected Theatre artist was working with Prithvi Theatres and used to strap me on her back as a 4 month old child and carry me to work because we couldn’t afford a maid. When I was about 3 years old I started accompanying her on her tours during vacations from school..I would go to sleep backstage with the smell of greasepaint all around me. In Queen Mary’s High School I performed every year ( mainly boys roles because it was a girls only school ). At St Xaviers College Bombay , together with Farooque Shaikh who was 2 years my senior, we formed Hindi Natya Manch and went on to win awards in every category through our college term. All the money for the production would come from Farooque, the furniture used to be dragged from my friend Parna’s house which was a stone’s throw away from Tejpal auditorium where the plays were staged…after completing my graduation I joined The Film Institute of India in Pune and passed out with the Gold Medal for Best student in Acting.
I am a firm believer in training and Prof Roshan Taneja, amy acting teacher was wonderful. At the FTI I was exposed to a lot of European and Japanese cinema that shaped my aesthetics and directed the choices I made in my career. I attribute my success to being at the right place at the right time in large measure. But I also do not take my work for granted and continue to get butterflies in my stomach before embarking on a new film or a new play.I’ve imbibed a lot from my mother about how to prepare for a part..days before the film I start dressing up like a witch, a slumdweller, a mafia don depending on what I’m playing and move around the house trying to inhabit the part..I prepare enough to be comfortable but the dynamics on the set are far more important than homework done in isolation. Its best when a couple of workshops are done in advance with the actors .
Q. How have you been able to break free from the paradigm, and create the unique value in your space?
Ans. I have an unconventional face for a Hindi film heroine. I remember. BR Chopra suggesting that I should do only vamps roles and Tarachand Barjatya saying that I look lower class and so should restrict myself to playing a maid etc.( Its another matter that later both of them cast me in roles that were far removed from the moulds they had suggested!) I am amazed at the success I got in mainstream Hindi cinema and often think these films Fakira, Parvarish, Amar Akbar Anthony etc were successful inspite of me not because of me! But subconsciously something very important was happening. I was playing some very substantial roles in Parallel cinema that won me critical acclaim and several national awards so I developed a status that was equivalent to the most successful stars of those times such as Hema Malini and Zeenat Aman because I was not competing on their homeground- had I done that I’m sure I would have been on the bottom rung of the ladder but parallel cinema gave me and Smita and Naseer and Om a unique position and I will always feel indebted to the various directors and writers who cast me in strong meaningful roles.
Converting challenges to opportunities
Q. Each of us are faced with a number of choices in our careers – I am sure you have some personal experiences where you have converted those into an opportunity that has contributed to further success in your career. Could you share some of those with us?
Ans. When I chose to do Ankur everyone advised me against it. I was playing a woman much older than I was and an “adulteress ” it would impact negatively on my career..but I went ahead and followed my instinct. In mainstream cinema I repeatedly turned down parts that were secondary even when the money was good..My choices were made instinctively and I worked with many first time directors irrespective of the banner..money was rarely a consideration.I didn’t plan my career I was just guided by my aesthetics and the sensibilities I had acquired because of my parents and the film institute.
Q. How have you been able to break free from your comfort zone to do something new & different?
Ans. I’ve done that consciously and repeatedly to prevent myself from becoming complacent and smug. In 1988 when I did John Schlesinger’s Madam Sousatzka opposite Shirley Maclaine, I knew that the only way I would be taken note of would be through my work because nobody knew about my reputation in India. It was like being a newcomer on the sets all over again and it was both humbling and challenging.
I’ve also gone to the UN, been a signatory to a worldwide Human Rights document about accepted measures during wartimes along with Kofi Anan and The Agha Khan, spoken at the Hague on the Population question..issues that I was learning as I went along the way. But Javed has always been particular that I am well prepared, so I seek out experts and am guided by them rather than be reckless and unprepared. Oftentimes celebrities mistake the position for the content and place themselves in a vulnerable position by not knowing enough on the topic they are addressing..I do not wish to sound boastful, I’m only making an oobservation to remind myself not to fall into such a trap.. I remember Jane Fonda hiring a hall at the UN and doing an entire rehearsal of the speech she was to make the next day complete with power point presentations etc. Some people may find that extreme but I will always remember it as a lesson well learned..that when you are out of your depth PREPARE PREPARE PREPARE…instead of being terrified and hoping for a miracle to save you.
Q. As a leader in your field, you have been able to create that common sense of purpose, take a diverse set of people along with you(be it the national team, be it people fighting for a social cause), to follow your passion and achieve larger objectives. How have you done that?
Ans. Successful because a whole team of technicians behind the scenes are working to camouflage the weaknesses and enhance the strengths of the actor. The film set is a training ground for relationships- you negotiate your way through different people from your costar to the light boy and the junior artists..its upto you whether you isolate yourself and choose the ivory tower or you learn from all those you work with.. Its so easy for a celebrity to be liked -a kind word, a genuine smile..and you spread good cheer..that’s the only way teamwork can succeed. At Nivara Hakk, the NGO I work with or Mijwan Welfare Society which was founded by my father Kaifi Azmi, we sit down and take stock, correct mistakes and restrategise learning from mistakes made.in order to make a good leader you have to be a good follower, know when to take a backseat and when to take charge. But above all to inspire confidence in those you lead..a leader does not impose authority a leader IS authority. It is essential for a leader to be proved right when she has taken decisions against the advice of the team and accept responsibility if the decision has backfired..
Q. Time and again you have established your leadership, your success in your field. What does it take to sustain success, how do you stay ahead of the curve?
Ans. By never getting complacent, by not resting on conquered laurels, by listening to the younger people around you to ensure you are not getting caught in a time warp..
Q. Family, career, travel, demanding schedules…..how do you do it?
Ans. With difficulty. It is not easy. I wish I had a wife who would take care of all the stuff at home whilst I went out to work! But I have a very supportive husband and family that free me of many mundane chores..I don’t keep accounts, there is food at all times on the table ( we are all fastidious about it- you can expect lunch at 4pm or dinner at 2 am in our home) but I pride myself on keeping a good home , I arrange fresh flowers myself , and I keep track of everyone’s medical needs including the domestic staff and their kids..
Giving back to society
Q. At the peak of your success, you have been able to contribute back to society, your time, your inspiration, your message…
Ans. Each one of us can be a catalyst for change..No man is an island unto himself. We are interdependent..we have to find time outside our immediate self interest if we are to grow, to learn and to embrace the marvel that is life.
Q. Who are the men who have played a significant role in your success story?
Ans. My father who gave me his unstinted support. I remember when I told him I wanted to take up acting as a profession and whether I had his support he said, ” I will support you in anything you choose to do..if you want to become a cobbler I will support that too, provided you tell yourself you will be the best cobbler in the business..”
My husband Javed who takes pride in my work and stands by me whether I go on a hunger strike or a padyatra or decide to work in Fire. Javed is not a demonstrative person but if ever I’m in trouble he is like a cobra raising its hood at anyone who looks at me with an intention to harm. I find complete security with him.Interview of Shabana in Bangalore 27th Sep 2010