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From actress to activist...

"What worries me is that so many women are coming into television as directors and writers and still there is no change. It's because they are coming with a different agenda, propelled not by women's empowerment but by market forces."


A crusader against suppression... Shabana Azmi in ``Fire''.

BEING AN actress, you would think, would be a self-absorbing thing, leaving little time to dwell on things outside yourself. That too if you are an actress who has set such standards of performance that no treatise on Indian cinema would be complete without a reference to you. But not so for Shabana Azmi. Parliamentarian, goodwill ambassador to the UNFPA and one of the most vocal and visible faces of activism in India, Shabana Azmi's walk from actress nonpareil to activist began more than a decade ago when she joined hands with film-maker, Anand Patwardhan, to raise her voice on behalf of the slum dwellers, who in cities like Mumbai constitute over 70 per cent of the population and yet have no rights as citizens. With Nivara Haq Samiti, Shabana fought — and continues to fight for the past 16 years. As she puts it, ``if these people ever decide to go on strike, the cities will come to a grinding halt.''

Since then, Shabana has championed many causes — some of the most visible being her fight against the suppression of creative expression and her subsequent brush with the saffron brigade when she was to star in Deepa Mehta's ``Water." (Her controversial role in Mehta's earlier film, ``Fire'' had already set the tone of that debate!)

And more recently, she became the voice of the liberal Muslim and was in the eye of a storm when she suggested that Imam Bukhari should be airdropped in Afghanistan for supporting the Taliban so that he could fight for them. The Imam's insulting rejoinder — that too on national television — evoked a shocked response across the country and in Parliament, but did not deter a dignified Shabana who said that it only went to show the Imam for what he was...

Shabana Azmi. Celebrity with a cause (several, actually). Incredibly articulate, passionately committed, with a rare felicity with sound bytes; all these combined with liberal dollops of politically correct glamour. Naturally she was one of the main draws at a recent theatre festival in Mysore. The history books controversy was just freshly hatched, the festival's theme was one dear to her heart — the state of the contemporary Indian woman — and Shabana was in full sail...

Talking to Shabana Azmi is like sailing down a river. All you can do is flow with the current, strong, sure, impatient if you interrupt or resist, taking you inexorably downstream...

``The world seems to have finally recognised that the measure of society and a nation's progress, development and success is in the degree of empowerment it has managed to afford its women..."


Celebrity with a cause... Shabana with spastic children in Bangalore.

On women's empowerment, Shabana has this to say:

``We can't talk about empowering women without redefining the concept of power. To me, power is legitimate authority rather than something that you use against another section of society in order to control it and be more powerful. It is about the sharing of power.

Empowerment has to happen from within, from women themselves. If people step in from outside saying, "We will empower," they can do nothing. Empowerment is facilitating, encouraging women to articulate their needs, about which they are already very clear.

The problem with the empowerment of women in India is...

Women's empowerment without two things is impossible.

The first is education — and it's not just enough to make women literate. We have to give them education that will shape and change their outlook. Look at the kind of education that women get today — full of gender stereotyping and with a strong communal bias. This is dangerous. We need to change that and educate the woman to re-define herself and her role in society.

The second is economic independence. Again it is not enough for the woman to earn money, she must also have the right to spend it. We still have working women having to ask their mothers-in-law permission to buy a sari. Empowerment is not just the right to earn, but the right to spend as well...

So, what should be the first move?

First, we must educate the girl child. Secondly, women must have access to health care. Health is on nobody's agenda and women's health even less so. What really pains me is that 54 years after independence, we still haven't been able to provide safe motherhood in India and 70 per cent of maternal deaths are entirely preventable.

So, is the empowerment of Indian women really happening? What about places like U.P. and Bihar?

A lot is happening. Maybe not as rapidly as we'd like it to, but it's happening all the same. Obviously it's going to happen unequally because of the differences in social development between States. But that's no reason to despair at all. The wonderful part is that the women's movement in India has developed its own indigenous model where the focus is on empowering women in groups rather than individually as is the Western focus.

The ideas that are going to revolutionise women's movement...

Micro credit. It's shaking traditional family structures because suddenly it is the woman who has access to money and funding and that forces society to look again at who she is and what she stands for... That is why movements like SEWA are so powerful. They empower women not just to earn money but also to manage it themselves.

The Panchayati Raj. When women become sarpanchs, they are being placed at the centre of group development units and that becomes very empowering. It's interesting to see how different the issues are for women sarpanchs versus the male ones. The women want access to water, to firewood and schools for their children, whereas the men want to build community centres — brick and mortar things.

On the regressive stereotyping of women in prime time television serials and why they are so popular...

What worries me is that so many women are coming into television as directors and writers and still there is no change. It's because they are coming with a different agenda, propelled not by women's empowerment but by market forces.

So, will television ever become a resource for empowering women, away from debilitating stereotypes?

It will not happen unless we make a public broadcasting service of the highest quality — which is actually what Prasar Bharati should have done. Look at Canada where this has happened setting standards that even private, commercial channels follow. We cannot expect privately owned channels to do this — they are here to make money, not change society. So if we want television programmes that are entertaining yet meaningful, it has to come from the Government. Not in the form of half-baked changes, but in ensuring that the right individuals people these spaces — single-mindedly and autonomously like the BBC...

On social change...

I truly believe that change can only occur if society's action complements government action. It's all very well to blame the State, but are you with the problem or are you with the solution? I want to be part of the solution and I'll do anything for that...

On despair, hope and progress...

``My father (the renowned poet, Kaifi Azmi), who is now 83, has settled down in a tiny village in Azamgarh, U.P. and he has been working towards making it a model village. In his 20 years of living and working there, he has transformed it from a place that didn't have water and electricity to a place that has three schools, a health centre, roads and even boasts of a computer-training centre. He has done all this single-handedly — at snail's pace, all by himself, quietly, patiently, without raising a single slogan.

It wasn't easy but my father worked round the difficulties. For example, the villagers did not want a school because the place where he was going to set it up was the place that they put their cow dung. Instead of scoffing at them he found them an alternative space for the cow dung.

One day I asked him, ``Does it not frustrate you?"

And he said something that has become my motto.

``When you are working for change, you have to build into that expectation the possibility that change might not happen in your lifetime and yet to have to continue to work towards it..."

``Naunihal aate hain, arthi ko kinara kar lo

Main jahan tha inhe jaana hai wahan se aage

Aasman inka, zameen inki, zamana inka

Hai kai inke jahaan mere jahaan se aage

Inhe kaliyaan na kaho, yeh chaman-saaz suno... Meri awaz suno..." (Kaifi Azmi/Madan Mohan. Film — ``Naunihal")

RATNA RAJAIAH

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