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Shabana Azmi: "I tried reading a couple of Halo books, but confess I didn’t get too far with them"

Directed by Otto Bathurst ('Black Mirror', 'Peaky Blinders'), Jonathan Liebesman, M.J. Bassett, Roel Reiné, and Jet Wilkinson, 'Halo' airs on Paramount+ from March 24, 2022.

March 22, 2022 / 08:13 PM IST
Shabana Azmi played the part of Admiral Margaret Paragonsky, head of the Office of Naval Intelligence, in 'Halo'.

Shabana Azmi played the part of Admiral Margaret Paragonsky, head of the Office of Naval Intelligence, in 'Halo'.

Twenty-three years after Peter Brook abridged his 9-hour multiracial stage adaptation of the Hindu epic Mahabharata for a theatrical release, the soon-to-release webseries Halo is generating equal excitement because of its multiracial casting. The series which stars Pablo Schreiber, Natascha McElhone, Yerin Ha, Charlie Murphy, Jen Taylor, Shabana Azmi, Bokeem Woodbine, Kate Kennedy, Natasha Culzac and Bentley Kalu looks at the story of a cybernetically enhanced super-soldier Master Chief defending humanity from the alien Covenant in the 26th century.

The first episode of the $200 million series directed by Otto Bathurst, Jonathan Liebesman, M.J. Bassett, Roel Reiné, and Jet Wilkinson will air on 24 March 2022. Produced by Amblin Television, 343 Industries, Showtime Networks, One Big Picture, Chapter Eleven, Paramount Television Studios, the show has been written by Kyle Killen and Steven Kane.

Halo is five-time National Film Awardee Shabana Azmi’s first colour-blind casting since she started shooting for Western films 34 years ago. She said: “Halo has a cast that includes a Korean, an African American, an English, an Indian, a Hungarian, etc. Nobody has been cast due to her/his ethnicity nor is anyone made to put on any accent that is not intrinsically theirs.” She added: “I think as the world shrinks and becomes a global village, it makes sense for it to become more and more inclusivist and diverse.”

The cast of 'Halo'. The cast of 'Halo'.

For long Asian actors have wondered why all the best parts go only to the Caucasians. “The struggle for colour-blind casting started about 40 years ago and finally we are seeing some results. But I know for it to become a given is still a long way coming,” Azmi said.

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Explaining the process that saw her being cast for Halo, she expressed surprise that she was not asked to audition. “The casting directors saw a couple of my films and suggested my name. My agent Geoff Stanton was in talks with the producers without letting me know. It was only after I got confirmed that I had my first facetime call with the director Otto Bathurst whose work I had loved in Black Mirror and Peaky Blinders.”

After the cast was finalised, a bootcamp was held in Budapest, which involved readings and workshops. “It was only then that we went to the sets at Korda studios which had been entirely transformed into the Halo world,” Azmi said. She laughs that the first thing that can strike an Indian actor is how quiet it is on the set. “Nobody… nobody at all raises their voice.”

Since she worked with multiple directors on the series, we asked who she enjoyed working with most. “I loved working with Otto Bathurst, the show runner till three episodes. Then Jonathan Liebesman and Roel Reiné after that… as is the wont in most series. Their styles are completely different, each has different strengths, but I guess you have no choice but to go with the flow.”

Halo is adapted from a megahit video game. Azmi said: “I was at the Seattle Film Festival when I got a call from Otto who had organised for me to visit the Halo World’s lab - 343 Industries. It was such an alien world but also so fascinating.”

Though Azmi did not know the game, she said: “My 12-year-old nephew Viraaj who had never before given me time of the day was suddenly impressed and interested in his Shabana Bua!”

“I tried reading a couple of Halo books but confess I didn’t get too far with them. So, I simply surrendered to the vision of the filmmaker,” Azmi said.

On her character, Admiral Margaret Paragonsky, who heads the Office of Naval Intelligence in the series, Azmi said: “She is a hard-nosed, no nonsense woman but I had to find her vulnerable spot because you can't play any character only on one sur (note). She is conflicted because she has been trained to abide by the rules and yet she allows the unscrupulous scientist to manipulate her, break all rules only because she promises a panacea for humankind.”

Azmi pointed out how the diverse cast and crew made the set feel like a microcosm of the world. “Natascha McElhone is an excellent actor, and it was challenging to do scenes with her. We ended up becoming friends and still stay in touch.”

She was all praise for Italian designer Giovanni Lapari, who has done the costumes for the series. “He was beyond amazing. This costume department was unlike anything I have witnessed. They have everything that can be needed in the costume department including their own cobbler!”

After a near-fatal accident in January 2020, the actor had returned to the set in Budapest 20 days after being discharged from hospital. Her nurse and friend Parna Patkar accompanied her. “Javed would check on my progress on a daily basis. The production was very accommodating. The first couple of scenes were tough because I had not regained my balance fully. But the adrenalin rush one gets on accepting a challenge saw me through...”

The shoot in Budapest was supposed to end in July but the unit had to leave on 14 April 2020 as Covid struck. Shooting only resumed in February 2021.

She recalls the incredible precautions taken. “The entire unit did an RTPCR test every single day. We worked in a bubble. I was staying in an apartment building in which five other actors, including Pablo Schreiber, were staying, but we were not allowed to visit each other off set, even on the days we were free.”

She laughs remembering her attempts at cooking in her free time. “The results were disastrous! I would facetime chef Vikas Khanna in New York  for simple things like how to make dal!”

The senior actor learned her lines, watched films, read books, arranged and rearranged my cupboards to enjoy her me-time. “It was a new learning to live on my own and I cherish it.”

On the premier in Los Angeles on 23 March, she said: “I’m looking forward to meeting my cast and crew since we have only been in touch on the phone. Sadly, I can only be there for a day because I’m in the middle of a hectic shooting schedule.”
Yogesh Pawar is a freelance journalist.
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