Shabana Azmi is among the first Indian actresses to work internationally. In 1988, she appeared in the English language musical drama Madame Soustazka. Besides her work in Indian cinema, Azmi is featured in a host of international films such as City of Joy, Son of Pink Panther and Halo. In the just released (in cinemas) romantic comedy What’s Love Got To Do With It?, Azmi reunites with her Masoom director Shekhar Kapur. Written by Jemima Khan, the British-Asian cast of the London-set film includes Emma Thompson, Lily James, Shazad Latif and Sajal Ali.
Azmi spoke about the experience of shooting the film and her onscreen and off-screen camaraderie with Kapur and Thompson. Excerpts from an interview:
You play the mother of Kaz who agrees to have an assisted marriage. Why were you interested in playing Aisha Khan and being a part of What's Love Got To Do With It?
Look at what came on the plate. There was Emma Thompson. There was a Shekhar Kapur. There was Jemima Khan. There was Lily James. I mean, who in their right mind would have said no way. The whole idea was too exciting. And Emma Thompson is really somebody I've admired for such a long time, not just as an actor, but also because of her human rights work. And, of course, the fact that Shekhar was making it. I mean, there was no question of saying no.
Also read: 'What’s Love Got To Do With It?' director Shekhar Kapur: ‘Jemima Khan’s script allowed me to do what I did’
You are working with Shekhar Kapur after Masoom, which was released in 1983. In this long period of time both of you have worked around the world. What was it like coming back together to work as actor-director on this film?
It seemed as if the years had never passed, because it was so easy and Shekhar and I kept in touch, randomly, not constantly. We are friends. What I've always liked about him is that as a director, he loves his actors. He coaxes and cajoles them and gets them to do what he wants without ever dictating it. He's a very gentle director for the actors. I saw that he had strengthened and honed those skills. We shot this film at the height of COVID in London, with strict COVID protocols, which meant that after the shoot, we were not allowed to meet each other, which is what normally happens when you're on a long schedule. Usually, you meet in the evening and have fun. Still, it was wonderful working with Shekhar because he really inspires his actors. And I think what he brings to a very clever script by Jemima, is a lot of emotion. You know, the fact that it's infused with emotion, that's Shekhar all the way.
And yet a rom-com is not something one may have attached him to.
Exactly, and I think that he’s a very interesting choice because you can see what Shekhar has brought to it. It’s not just a rom-com. The film is also about identity, cultures, cultural inclusiveness, etc. I mean, it's there in the script, of course, but then he's enhanced it.
How much of the British Asian or the immigrant experience do you think Jemima Khan gets right in her script?
She gets it absolutely right, and she does it with affection. I think that comes across because the reaction in the UK has been stupendous. The Asian community is saying that for a change we are not being ridiculed and being shown as we are. I don't think she's comparing one culture against the other but, if anything, the Asians have a slight upper hand because she's looking at them with such warmth. To have the representation, which is devoid of cliché, feels good. For example, Aisha is at the crossroads of tradition and modernity. She has to balance that. She has this English neighbour Cath who says these people have become my village, and then there is a very strong traditional person in Aisha too. For Aisha her family is the most important thing.
There’s that lovely scene with your son Kaz and you in the hospital cafeteria.
By the way, that was my first shot. I told Shekhar thank you for being a friend and making me do this tough scene but he said after you get that emotion right, everything else will flow. The very first shot was of me reaching out and touching Kaz’s hand. I think the strategy did work for me as an actor, because it immediately created a bond between me and Shahzad. After that, the rest of it became easy.
What was it like working with Emma Thompson?
She is such a warm and generous actor. She comes on the set, and puts that energy into everybody. She was lovely and funny, and the clothes that she was wearing, one more outlandish than the other. She's actually a very good dancer, so she had to put on the mis-timing for the Bollywood dance. We got on from the second we met. It has to do with the fact that we have the same kind of worldview and our human rights work. But let me reveal something – for the fabulous actor that she is, Emma cannot play dumb charades. We used to play dumb charades on the set. Lily, Shajal and I are very good at it, but Emma would joke about getting an Oscar but not being able to act in dumb charades. When the camera is off, I am just not very good at this stuff, she would say. It was just really lovely.
Aisha Khan is a complete contrast to Admiral Parangosky, your character in Halo. And then there are your upcoming films. How do you feel about the kind of work you are getting now?
Yes, these are two completely different worlds and I was doing both simultaneously, and during COVID. I think I've been lucky to be at the right place at the right time. I really think that's what my career has been about. At this point, if you see what I'm doing in Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani or in Ghoomer, and what I did in The Empire, it's a completely new phase in my life and I'm really grateful for it. We are at a time when a lot more interesting parts are being made available to seniors, both men and women. And I'm a beneficiary of that time.
The conversation around representation has been amplified in the last few years, especially in Hollywood. Do you feel we've come some distance with that and is it becoming more seamless and integrated?
When you look at something like Halo, for instance, it has colour-blind casting. Asian actors have been asking for colour-blind casting for the last two decades, saying why should Asians only be given roles in which they are cast because of their ethnicity? If Laurence Olivier could play Othello, then why cannot a Chinese actor? So, in Halo, in spite of the fact that I play Admiral Parangosky, I don’t change my look or my accent. They take me as I am. I'm just part of the universe they've created. There are Koreans, Canadians, there are black Americans, you've got it all. And then Michelle Yeoh just became the first Asian female woman to win a best actress Oscar. I think all this is wonderful. The first time I worked abroad was in Madame Sousatzka. John Schlesinger was the director and Shirley MacLaine was my co-star. I was the only Asian amongst a whole crew and cast of white people. Today, there's no such thing because the crew, particularly, is so international. There are people from Poland, China, and Asia. It's just a microcosm of the world today. If everybody would become the same, it would be very boring. You are separate but equal. And that is the experience we got in the microcosm world of What's Love Got To Do With It?.