Art must be for social empowerment

Vinaya Patil
Friday, 8 September 2017

Actor Shabana Azmi and lyricist Javed Akhtar speak at the PILF about their work, literature, films and the need for social elevation

Entering to a thunderous applause, actor Shabana Azmi and poet, lyricist and screenwriter Javed Akhtar spoke about their passion, work, films, empowerment and more at the Pune International Literary Festival (PILF) 2017 in the city on Friday.

Children of the literary wave
Giving a brief history of the literary enlightenment of the country, Javed explains how some of the stalwarts of Urdu poetry, sitting in a restaurant in London in early 1930s, decided that it was time to use their poetry for social betterment of the country. “In accordance with this, a huge conference was held in London in 1936, presided by Munshi Premchand ji. It was attended by writers and poets from across India and it was decided that it was time for writers to use their pen for political and social change. Our — mine and Shabana’s — forefathers were a part of this movement, and we are thus products of this literary revolution,” he narrates.

Adding on to the award-winning lyricist, Shabana says that the first colour she saw and understood was red. “My father Kaifi Azmi was a staunch communist and we grew up in a commune of comrades with 250 sq ft houses to each of us. These growing up memories have a distinct influence on my life and thoughts,” she reminisces.

The merging of genes and passion
On being asked about the choice of careers, Shabana says that she always wanted to be an actor. Rather, “I hardly had any choice and I didn’t want any,” she insists, narrating, “My mother would strap me onto her back and take me for her rehearsals at the Prithvi Theatre. So I have learnt acting through the process of osmosis. When I was a little older, she would make me sleep behind the stage during performances and when I heard thunderous applause, I would know it was Kaifi Azmi on stage,” she says of her father and Urdu poet credited with bringing Urdu literature to Indian cinema.

Javed, on the other hand, says that he would have become a lawyer if not a poet given his large-scale participation in debates during his academic life. Throwing light on his growing up years, Javed says that Shabana and him were all part of a large community of literary artists. “I must have first seen her probably when she was six-months-old. It’s surprising how ours wasn’t an arranged marriage,” he laughs, adding that he was brought up in a liberal environment where he was rather taught atheism instead of religion.

Changing times
Javed expresses his despair at the irony that Urdu — the language that gave us the most liberal and progressive writers — is today tagged as the language of ‘Muslims’. “Ages ago, writers like Ismat Chughtai and Manto have written some amazing stuff. You must read it. Chughtai has written about liberalism at a time when even thinking of it was unimaginable,” he says, adding that he had never known what discrimination or inequality was until he became a teenager. “I was 18 or 19 when I first knew that something like domestic violence existed. That’s the kind of environment we grew up in,” he says and Shabana says exactly the same.

“Gender inequality was an alien idea for us children. I once wanted a blonde doll with blue eyes. At that age of seven, my father got me a black doll instead and told me that ‘black is beautiful too’. We grew up with these values and always knew that art was a tool for social upliftment,” she recalls.

“Secularism is in our blood,” says Javed, while agreeing that it’s difficult to get rid of what has been imbibed into you for ages — be it liberalism or religious radicalism. “But like the fundamentalists have feelings, and they get hurt oh so often, don’t we seculars have feelings too?” he questions, while narrating an incident from his childhood. “We had a national flag that would be highly revered in the house, so much that I once performed quite a circus to just touch it. That was the level of respect I was taught for it, so it’s obvious for me to get agitated when someone walks by while the national anthem is playing,” he expresses.

Not an island
Despite being the amazing professionals that the two are, how do they manage to still be so vocal and approachable to the public? The internationally-acclaimed actor instantly answers, “I believe life should be an artist’s largest resource. I draw all my inspiration from the world around me. I cannot remain disconnected from people.”

She recalls how she was hailed for her performance in the movie Arth and women actually came to her with their marital problems. At that point, “I think it is a travesty of my work if I can’t do anything for these people who inspire my art,” she signs off to a standing ovation.

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