Shabana Azmi: Leveraging Bollywood Fame into Social Good

Indian screen star Shabana Azmi talks to Rohit Deshpandé about how she leverages movie fame into social activism.
by Sean Silverthorne

For decades, Shabana Azmi has been a leading actress in Indian cinema. She has starred in many of that country’s most popular and acclaimed films, including the groundbreaking Fire in 1996, about a lesbian relationship between two sisters-in-law. At age 66, Azmi’s screen skills remain much in demand, such as her prominent role in the recent BBC miniseries “Capital.”

But Azmi’s accomplishments have gone way beyond the cinematic, using her leverage as a celebrity and a seat in the Parliament of India to help further the rights of women and girls, advocate for better housing for the poor, and fighting intolerance and religious extremism.

All of which makes her seemingly an unusual interview subject for Harvard Business School's Creating Emerging Markets series, sponsored by the HBS Business History Initiative, which has interviewed many leaders of the largest corporations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Why Azmi?

“India has the world’s largest cinema industry, and it exercises an enormous cultural impact within the country,” says Geoffrey Jones, the Isidor Straus Professor of Business History. “Shabana Azmi has long been a central figure in the industry, and was able to provide unique insights on how it worked, and how it has changed. And as a woman, a Muslim, and a social activist, she provides a powerful role model of diversity.”

Excerpts from Azmi’s video interview with Rohit Deshpandé can be seen here, and a transcript of the entire interview can be accessed through the completion of a brief form. We asked Deshpandé, the Sebastian S. Kresge Professor of Marketing at Harvard Business School, a few questions about his recently published interview with Azmi, which was conducted in 2015.

Sean Silverthorne: Had you followed her career before meeting her?

Rohit Deshpandé: It’s been 40 years since I lived in India, so I’d seen some of her earlier movies, when she was just becoming a star. She was very, very good. Then I heard about her work over the years. One has this stereotype about actors being very good at reading someone else’s script under someone else’s direction. I was pleasantly surprised by her incredibly active voice and that she was reflective not only about her career but about politics, civil society, gender, and religion. She not only reflected on these topics, she had extremely interesting points of view.

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Azmi discusses her unconventional role in the film Fire, and explains why risks should be taken in parallel cinema.

Silverthorne: At many points in her career she has been willing to sacrifice her film career to further a social cause, such as her role in “Fire.”

Deshpandé: What is particularly interesting in the case of Shabana Azmi is she has chosen areas of impact that are quite unrelated to the film business, and in many cases might have jeopardized her career. That makes her unusual from many other business leaders. “Fire” was a watershed, not only in her life and career but for all of Indian cinema and Indian culture. It was very controversial. We’re talking about a movie about a relationship between two sisters-in-law. Even Hollywood has only recently begun addressing these sorts of topics. She took a big risk that her mainstream audience would never go see a movie with Shabana Azmi again. So she has taken huge risks not only in the art she has chosen to depict on screen, but jeopardizing her ability to be a social activist.

Azmi on women in Indian cinema:

“A lot of [films] were being made with women protagonists... But these were in stereotypical roles. So you have the sacrificing mother, you have the forgiving wife, you have the understanding sister. All of it was within the concept of what traditional society actually wanted. And I think women were the worst sufferers in that because if I tell you the name of the film in the ’60s (that was very popular) it was "Main Chup Rahoongi," translated “I will remain silent” —remaining silent being considered a virtue for women. So it was within that frame.

Silverthorne: She also comes along at a time where the traditional Indian cinema is still very much about traditional values, very patriarchal, that views women in stereotypical ways. But when she crosses over to work in the new “parallel” or art cinema, those films challenge those views.

Deshpandé: Very few crossover actors are successful; there is a big divide between the two. She is probably the most successful. She gets to a point of stardom where she can pick and choose scripts, or choose not to be in those roles at all. And she actually influences what scripts are being developed and how women are going to be portrayed in them. In the interview she talks about how traditional cinema was objectifying women … but she becomes one of the movers in making change happen.

Silverthorne: What do you think are the roots of her social activism?

Deshpandé: It goes back to growing up in a family where both her parents were politically active, and believed that art was an instrument for political activism. Her father, a poet, her mother, in the theater, were both very active in the communist party, they hosted party gatherings at their home.

She talks about going away from that for a few years when she was just getting started in her career, but coming back to it when she realized she had both the privilege and the power to make a difference, to have an impact.

Azmi on Parliament:

“I was an independent member and every time I wanted to speak on an issue I was allowed to speak. So whether it was on framing the national slum policy or whether it was the domestic violence against women act or whether it was the population debate, I was able to impact these because of the actual grassroots that I had worked from.”

Silverthorne: She also made change happen from inside government, where she was nominated by the prime minister of India, Inder Kumar Gujral, to the upper house of parliament in appreciation of her work and activism. Talk about her decision to be a very active member of parliament for six years.

Deshpandé: There are actually quite a few Indian actors who have served in Indian parliament, but you don’t hear much about what they have done. She is an exception. She was very, very active during that time in politics. From her perspective this wasn’t a reward for celebrity, it was an occasion for more impact. The other difference for her at that time was that she was now on a global stage. Her voice has impact outside of India. She has transcended the boundaries of her industry in terms of her social impact.

Silverthorne: What are those impacts, so you think?

Deshpandé: She made an impact on her industry in terms of being able to be successful in both parallel and mainstream cinema. These are two different audiences, an upper middle class intelligentsia through parallel, and a middle class/working class, mainstream audience. Shabana Azmi is a household name in many areas of Indian society.

She uses an amazing metaphor in the interview. “India is a country that lives in several centuries simultaneously. We have people living back to back from the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, and India’s people at any given time and place encapsulate all the contradictions that come from being a multicultural, multireligious, multilingual society, and so it is with audiences.’

Not only is that an important and accurate observation, but even more interesting is that she has managed to become a household name in each of those audiences living in all those centuries. There are many people living in the eighteenth century, many living in the twenty first century, and both those audiences know her name and respect her work. I think that is just amazing. I don’t know any other actor in the world who has been able to achieve that.

Then I think the impact of what she is doing for girls, for homeless women, through an NGO (Mijwan Welfare Society) she started. She is having great impact there. Homelessness is a huge, huge issue, especially in cities like Mumbai. Working on behalf of those people, and working not just at an abstract, separate level but being part of groups willing to fast on the street as a nonviolent protest, has had a huge impact. She is using her status as a celebrity to bring attention to the cause, and continues to do so today.


To learn more about Creating Emerging Markets, see the short video Doing Good by Doing Business.

Correction: The original version of this story referred to Inder Kumar Gujral as a president of India. He was a prime minister.

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