Shabana Azmi (born 18 September 1951) is an Indian actress of film, television and theatre. An alumna of the Film and Television Institute of India of Pune, she made her film debut in 1974 and soon became one of the leading actresses of parallel cinema, an Indian New Wave movement known for its serious content and neo-realism. Regarded as one of the finest actresses in India, Azmi's performances in films in a variety of genres have generally earned her praise and awards, which include a record of five wins of the National Film Award for Best Actress and several international honours. She has also received four Filmfare Awards.
Azmi has appeared in over 120 Hindi films in both mainstream and independent cinema, and since 1988 she has acted in several foreign projects. In addition to acting, Azmi is a social and women's rights activist, a Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA), and a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament. She is married to Indian poet and screenwriter Javed Akhtar.
Azmi graduated from the FTII in 1973 and went on to sign on Khwaja Ahmad Abbas' Faasla and began work on Kanti Lal Rathod's Parinay as well. Her first release, however, was Shyam Benegal's directorial debut Ankur (1974). Belonging to the arthouse genre of neo-realistic films, Ankur is based on a true story which occurred in Hyderabad.
Azmi played Lakshmi, a married servant and villager who drifts into an affair with a college student who visits the countryside. Azmi was not the original choice for the film, and several leading actresses of that time refused to do it. The film went on to become a major critical success, and Azmi won the National Film Award for Best Actress for her performances. Upperstall.com described her work in the film as "an outstanding psychologically penetrating performance very different from those seen normally till then in mainstream Hindi cinema", and famous independent filmmaker Satyajit Ray commented, "In Ankur she may not have fitted immediately into her rustic surroundings, but her poise and personality are never in doubt. In two high pitched scenes, she pulls out the stops to firmly establish herself as one of our finest dramatic actresses".
She went on to receive the National Film Award consecutively for three years from 1983 to 1985 for her roles in movies, Arth, Khandhar and Paar. Another film Godmother (1999) earned her another National Film Award, taking her tally to five.
Azmi’s acting has been characterized by a real-life depiction of the roles played by her. In Mandi, she acted as a madam of a whorehouse. For this role, she put on weight and even chewed betel. Real life portrayals continued in almost all her movies. These included the role of a woman named Jamini resigned to her destiny in Khandhar and a typical urban Indian wife, homemaker and mother in Masoom.
She also acted in experimental and parallel Indian cinema. Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire depicts her as a lonely woman, Radha, in love with her sister-in-law. The on-screen depiction of lesbianism (perhaps the first in Indian cinema) drew severe protests and threats from many social groups as well as by the Indian authorities. Her role as Radha brought her international recognition with the Silver Hugo Award for Best Actress at the 32nd Chicago Film Festival and Jury Award for Best Actress at Outfest, Los Angeles.
She was the initial choice for Deepa Mehtha's Water which was actually planned to hit the floors on 2000. Few scenes were already shot. Shabana Azmi had to shave her head with Nandita Das to portray the character of Shakuntala. However, due to political reasons, the film was shelved and later shot in 2005 with Seema Biswas replacing Azmi.
Some of her notable films include Shyam Benegal's Nishant (1975), Junoon (1978), Susman (1986), and Antarnaad (1992); Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi; Mrinal Sen’s Khandhar, Genesis, Ek Din Achanak; Saeed Mirza’s Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai; Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh and Disha; Gautam Ghose’s Paar; Aparna Sen’s Picnic and Sati; Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth; Vinay Shukla’s Godmother. Her other films include the commercially successful Manmohan Desai's Amar Akbar Anthony and Parvarish and Prakash Mehra’s Jwalamukhi. Azmi starred in Hollywood productions such as John Schlesinger’s Madame Sousatzka (1988) and Roland Joffe’s City of Joy (1992).
Azmi debuted on the small screen in a soap opera titled Anupama. She portrayed a modern Indian woman who, while endorsing traditional Indian ethos and values, negotiated more freedom for herself. She had participated in many stage plays, and notable among them include M. S. Sathyu’s Safed Kundali (1980), based on The Caucasian Chalk Circle; and Feroz Abbas Khan's Tumhari Amrita with actor Farooq Sheikh, which ran for five years. She toured Singapore on an assignment with the Singapore Repertory Theatre Company, acting in Ingmar Bergman’s adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll's House, which was directed by Rey Buono.
Pointing out the differences in all these media, she once remarked that theatre was really the actor’s medium; the stage was actor’s space; cinema was the director’s medium; and television was a writer’s medium.