After crooning two Rabindra Sangeets live, the actress who is gearing up for a talk at the House of Lords, will have to take music lessons again to play Jaddanbai
Roshmila Bhattacharya (MUMBAI MIRROR; March 7, 2017)

Even though Shabana Azmi insists that she is not a singer and only has a ear for music she managed to impress the late Pandit Ravi Shankar and singer-composer Shankar Mahadevan with her renditions in Mahesh Dattani’s 2004 film, Morning Raga, with the sitar maestro calling to tell her he couldn’t believe she was not a trained Carnatic singer. She recently sang two Rabindra Sangeets, “Aaji jharer raate” and “Sokhi andhare” for Aparna Sen’s upcoming directorial, Sonata.

“First Aparna casts me as a whimsical, childish, highly volatile Bengali woman, then she bullies me into singing two Tagore songs, live, on the set. It was the most terrifying experience and I could only do it because my coach, Sharoni Sen, tutored me so patiently. Aparna kept up the charade that we’d be recording in a studio till we were three-four days into the shoot and then revealed her secret,” says Shabana, who has still to listen to the songs despite encouraging feedback from Bengalis.

Now, Nandita Das wants her to sing for the Manto biopic in which she plays Nargis’s mother, filmmaker-actress-composer-singer Jaddanbai. “I don’t know yet if it will be in a performance with musical accompaniments or if I’ll have to croon live again. I’m already terribly nervous,” she admits.

Shabana is equally nervous about speaking at the House of Lords in London, on March 9, on identity and integration. She points out that its a relevant topic in today’s times when there is an upsurge all over the world about what constitutes identity. “There’s a huge struggle against forces that seek to make us toe the line,” asserts Shabana, who believes that in any country that claims to be a democracy, the bottomline has to be about embracing dissension and plurality. “You may disagree with another person’s opinion and are free to debate it hotly, but with words, not violence. Identity and integration are crucial in the wake of Brexit, Donald Trump’s win in the US and in Narendra Modi’s government. There is an attempt to make a binary out of what constitutes national and anti-national. In George Bush’s words, ‘Either you are with us or you are against us.’ I’m a proud Indian but that doesn’t mean I’ll say everything is hunky dory. For me, its ‘separate’ but ‘equal’ because identity is not a melting pot in which individual identities can be submerged. It’s like a colourful mosaic in which each piece retains its individuality while contributing to a larger whole.”

She has been to the House of Lords before when she received the Gandhi International Peace Prize. “It seemed solemn, sombre and intimidating initially, not very different from the awe with which I stepped into the Indian Parliament for the first time. And it was unbelievable to be getting this award from Vanessa Redgrave whom one has admired for years. But once I started speaking, I was more relaxed,” she reminisces.

She has Kavi Raz’s The Black Prince, releasing worldwide on May 19 in which she plays Rani Jindan, wife of Ranjit Singh, a feisty historical figure who wrested her son, Duleep Singh, from Queen Victoria. “I just won the Best Actress Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival for it but have yet to see it. It was a struggle speaking Punjabi and ironically now, they want to make me dub my lines in Hindi,” she laughs.

There’s another American production, Jennifer Reeder’s Signature Move whose script was mentored by Robert De Niro at the Tribeca Film Institute. “I play a mother who obsessively looks through her binoculars for a prospective groom for her daughter,” she informs. She plays a different mother, an Earth Mother in Idgah, a story by Premchand. There’s also a children’s film, Kalpavriksh: The Wishing Tree. “It’s a full platter of different dishes and thrilling,” she signs off.

Nandita Das has confirmed that writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar is part of her next directorial, Manto. “Shabana Azmi is acting in it and Javed Akhtar is also a part of the movie,“ said Nandita.