LOINS OF PUNJAB PRESENTS , a conversation with Shabana Azmi


LOINS OF PUNJAB PRESENTS tells the story of a ruthless philanthropist, a bhangra rapper, an over-protected prodigy, a reckless actress, a lovelorn businessman, an entrepreneurial yogi and a Loin King. All of these characters enter a roller-coaster world of seven strangers whose lives collide during a singing contest in a small New Jersey town.

Over three days in a small New Jersey town, five Indian-Americans and one Jewish Indophile participate in the first DESI IDOL, a Bollywood-style singing contest sponsored by a pork industrialist millionaire. These six people are pitted against each other in a singing and dancing extravaganza presided over by the wily contest promoter Sudarsh Bokade, an eccentric man with a strong preference for Gypsy Kings music. For seventy-two hours, armed with a song, these seven strangers are going to war.

Shabana Azmi has acted in over 100 films. She won the National Award for Best Actress for her debut film ‘Ankur‘ in 1974. Following that, she went on to win three more National Awards in a row for ‘Arth‘ in 1983, ‘Khandhar‘ in 1984, and ‘Paar‘ in 1985. In 1999, she won the National Award for ‘Godmother‘ thus becoming the only actor/actress to win five National Awards. She has also won every single award for acting in India; in many instances more than thrice, such as the Filmfare award, B.F.J.A., etc.

Shabana has won the International Award for Best Actress for Gulzar’s ‘Libaas‘ in North Korea (1993), at the Taormina Arte Festival in Italy for Goutam Ghose’s ‘Patang‘ in 1994, Chicago International Film Festival and Los Angeles Outfest for Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire‘ in 1996, and Reel World Toronto Film Festival’s Award for Excellence for ‘Morning Raga‘ in 2005.

In 2006, Shabana became the first Indian to receive the prestigious International Gandhi Peace Prize, which was presented to her at the House of Commons in London, with the British Parliament in attendance.

Bijan Tehrani: How were you approached for playing this part? This is a very interesting film with new ideas; how did you decide to play it?
Shabana Azmi: I didn’t know the filmmaker, and I got a call from him, and he said that I should see the script. I asked him to send it to me, and I remember reading it and I couldn’t stop laughing. And I just said yes. He couldn’t believe it; because there was no way he was going to afford my fees. I found it hysterically funny, and it also offered me a part that was different from the usual, very strong and morally correct roles I play. I thought it was quite delicious to play someone I have not before.

BT: Have you been at a screening of the film? If so, how does the audience react?
SA: Yes. They fall down laughing. They really enjoyed the film. It was quite heartening to see their reaction.

BT: Through your long career, which includes great achievements, you have played so many different parts. Yet this part is so different from any other in your career. How did you work with the director? Was there any improvisation, or did you stick strictly to the script?
SA: One thing that I wanted to make very certain when playing Rrita was that I had to prevent her from becoming a caricature, and that it would work and be funny only if Rrita Kapoor truly believes in herself, and she doesn’t feel a contradiction of what she is claiming to do and what she is actually doing. I knew it could be funny only if I played it like this. There are many women that I know of who actually do charity work, but will stop at nothing to do it. I find this myself a contradiction, which Rrita Kapoor doesn’t realize. Manish Acharya [The Filmmaker] and I were largely in agreement with the way she had to be played. It was lots of fun.

BT: There are many young actors in the film who were playing in a film with you for the first time. How was your interaction with the other actors?
SA: I like to pride myself on the fact that I work to make my co-stars comfortable. Film acting is such a collaborative medium, and unless there is a level of trust with your co-stars, it’s not going to work. You can’t do a performance without creating with the rest of the cast. I am aware of the fact that I have this reputation, which can be frightening. But very soon they relax and realize that I am like a regular kind of girl.

BT: How do you compare this film with the comedies made in Bollywood as far as differences in style?
SA: Oh, it is completely different. Within mainstream Indian cinema, it is far broader and far more dialogue-oriented, with double meaning dialogue. This is far more contemporary, far wackier, and far more fun, really.

BT: Yeah, it also seems as though the director and writer have, for the first time, dared to bring different subjects and characters together in these unique, funny situations. You also have worked with great filmmakers outside of India. Can you please tell us about some of these experiences, and what your best experience was?
SA: I feel very fortunate because the first time was a long time ago in 1989, with Shirley MacLaine and a director whose work I loved, John Schlesinger. John Schlesinger and I just hit it off from the moment we met each other. But then I realize we were working on a film that had a completely different system of working. Indian cinema has changed a lot today, where there is a complete script given to you way in advance. Our unit was much more mom and pop and ad-hoc. There were times within Hindi cinema when I was shooting a scene when I would not know what the next scene would be. I know, it is unbelievable in the West! But here I had a bound script, we did many rehearsals together—Shirley MacLaine and I— and I realized the value of that. I think that when these two industries meet, something healthy comes out of it, and it is a learning experience. We learn our systems, and about human resourcefulness. Normally systems work, but when systems fail there is nothing to fall back upon. Now, mainly in Indian cinema, you work with such few resources that you are always able to come up with something. For example, when we were shooting for “City of Joy”, there was this elaborate rain machine that had been brought from Hollywood—this was in Calcutta in India. At the last minute, it was all very tense because Patrick Swayze had to leave the next day, and suddenly the rain machine was not working; there was great panic. And there were these two boys just sitting around, and they said “What is the big deal? We can create rain!” The people on set looked completely confused, but the boys just said, “We will just get a hose and do it!” And the interesting thing was that the rain that you see in the film, which is really very important, was done by a hose by two very young boys sitting on the ground in Calcutta. So, in that sense, it is a great learning experience.

BT: In your work with Blake Edwards, which actors were in the film with you?
SA: Well, Roberto Benigni was playing the son. At that time he was not big, “Life is Beautiful” had not been made yet. We did not realize how big he was, but when we landed in airport in Rome, there was a huge number of girls waiting for him and yelling at us.

BT: Blake Edwards is also a great director, and everyone says it is very fun working with him. Was it?
SA: Blake Edwards is absolutely marvelous! I enjoyed working with him greatly. He would make me laugh all the time and crack all kinds of jokes. I think that is a great part of filmmaking, being comfortable on the set.


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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