Indian activist reflects on movie roles

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An audience of about 400 people jumped to their feet as a security guard escorted actress and activist Shabana Azmi toward the stage of the Texas Union Theater on Wednesday.

She spoke to students about how her roles in more than 60 movies since the 1970s have influenced her history of social activism in issues like poverty and women’s rights.

After playing a woman in a difficult marriage who stood up to her husband, she became interested in the women’s movement. While researching a part as a woman from a poor village, she was exposed to the poverty many faced in rural India.

“I could not say ‘I will use you’ — take from your life, to enrich myself and maybe win an award, but then have nothing to do with you,” Azmi said. “When you’re working in meaningful cinema, some of the residue of the characters you are doing is bound to filter in to your life.”

She said cinema and all other art can not directly bring about change, but it can create a climate of sensitivity for change to occur.

Azmi gained a high level of recognition from her career as an actress in India, but her influence extends far beyond the sphere of cinema, said Asian studies associate professor Syed Akbar Hyder.

“She is one of India’s leading public intellectuals,” he said.

Azmi’s work as a social activist includes working to improve conditions for AIDS victims, slum dwellers and day-laborers, Hyder said. She was nominated to the Indian Parliament in 1997 and served as the goodwill ambassador for India.

“She has bridged the divide between art and activism perhaps better than anyone else in India,” Hyder said. “Her art is very much informed by her social concerns.”

Wednesday’s event was the first of its Golden Jubilee series, which celebrates 50 years of South Asian studies at UT. Jonathan Seefeldt, spokesman for the Hindi Urdu Flagship Program, said the event was particularly relevant to students in the program, who have studied her work.

“She has been a unique voice in India for a long time now,”
he said.

The Hindi Urdu Flagship is a four-year undergraduate program open to all majors. Seefeldt said students in some Flagship classes watch Azmi’s films, read poems written by her father, Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi, and discuss the work of her mother, stage actress Shaukat Azmi.

Azmi was in Austin for yesterday’s live performance of the play “Broken Images” at the Texas School for the Deaf. The play is currently touring the United States, Seefeldt said.