Regarded as one of the finest Indian actresses, Shabana Azmi‘s performances in films of various genres have earned her praise and several accolades over the years. Honoured among the “women in cinema” at the 30th International Film Festival, Shabana had starred in the controversial film Fire along with Nandita Das.
The 1996 Deepa Mehta directorial featured Shabana and Nandita as Radha and Sita respectively. Loosely based on Ismat Chugtai’s story Lihaaf, romantic drama Fire is one of the first mainstream Bollywood movies to explicitly show a homosexual relationship. The erotic film showed a lesbian relationship between Radha and Sita, both of whose husbands were either absent or had abandoned the wives.
After more than two decades of Fire release, Bollywood actress Shabana feels that representation of same sex relationships in movies are finally being dealt with empathy rather than mockery. From playing a character in a same-sex love film to essaying a mother who finds it difficult to accept her daughter’s relationship in an upcoming project, she feels that even today, despite the far greater acceptance and awareness regarding LGBTQIA issues, reluctance and misconceptions regarding accepting and understanding queers are present till date.
Shabana recently also bagged the Best Actor award for her 2021 Urdu movie Sheer Qorma which again revolves around a homosexual relationship. When asked what her thoughts were on being part of a project that focussed on the LGBTQ+ community, the versatile actress said, “I think that this is a subject whose time came several years ago. If you look at ‘Fire’, which was made in 1996, it was a logical extension of that. A film like this is very important because it is done in a very sensitive manner to sensitise people who still have mixed reactions about the topic. I think that Sheer Qorma is an important film, particularly because it has been made by a queer, non-binary filmmaker (Faraz Arif Ansari) and it has been his journey and struggle in being able to come out with it.”
The actress was also asked about her opinions on if or what damage heterosexual parents cause to children when they fail to understand what exists outside them, i.e., queer sexuality. To answer that, Shabana facilely addressed the problems that hinder people from understanding non binary, gender fluid or queer identities. “Parents are still in that space where they think ‘Oh my God, I have done something wrong’. Any departure from a social norm is considered wrong and then you either blame yourself or the other person. So, it requires a sea change of attitude. We are inching towards it. I think one of the most important dialogues in the film is where the mother says: “Yeh khuda ke khilaaf hai” (This is against God). And then her son says, “Magar jinhone inko banaya hai woh bhi toh usi khuda ne banaya hai, ya kisi aur ne?” (But God has created them and they are part of his creations). And that makes the penny drop for her. This is the point that the actors, filmmakers and writers are making – this is love. People have different kinds and expressions of love – who are we to judge them? It is all this prejudice that keeps surfacing and erupting, not only when it comes to same-sex love, but to anybody who is different from us. You need people in the public eye who have accepted same-sex relationships of their children. Because when you start seeing this being accepted, then people who are less empowered will get the courage to accept it,” she said.