My first encounter with the grand lady of Bollywood many years ago as I interviewed her for the Sunday Times Extra when I penned my column in City Swank. She has received every single award for acting in her country and a number of prestigious international awards that recognise her contributions to the social and cultural sectors.
Throughout your acting career, you’ve mostly played the role of a very strong-willed woman. Is this merely a coincidence or has it been a deliberate choice on your part?
First, you need to understand my background. My father was a noted poet and my mother was a stage actress, so my acting career was inspired by these two role models in my life and, I believe, this gift/art should be used as an instrument of social change.
I have been deeply inspired by my father and often I mention two of his poems in particular, Aurat (woman) and Makaan(home, shelter) as these are moving to me.
Jannat ek aur hai jo mard ke pah- luu mein nahin. Uski aazaad ravish par bhi machalnaa hai tujhe. Uth meri jaan mere saath hi chalnaa hai tujhe. (There is another heaven which is not by men’s side. You must persist along its free paths as well, Arise, my love; you must march with me).
With me, my parents’ relationship was one of equals. I was treated equally with my brothers as late as 19. That’s what I took for granted.
In the beginning of my career up till the 80s, I did all kinds of roles. Aarth was one of note to all who watched it and it became a kind of a cult film. I had women walking to my house, not as fans but as sisters. They wanted me to help with their problems. I realised that artists have this responsibility to their audience to help those in need. What’s important for me was that a woman needed to be treated with strong positive images in cinema. I also agreed to play a weak woman role if a transition happened where one gave up her weakness to strength.
Your acting talent has shown your flexibility to adjust from film to the theatre. Where does your passion lie?
I enjoy theatre as my mom is a stage actress and my father was an active member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Theatre has been surrounding my life since I was a child. I am a trained actress for cinema. In fact, I enjoy acting in both mediums.
Apart from your cinematic portrayals, you are one of the few who have managed to balance out work from your humanitarian efforts. Tell us a bit about your humanitarian work.
My work is focussed on the slums of Mumbai. About 70% of the population in slums are working class. If they were to go on a strike, the whole city of Mumbai would come to a standstill. The government policy is to shut down slums but Nirvana Health emphasises the right to shelter. Demolishing slums creates more poverty, rather there should be a development process.
Problem solving does not lie in demolishing slums but resolving by creating rural employment to prevent the increase in the number of individuals leaving their homes for the city. The right to decent housing is a must. If the government sets aside land and subsidises the working class, they can buy land at current market rates. Work with housing plans and work with the homeless, they cannot be looked at in isolation. Education plays a big role for both adults and minors. Health, communalism and all these are strands that resolve social crisis. This will, in turn, reduce maternal mortality as well.
You descend from a literary family. Have you ever thought of writing yourself?
Whenever I am asked that question, I always say my family are the literary genius and I provide the ins-piration. My mother has written a book called Down Memory Lane, which is a memoir of my father and her life with him. This is being turned into a play by Javed, in which I will be playing the role of my mother and Javed as my father.
You are poised to play Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani Prime Minister, in her autobiographical film. Can you share with me anything about it?
It is still in talks. I cannot talk about it now.
Do you believe that South Asian perceptions of Gay Desis in India and around the world has changed dramatically and what is your opinion of the recent repeal of Section 377 law against LGBT individuals?
It has changed dramatically. In 1997, my role in Deepa Mehta’sFire shocked a lot of people. I thought it was a bold move and it took courage to speak about it. Twelve years later, it does not have that kind of shock.
You must know in India the repeal of section 377 has happened recently. This has helped to draw out Indian homosexuals. I think there has been a change in the attitude of people. We as Indians are progressing. We must be supportive of the homosexual society.
Your sexual preference is nobody’s business. One cannot be judged on the basis of sexual orient- ation. When you talk about the rights of the minority, you were once a minority here, and history has proved that this can change and look at South Africa now. We have to go out and support them positively.