Shabana Azmi was a Rajya Sabha member of Parliament between 1997-2003. In August 2003, while retiring from Parliament after a 6 year tenure, she had this to say : "It has been, perhaps, the most educative of all my experiences, and I feel privileged to have participated in the proceedings of the House. Here, I have realised how every little clause is deliberated upon and how even to include or exclude a single word, it takes such a long time. I felt privileged here to hear some of the best legal minds in the country. Here, I have found that through all the debate, national interest remains supreme."

In this wide-ranging interview, the actress and activist speaks to Lalitha Sridhar of the intersections in her professional and personal concerns.

How do you balance your concerns as an artiste and an activist?

Courtesy : I have always believed that art should be used as an instrument of social change. Personally, I have been trained at the Film Institute. I have also been exposed to international cinema - it’s the kind of cinema that you don’t really see so I think my aesthetics were shaped by that. I was also lucky to have begun my career at a time when graduates of the Film Institute were sought after by the film industry. Also, more interesting and more meaningful roles were being offered to women. I don’t think I had to wait till Mandi to do my kind of cinema or what was not ‘commercial’ cinema. Because, in a sense, in 1974, when I did Ankur, just the fact that I was playing a woman who would be considered an adulteress, in a sense, was pathbreaking - it was a very human thing but not associated in the context by which a heroine is recognized in Hindi cinema. She was unconventional in every sense. I have been playing my cards without being paralyzed by the fear of failure. Because that’s what prevents a lot of people from taking risks.

Please comment on your experiences as a Parliamentarian.

I have found being in the Parliament a very tremendous learning experience. The fact is that, in order to speak in the Parliament for several minutes, I have to read up a lot of material. I think that my strength and my weakness as a Parliamentarian are one and the same. My strength is that I don't have to toe any party line and so I can speak my mind, I can speak out on any issue I strongly believe in - housing for the underprivileged, women’s rights, against the rising wave of communalism, on social issues etc. But then my weakness is that because I don’t belong to any political party, because I don’t have any backing in terms of actually pushing for legislation, things become more difficult. But I do manage to be unbiased and neutral. I wouldn’t want to be denied the choice of saying what I want to - it has its own impact.

And your views on the Women's Reservation Bill?

Would you believe that representation of women in our Parliament was 4% when we started 55 years back and is now 8%? The Women’s Reservation Bill will never be passed in its present form, even though affirmative action is guaranteed in our constitution. All political parties say they are committed to the Bill and all of them know that 180 men will lose their jobs because of it - that’s why even this (recent) attempt at passing it was decided by just a voice vote, nothing but sheer lung power. This is not because able women do not exist but because they have been kept out.

I am not saying the bill is a magic wand to resolve all problems but it will give women a voice, set an agenda. The few women who are present have succumbed to the system and a critical mass is needed to ensure effective change. If women are truly empowered they will transform the notion of power itself. The differences between men and women should not be used as one over the other. The differences between men and women have to celebrated!

What has it been like being married to a poet with similiar concerns?

Javed and I come from very similiar backgrouds. He is a true feminist and we share the same interests. He also has a very good sense of humour. Javed’s world view is the same as mine.

Kaifi Azmi's loss was also the nation's. What did your father mean to you?

My father was the person I drew my inspiration from. My brother and I were always included in whatever the decision making process that was taking place in our house. He always believed that women must walk shoulder to shoulder to men, that there is another heaven that does not lie under your husband’s feet - this was quite revolutionary for his time when everybody was saying that a woman’s place was in the kitchen. At a personal level, his passing is a loss that I will never be able to recover from. But because he has left behind an entire body of work, it gives me the strength to use it as an armour around me, to carry forward his ideals. He relentlessly spoke out against communalism of all hues. He was a man who practiced what he believed.

I am really quite touched that after he passed away in 2002, there has been such an overwhelming response from those who remember him. The Uttaranchal University wants to start a Kaifi Azmi Media Centre. Lucknow has another proposal along academic lines. They want to name a park after him in Bombay. On my recent trip to Hyderabad, people asked that a statue of his be put up. A train from Delhi to Azamgad has been named Kaifiyaad Express, after his completed works titled Kaifiyaad - something he wanted all his life.

It is really significant because the other train from Azamgad to Bombay is named Godaan, after Munshi Premchand’s eponymous work by the same name. Both of them were from the Progressive Writers Movement. So that to me is very heartening. We are truly recognizing what he stood for. Listening to that voice of sanity is very important. Finally, we are recognizing that the role of the author and writer is so significant in our society. They are above political considerations. Finally, we are respecting the man for his ideals.

Your views on the state of Indian cinema?

Change happens. Some change will be for the better, some for the worse but atleast we will not be in a stagnant position. The only thing that is a matter of some concern, and which will find its own level at some point, is that we have films which are technically far superior. You know that there is a lot more finesse and so on. But the fact is that not enough attention is being paid to the story content - and that is essential for a film.

Another matter of grave concern is that, when it comes to films, women are shown to be completely dormant, totally subservient persons. It reinforces the notion that Indian women are supposed to be that. I think the only way in which we can counter these images is to portray a woman not just as a body but also an intelligent being.