The 2007 South Asian International Film Festival (SAIFF) will be held from October 3-9, 2007 in New York City.
On opening night, SAIFF will honor international filmmaker, actress, activist, and role model Shabana Azmi with the Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to South Asian cinema. From her breakout role in her debut film in 1974, Shyam Benegal's ANKUR, for which she won her first of five National Awards, Ms. Azmi ventured upon an audacious path in cinema and stage by acting in over 100 independent, mainstream, and international films and appearing in a number of plays.
She credits ANKUR, the film that essentially launched the art or independent film industry in India, with steering her on the eventual path to critical acclaim in the then emerging independent film movement. A career including many accolades in film festivals promoting independent cinema, including 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 2005 for MORNING RAGA.
In a candid interview with SAIFF, she spoke about her enduring lifetime bond with the pioneering director of the art or independent cinema movement in India dubbed "parallel cinema" at that time. "Shyam is responsible for the way my career was shaped. I call him my reluctant guru. He contributed to my aesthetics and to this day he still calls me to give me his opinion about my work. He must have great affection for me and I value his criticism tremendously."
She spoke with SAIFF about the changing nature of Indian cinema, in particular, the emergence of independent cinema as a viable alternative to commercial cinema. "India is a vital, dynamic country full of contradictions, and these are being brought out and discussed in contemporary parallel cinema. This independent cinema is emerging and breaking a strange hold on the commercial film industry in India. These films are now also being made in English because these directors are looking for an international market."
"This year, for the first time, SAIFF presents its lifetime achievement award to an individual known for their work in front of the camera," said Shilen Amin, SAIFF President. "Ms. Azmi is one of the few refined actors within the industry willing to take on independent film roles throughout her career. She has that rare gift of being able to get underneath each of her character's skin so convincingly, no matter how different the character in each film. Even more unique is her conviction in mostly taking on roles that make strong statements and reinforce positive stereotypes about women."
Throughout her career, including her current visit this week in New York during the United Nations General Assembly meeting, Ms. Azmi has tirelessly supported political and social causes including the rights of Mumbai slum dwellers evicted by municipal authorities, violence against women in India, and now hunger, the greatest threat to the social and economic development of the populace in all of India. "I protested outside the UN against world hunger. The UN has failed to fulfill the commitment it made 11 years ago to halve hunger by 2015 and they have not even come near to meeting that goal. World leaders need to stop thinking about this in cold statistics and understand how they would feel if it was one of their family members had to go hungry."
Ms. Azmi, who will not be able to accept her award at the festival in person due to scheduling conflicts, appears in the festival's opening night world premiere, LOINS OF PUNJAB PRESENTS. She plays a "flighty socialite" vying for the title of "Desi Idol" in a talent show singing contest set in New Jersey wherein contestants' individual journeys change and define lives. She embraced the role fully by singing a song in the talent show, "Chure Liya Hai Dil Ko" from the film YAADON KI BARAAT.
Ms. Azmi, who has not shy-ed away from working with first time directors, and has advocated on behalf of working with young independent filmmakers to other professionals in the film industry, remarked on her part in the film and her regard for the immense talent of debut director Manish Acharya. "I've never done anything as crazy as LOINS OF PUNJAB PRESENTS. It's quite a delightful film. Manish is an insanely talented filmmaker. He has talent in the same measures as Farhan Akhtar. I am really happy the film has been appreciated."