Star of the week: Shabana Azmi

Shabana AzmiShekhar Kapur once said Shabana Azmi's name would occur at every important turn in the history of Indian cinema. He was right.

There isn't another actress who means as much to our cinema as she does. As an individual and as a professional, Shabana seems to represent the essence of all that's intellectually alive and desirable in Hindi cinema.

A huge influence on Indian cinema and on me personally, Shabana is the only actor in Bollywood who has watched me evolve as a journalist and who, I believe, is extremely proud of me.

Once many years ago when she was shooting with Madhuri Dixit for Prakash Jha's "Mrityudand", their conversation veered towards me. "What is this?" she asked me later. "Everyone knows you now! I feel very, very possessive!"

I've always felt she's the best dramatic actress this country has ever produced. And my opinion has cemented as she has gone from strength to strength - from "Ankur" and "Arth" to "Godmother", "Fire" and now her latest triumph "Morning Raga", which I know will win her another truckload of accolades.

But though I've known her for over 15 years, I've had little chance to penetrate the exterior mask. Though Shabana is extremely friendly, she doesn't invite any kind of intimacy.

"I'm a very private person," she once told me, and that holds true for keeps in spite of her extremely warm nature. Shabana remains a mystery to most of those who claim to know her closely.

As a person and an actress, Shabana exudes tremendous conviction. When she speaks you've got to listen. She won't have it any other way. The same is true of her performances. Shabana's acting doesn't just grab your attention. She holds you spellbound.

Her delight at receiving compliments hasn't diminished over the years. I remember my excitement when I first interviewed her. A first interview is like first love. Every detail gets indelibly imprinted in the mind.

Shabana AzmiThere I was, an impressionable 27, face-to-face with one of my idols. Shabana tried to cut through my gushing admiration. She even arranged for a tape-recorder that I had foolishly forgotten to take, but finally gave up. "Will you let me speak? We should do the interview at a later date when you are less excited."

That's how our association started. The bonding has outlasted many hurdles, including long periods of silence when I've kept away from her. Even if we speak after a full year, Shabana doesn't waste time reprimanding or blaming me for being careless. Even if she feels I've been less than perfect with my protocol, there's never any awkwardness.

She'd much rather look ahead than wallow in the past. That's the first thing I learnt from her. The most important thing that I learnt was: never hesitate in going for what you want.

"So what if I want to work with all the good filmmakers in the country? Mrinal Sen, Gulzar, Sai Paranjpye... I wanted to work with all of them and I kept hounding them until they agreed to work with me."

It's this quality, plus of course a powerhouse of volcanic talent in her personality, which has taken her further than any other actress.

It's a fallacy that Shabana is only a serious cerebral person. She's also capable of having fun, letting her hair down and just having a ball.

Her lust for life makes her reach out to anyone who shares her zest for glory. But to her, every interaction on a human or artistic level is an occasion for knowing herself.

Bluntly honest and as averse to beating around the bush as humanly possible, Shabana is still a mystery to most people. I've noticed that a lot of people in the film industry are intimidated by her.

But Shabana isn't really intimidating. She's just so naturally larger than life that she creates the impression of being several cuts above the rest.