Shabana Azmi is an acclaimed actor of the Hindi film industry and theater. She has played a key role in India’s “parallel cinema” examining social issues and has also had several mainstream successes. In addition, Azmi has been a member of Parliament and is a leading social activist. In an interview with India Knowledge at Wharton earlier this year at the Wharton India Economic Forum 2013, Azmi spoke about the changing role of women in cinema and society, and the relationship between life and art. According to Azmi, art must be used as an instrument for social change and an artist’s resource base must be life itself.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

India Knowledge at Wharton: You are participating in both the women’s panel and the media and entertainment panel at the WIEF, so could we begin by talking about the convergence of the two and also some of the issues around the changing role of women both on screen and off screen in India? What are some changes in the types of roles that are available to women and what do you think is driving this change?

Shabana Azmi: I do think that there has been a significant change in women-centric roles. Although earlier, too, you’ve had very many women-centric films, women were cast in the traditional stereotypical mode of the forgiving wife, the suffering mother, the sacrificing mother, the understanding sister, etc. For instance, in the 1960s, there was a film called Main Chup Rahoongi [I Will Remain Silent], where remaining silent was considered a virtue for women. There has been a change since then.

The change in the 1980s came with a film called Arth by [director and producer] Mahesh Bhatt in which I acted. This became a cult film of sorts, but was a one-off. Then, in the 1990s, you had a whole lot of films … which had nothing to do with the complexity of what it is to be a woman. That was left largely to the art cinema, the parallel cinema. But today, even if you look at mainstream cinema, while women may have smaller roles as compared to men, they are more empowered. Take [actor] Vidya Balan and the films that she’s done — five films back-to-back [portraying] women not in traditional, stereotypical roles. And all have been commercially successful. This augers well for the film industry because, ultimately, the producer is interested in making money. If the audience shows that it is interested in films portraying strong women, then the producers will be tempted to make such films.

India Knowledge at Wharton: But after Vidya Balan’s film Kahaani (a murder mystery in which Balan played the main character), there was talk that the big heroes were afraid of acting with her.

Azmi: This is a case in point. I have been asking why heroes should take it for granted that films will be [centered on] them. With the new understanding of [present] times, we are saying: “Let’s revisit notions of masculinity and what it actually means.” Why can’t male heroes say that, “Since we [dominate] all the films, once in a while, if it’s a good subject, I’m ready to play second fiddle.” If a Salman [Khan] or Aamir [Khan] or Shahrukh [Khan] [three of the most popular actors in Bollywood] start doing this, they won’t suddenly become less important. It will be a very healthy trend for other heroes to follow. So it is something that should be done.

India Knowledge at Wharton: What about [other] sorts of typecasting? You were considered a stalwart of parallel cinema — a term that’s not used much anymore. Did you in your career ever feel that you were boxed into doing those types of roles?

Azmi: No, not at all. I was never boxed into it because I was constantly doing mainstream cinema. While I was doing an Ankur, I was also doing an Amar Akbar Anthony, so I never had any problems slipping in and out of both.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Do you feel that women today have that issue at all in terms of being boxed in?

Azmi: Not at all. In fact, it’s widening up quite a lot. And that’s how it should be. Stars should be willing to work in films where maybe the money is not as big, but the roles are substantial [and lead to] the overall development of actors. In fact, a lot of women are doing that. They are taking on parts which might not be traditionally considered safe.

India Knowledge at Wharton: What about off screen? It’s still far more common to see men who are producing and directing [as well as] acting, while women are told that they should not try other things if they want to become popular lead actors and that if they do, their market value will go down.

Azmi: Do other things like what?

India Knowledge at Wharton: Anything else, really, even theater. You can only be seen in certain types of glamorous advertisements or you can be seen as a heroine in commercial cinema.

Azmi: In Hindi films, there is no such [limitation].

India Knowledge at Wharton: But you still don’t hear about a lot of mainstream women actors doing it, so why is that?

Azmi: No, but they don’t do it because they simply don’t have the time. If you’re doing theater, for instance, it takes away a lot of the time. People today are only doing one film at a time. They’re doing whatever it is that they wish to do. I haven’t seen any heroines who have the time to do theater or have the inclination to do theater and are thwarted by the fact that their value [may go down]. It could be true in some films from the South, but I don’t see that at all. Look at Nandita Das. She has directed a film; she has produced theater; she is acting in theater. Yes, she’s not a mainstream actor in the sense that Katrina Kaif or Kareena Kapoor are, but to each her own. Whatever it is that they want to do, they’re free to do it. I don’t think that there’s any glass ceiling as such. It’s something that I think they’ve not wanted to do, frankly.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Given your perspective as an actor and also as an activist for many important social causes, do you think that some of these causes that have been represented in Indian cinema have been reactive or proactive in shaping the dialogue around them?

For instance, take a film that you’ve been involved in, like Fire. That was revolutionary on a number of points. Do you feel that it was a reaction to a dialogue that was happening in society or was it proactive in opening up a dialogue?

Azmi: I think Fire was certainly proactive in opening up [a dialogue] and even revisiting Section 377, which criminalizes homosexuality. Taare Zameen Par dealt with dyslexia and opened up the debate about dyslexia. So cinema does have [an impact] — and if it is within the mainstream, even more, because then it reaches out to a large number of people.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Going back to the issue of women, another thing that’s been facing a lot of criticism is that item songs (a popular term for provocative songs, usually starring women) in films encourage violent behavior.

Azmi: I don’t think that men are raping women because of item numbers. That can’t be true. But the fact is item numbers [project] women as being commoditized and objectified and somewhere that creates an atmosphere. It seems kosher and OK to treat women as objects because the business of cinema is about images and when you have fragmented images of a woman’s bosom and her swiveling hip and her twisting navel, it robs the woman of all autonomy and subjects her to the male gaze. Vulgar lyrics and suggestive, voyeuristic camera angles do not celebrate a woman’s sexuality, they actually objectify her. So under the guise of saying that you’re celebrating women’s sexuality, you are actually objectifying her in item numbers.

India Knowledge at Wharton: So does the film industry have a responsibility then?

Azmi: Of course, but to each her own. Because I feel this way, it’s not necessary that this view needs to be shared by somebody else. Some people feel that the purpose of cinema is entertainment — which in itself is a healthy enough goal, provided you define what constitutes entertainment. But I come from a family where I grew up believing that cinema — art — should be used as an instrument for change and that’s the kind of cinema I’ve largely done and been attracted to. It doesn’t mean that it must be a didactic, boring film. But if you take on an issue, particularly when it comes to empowerment of women, I think it’s very important to have much more of positive images of women in cinema and theater and television, etc. I find it curious that television has so many women behind the screen and yet it hasn’t led to positive images of women. They sort of lean into the stereotype.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Why do you think that is? Is there a different demographic?

Azmi: They say that it’s all driven by TRPs [Television Rating Points] and it’s driven by what they are told by the channels [as to] what works and what doesn’t work. [But] how accurate can TRPs be in a country of a billion people? You have a reading of 800 homes and you think that can be used as a reflection of what people are watching? It’s very faulty.

India Knowledge at Wharton: The people who are watching these TV serials are, in theory, the same people who are watching films which are pushing the definitions of what women stand for. But are TV and films are still fairly separate worlds in India for the most part?

Azmi: Yes. Except now a lot of heroes have started doing [programs] on television. You have [actors] Amitabh Bachchan and Salman [Khan] and others. But they’re doing talk shows and [things] which are different.

India Knowledge at Wharton: You have balanced films and politics and activism. Could you summarize an ideal interaction you see between these areas?

Azmi: I think that for an artist, her resource base must be life itself. Because unless you’re connected with life, how are you going to bring about any richness of character? Unless you’ve observed life and observed people, observed their idiosyncrasies, observed injustice, how can you bring it to play truthfully? If your resource base is life, then politics is going to influence you. Obviously, injustice is going to influence you because that’s what you sense in the air around you. It’s going to reflect in the choice of films or the choice of work that you decide to do. So for me, it’s a very natural progression. It isn’t one informing the other. They sort of both overlap and inform each other.