Udayavni Special

From ridicule to empathy: Shabana Azmi charts portrayal of LGBTQ community in cinema


Team Udayavani, Mar 15, 2020, 5:19 PM IST

Mumbai: Veteran actor Shabana Azmi is glad that the discourse around the LGBTQ community is a lot more open today, with even mainstream cinema portraying them with compassion.

Azmi starred in filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s acclaimed “Fire” (1996), about a lonely woman in love with her sister-in-law, played by Nandita Das.

The actor recalls how the trio were asked if they were lesbians at the London Film Festival because they had done “Fire”.

“Today, it’s fine. I must give credit to the mainstream industry that instead of making them a subject of ridicule, they are watching them with empathy,” she says.

In an interview with PTI, the actor says she was aware during “Fire” that some would be “outraged, moved and shocked”, but at least a dialogue would start in a society, which was so afraid of the “other” that it hated them and was quick to stigmatise.

“Starting a dialogue is the maximum you can do with a part or a film. I felt if the audience could empathise with the two sister-in-laws, then they would be able to extend that empathy to the other race, nation, colour, the other choice. You demonise the other because you don’t know them.”

The actor now features in “Sheer Qorma”, an upcoming love story between two queer women, played by Swara Bhasker and Divya Dutta.

Azmi says doing “Sheer Qorma”, directed by Faraz Arif Ansari, was a logical move forward after “Fire”.

“There has definitely been a great change in society as there should be. It is far more visible now, there’s far greater acceptability, considering that even in mainstream cinema you get to witness it. Earlier it would just be a subject of ridicule, but it’s shown with empathy and compassion.

“The notion of family is changing today. It’s no longer the heterogeneous family of man woman child. Now two women have children, two men are having children, single mothers are having children. So the notion of family is expanding, which is healthy.”

The 69-year-old actor says her character in the film, that of a mother trying to adjust to the revelation of her daughter’s sexuality, represents many people, who have difficulty facing the truth.

“She’s a woman who doesn’t say, ‘This is just unbearable.’ She tries to cope with it but feels really stretched because as long as it was abroad, it was there, but she has brought this home. When she’s confronted by her daughter, that makes her realise.

“I see so many people who have had troubles accepting this of their children but finally they come around because the mother’s love wins.”

While Bollywood films have been often criticised for an inaccurate or caricaturish representation of the LGBTQ community given its huge impact on the mindset of masses, Azmi believed it would be a stretch to say that films alone have played a role in othering the community.

“Anybody, who strikes out as looking different, who’s more visible, the society in any case finds it difficult to adjust to the LGBTQ community. Anyone who wants to look different is looked at (strangely).”

To give perspective, the actor recalls an incident where a gay friend of hers arrived to pick her up in the US, dressed in a faux fur long jacket, diamond necklace, with an eyeliner, and she had remarked, “If he could have dressed up soberly.”

“And he said, ‘Excuse me for breathing!’ I said no, it wasn’t about breathing but attracting attention. He said, ‘You think it’s about attracting attention but this is the way I want to be.’ That really started for me the feeling that we are so conditioned that we are easily outraged by anyone who doesn’t fit the norm.”

Azmi says it’s important to understand that minorities and oppressed communities have to take dramatic steps for their identities to be seen and included. This is why, she says, she understands why people from LGBTQ community developed their own fashion sense, art and culture.

“When there’s this kind of social shift and change, you have to do something dramatic which captures people’s attention. So the LGBTQ community, dressing in a way which brings visibility to them, is a way of seeking comfort. Why should they have a problem of, first, coming out in the open, then dressing the way they feel like.”

Another criticism against Hindi cinema over the representation of LGTQ community has been that often such characters are one-dimensional with nothing apart from their sexuality given any importance.

Azmi says it’s a fair argument that members of the community shouldn’t only be represented for their sexuality.

“You can’t define a person from the LGBTQ community only by that. There are so many aspects to them and that’s fair to demand, that you don’t see me only as this.”

With “Sheer Qorma”, scheduled to be premiered at BFI, London on March 21, Azmi hopes the conversation moves ahead and her character resonates with people..

“I hope when the mother accepts, she represents the people who have troubles with it. She comes with her own sets of conditioning and prejudices, to finally realisewhich I hope people do toothat love is not a sin.

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