Vidya Balan openly acknowledges her admiration for and loyalty to Shabana Azmi. And now is her turn to repay her debts of influence. In her new film Begum Jaan Vidya has modelled her character of the brothel Madame on Shabana Azmi in Shyam Benegal’s Mandi.
Says Shabana warmly, “Yes, Vidya keeps saying that. Vidya and I have a mutual admiration society. I commend her for brave choice of roles, for her hunger to do unconventional work and for raising the bar. She has a beautiful voice and a distinct personality.”
Shabana can’t wait to see how Vidya has negotiated her Madame’s character. “I’m very keen to watch Begum Jaan. Mandi is considered a landmark film and it’s inevitable that a feisty brothel owner would be compared to Rukmini Bai of Mandi. One can shout from the rooftops that comparisons are odious, but alas they will be made! I’m certain though that Begum Jaan will be very different from Mandi and Vidya will bring to her part a robustness that is entirely her own.”
Shabana’s role in Mandi was a game-changer, as she was the first major actress India to gain oodles of weight to play a character. Recalls Shabana, “Actually, I felt I was too young to play Rukmini, the Madame in the brothel. So to compensate for the lack of years I put on a lot of weight.”
Shabana recalls visiting various brothels for her research with her director Shayam Benegal. “We went to this famous red-light area in Mumbai where all the girls seemed to be imitating film stars specially Rekha, down to her red lipstick and stylish blouses. In another brothel we visited on G V Road with Rukshsana Sultana (actress Amrita Singh’s mother) all the girls were filled with tehzeeb and adaas and nazaakat, it was almost like visiting the world of Pakeezah. In the third brothel we visited a petite sex worker danced to my song ‘Dil Mein Tujhe Bithake Kar Loongi Main Bandd Aankhen Pooja Karungi Teri’ from the film Fakira! It was a startling interpretation of the beautiful Lata Mangeshkar melody, and one that we never imagined while shooting.”
Shabana is certain Vidya has brought her own personality and grit to her Madame’s role in Begum Jaan. “She is a fearless actor, not at all cowed down by convention and expectations. I am sure her interpretation would very different from what I did in Mandi.”