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‘Films influence society, society influences films’

Published : Jan 10, 2016, 9:37 pm IST
Updated : Jan 10, 2016, 9:37 pm IST

Juhi Chawla and Shabana Azmi, in the capital to promote their upcoming release, Chalk n Duster, talk about the power of cinema, the state of education in India, the pay gap in B-town and more

Actresses Shabana Azmi and Juhi Chawla at a promotional event for Chalk n Duster in the capital recently
 Actresses Shabana Azmi and Juhi Chawla at a promotional event for Chalk n Duster in the capital recently

Juhi Chawla and Shabana Azmi, in the capital to promote their upcoming release, Chalk n Duster, talk about the power of cinema, the state of education in India, the pay gap in B-town and more

In a wide-ranging discussion, actresses Juhi Chawla and Shabana Azmi explained the important message of their new movie Chalk n Duster, gender disparity when it comes to payment in Bollywood, films as a great tool for giving young people the confidence to speak out, educate and become empowered, and more

“Using a film as a forum for discussion is a powerful way of giving people, or a subject, a voice. And through this movie I want to bring the spotlight on to all the unsung heroes in the form of our gurus whom we have forgotten,” avers Chawla along with chanting Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu, Guru Devo Maheshwara as she sits down to talk about the movie.

“A truly great film can be entirely transporting: leaving the cinema, we can feel moved, energised, inspired -— even start thinking differently about ourselves, and our futures. And it is this experience — the removal from the everyday, the insight into other worlds, other cultures — that makes film a powerful tool for education and a powerful solution for the long-standing problem of forgetting about gurus who have taught us whatever we know in our lives,” says the seasoned actress who started experimenting with different kinds of roles over a decade ago.

Though non-mainstream movies such as 3 Deewarein (2003), My Brother Nikhil (2005) and I Am Afia Megha Abhimanyu Omar (2010) added a new dimension to the actor’s image, Chawla says that she had to almost reinvent herself for the role of a teacher. “By seeing it from the point of view of a character in a film, I am definite that adults as well as children will begin to develop empathy and also the ability to adopt a viewpoint other than their own, and look at a situation as an independent observer. I want everyone to get in touch with their teachers after watching the movie as it is a touching tale of school teachers, children and the commercialisation of education.”

Shabana Azmi, the five-time national award winner who has been known to bring about a change in society through several social projects agrees with Juhi and shares, “Films influence society and society influences films, and I think more and more movies about such subjects should be made. However, don’t mistake my aforementioned saying as limited to just arty cinema. Out-and-out commercial movies too can entertain, spread a message, make you cry and laugh at the same time.”

On the pay gap:

Worldwide, there has been a roaring rage among actresses about the gender disparity when it comes to payment. From Jennifer Lawrence to Meryl Streep, almost everyone has expressed and has come out hard against the gender pay inequality in Hollywood. In India, actresses like Kangana and Priyanka too have been spotted raising this issue.

Shabana Azmi says, “I feel that gender disparity in payment exists all over the world, particularly in the film industry and that is simply because it’s the male star who supposedly ‘brings’ the bucks in the box office.” With her conversation veering between the candid and cautious she adds, “It is perfectly acceptable when you have a big hero playing the main role and the big heroine playing the secondary role. But, having said that for me it is all about sensitising our men when they plan on playing and more importantly ‘accepting’ the secondary role in a female-oriented movie and not having them rolling their sleeves with a bigger amount of money than the ladies. We should sensitise them that it is perfectly acceptable to do roles wherein a heroine is getting equally or better paid as compared to them. We have to sensitise them about our problems. Shah Rukh Khan’s decision of introducing his female co-star prior to his name in the credit list is fine and applause-worthy but he needs to go beyond this. It is a remarkable gesture, but what’s beyond that ”

Juhi, on the other hand, avers, “I have a different take on this issue. Personally I don’t believe that to succeed in life you have to compete with anyone other than yourself. I’d like to challenge myself to be better than who I was yesterday, and to be brighter than who I am today, for the future. If I can achieve that, I am a success. Whether someone is getting paid higher or lower than me doesn’t affect my achievements and the struggles behind it. The issue of pay disparity has become a rage in Bollywood now, but I don’t see it going away so easily. I am my own competition.” The actress was earlier subjected to a lot of criticism for her not-so-feminist comment on the gender-based pay gap where she confessed that she never got upset over the existing wage gap and even accepted that her male counterparts would get paid more than her.

On education:

“I think we need to stop teaching our children to mug up. We all say that education is important but what kind of education our children require to lead a nourished life that is also gender-just, we don’t know. At the moment, in today’s world, what is important is to inculcate in the child with a scientific temper, a spirit of enquiry and the ability to ask questions and to then understand the answer from various points of view. And just one institution shouldn’t impose all this, but there should be several of them because it will allow the child to grow, encourage them to ask as many questions and then make a conclusion. That’s the one thing about learning that we are missing out on,” asserts Shabana.

“I teach my son and I teach him Hindi because his grammar is so messed up. But I am so shocked to discover that India mein rakh ke uske Hindi ki grammar galat hai,” laughs Juhi. And with her trademark candour and effervescence adds, “Nowadays, we are preparing our kids for the university and not for the universe. I think that’s the biggest loophole. I have seen my children study, the number of books that they mug up and the humungous amount of information that they are asked to cramp into their little brains. I wish someone could do something about it. Learning is no longer an enriching experience.” Playing teachers:

Chalk n Duster is directed by Jayant Gilatar and it also stars Divya Dutta, Zarina Wahab and Girish Karnad in important roles. In this film, Shabana is playing a middle-class Maharashtrian woman. “The nuances that she has got in her role, the way she ties her hair, the way she tucks her handkerchief in her watch strap. I would have forgotten to do these things. She has a very interesting way of working,” shares Juhi, admiring her co-actress.

Asked about the inspiration for her character, Shabana says, “Getting into the character was quite easy for me because I have a sister-in-law who is a teacher plus an actresses too. Even though I have so many favourite teachers, none of them were like the person I am playing in the movie whereas Sulabha Arya fitted the bill perfectly and I have based my character on her very closely.” Sulabha is the famous Kanta ben from the film Kal Ho Na Ho and ex-wife of cinematographer Ishan Arya, whose first cousins are Shabana and Baba Azmi.

Answering the same question, Chawla says, “My story is extremely different. I had to play a real woman and sadly I don’t know what happened to me and I didn’t have any reference points. The writer’s wife happened to be a teacher so I went and stayed with them to observe and feel. However, to be serious, even after that experience, I was blank and lost. Shooting had also started but I was still lost. I even ended up being super late for the first day of shooting and got a jhap from Shabana ji but I didn’t have the courage to tell her that I was feeling lost. But eventually, I got a hang of it.”