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    'Morning Raga' hard work but worth it: Shabana

    [Interview by Subhash K. Jha]
    Monday, November 01, 2004
    Shabana Azmi says she had to work very hard during the making of "Morning Raga" but the end result was worth the effort.

    "All in all, I was terrified because I was dealing with a hundred things in my life including parliament. But it has all been worth it," Shabana told IANS in an interview.

    She said "Morning Raga" interested her because she had watched writer Mahesh Dattani''s work on stage. "I''ve always been interested in the complexities of his characters," Shabana said.

    Holding that most Indians live "from the 18th to the 21st century", she said that "Morning Raga" "is a bridge between the city and the village, tradition and modernity, Western and Carnatic music.

    What's "Morning Raga" all about?

    I play a Carnatic singer who, while going for her first public concert, has a car accident in which she loses her son and best friend. It's about a pop singer who comes to the village to learn music from me. It brings two disciplines and two worlds together.

    I had to work really really hard to get it right. Cinematographer Rajiv Menon's mother, who's a Carnatic musician, was cursing everyone for my presence. She wanted to know how a north Indian woman could play a Carnatic singer. According to her, the only person who has played a Carnatic singer successfully is Mohanlal.

    All in all, I was terrified because I was dealing with a hundred things in my life including parliament. But it has all been worth it.

    At the music release function, when I performed one of the songs, my hard-to-please husband Javed Akhtar gave me 10 out 10. Tabu had tears streaming down her cheeks.

    Are filmmakers devising roles just for you?

    None of the roles being offered to me are insubstantial... And substantial doesn't mean the central part. Why I choose a film is purely instinctive. And box office success isn't my primary consideration for selecting a role. Though I'd love to have box office successes, I'd like to be a part of films that either offer me a substantial role or are trying to do or say something beyond the ordinary.

    So what made you choose "Morning Raga"?

    "Morning Raga" interested me because I've watched Mahesh Dattani's work on stage. I've always been interested in the complexities of his characters. And for Christ's sake, Rajiv Menon was the cinematographer and the producer was K. Raghvendra Rao, with whom I've had a very happy working relationship in the past. I really enjoyed doing his "Kamyaab" with Jeetendra in the 1980s.

    I enjoyed the part in "Morning Raga". Without making a song and dance, there're many important ideas on cultural compatibility in the film. I think India is a country that lives in several centuries simultaneously. We've people living from the 18th to the 21st century. And all the Indian people encapsulate the contradictions that arise from this long stretch of time zone.

    "Morning Raga" is a bridge between the city and the village, tradition and modernity, Western and Carnatic music. Even though the language of the film is English, it speaks a universal language. It appeals to someone like my driver who can't follow the spoken language.

    Isn't it ironical that a film about losing connection with our classical heritage is in the English language?

    Ideally, "Morning Raga" should've been in English and Telugu. But we also wanted the film to address a larger audience. We chose English because you've to see it working in translation. Otherwise, how can you have Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in English? There has to be a suspension of disbelief about the language. We had to widen the circle of communication. Why not Hindi? Because Mahesh Dattani chose not to use Hindi.

    The interaction over the generations is immensely interesting.

    Yes. And the character Perizaad plays is very similar to the person that she is. The most closed bud would flower in her company. It's impossible not to like her. She was interesting to not just Shabana Azmi but also to her character Swarnlata. I had a very happy relationship with both Perizaad and the young leading man Prakash Rao.

    Everyone in my family likes Prakash. They were surprised to know he's a trained actor from Lee Strasberg's acting school. And he's played the violin in "Morning Raga" like a dream. I pride myself for the ability to reach out and connect for a very selfish reason.

    I need to observe and absorb from those I work with. Acting is such a collaborative art. If you can connect with those around you, your job gets so much easier. All you have to do is look in their eyes and know the truth. There're some actors who thrive on playing a power game on the sets. I can't bear any tension on the sets. I've to have a comfortable atmosphere.

    Predictably, the young people like Urmila Matondkar and Arjun Rampal in "Tehzeeb" and Perizaad and Prakash in "Morning Raga" come to the sets with pre-conceived notions about me being a serious actor. Then they suddenly discover this very open and accessible person.

    "Morning Raga" tells a terrific story.

    True. It's not an abstruse film, nor is it ponderous. I'd hope the film does well. But I'm deeply aware that the marketing of a small film is really crucial. Unfortunately, small films don't have the budgets that are required to make them visible to a large audience.

    Have you crossed another performing threshold in "Morning Raga"?

    "Mujhe nahin maloom hai!" (I don't know). I won't make any such claims. You can ask me five to six years from now. However, it's up to the audience to decide. After watching the film and my performance my mother got the same feeling that she did after my breakthrough film "Ankur".

    The short-term challenge for me was getting the "swarams" right. I had the feeling if I got my character's singing and body language right, everything else would fall into place. When I first heard the Carnatic music, I couldn't understand a word of it. Gradually, I realized it wasn't that hard to understand.

    Who's going to write another role like "Morning Raga" for you?

    I feel the opportunities for actors are opening up. Hindi film producers have realized there's no such thing as a pan-Indian audience. Because of this, they've got out of the mind set of making films that cater to the lowest common denominator. They can now make niche films... for multiplexes or for the interiors. So we've got out of the formula.

    The profile of the audience has changed completely. There's a strong urban audience. Attempts are being made to make different kinds of films, though not all of them are successful. I was talking to Rishi Kapoor the other day and he felt this is just about the best time for a Hindi film actor. I agree. In another two to three years, the picture will get clearer. But there's one trend that both pleases and bothers me.

    Producers like Yash Chopra, Karan Johar and Subhash Ghai are allowing directors from the outside to make films for their companies. Unfortunately, they're encouraging these directors to make films that clone their own style. What these bigwigs should do is encourage small-budget films that are meaningful and contrary to the films made by Chopra, Johar and Ghai.

    That's how the meaningful movement will flourish. Small films made for large production houses can be nurtured into a proper release. My plea to big production houses is give Rs.2 crore (Rs.20 million) to a small film. That's often the budget of one Karan Johar set. Then, a film like "Morning Raga" would stand a much better chance.

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