Shabana Azmi

Shabana Azmi (born 18 September 1950) is an Indian actress of film, television and theatre. The daughter of poet Kaifi Azmi and stage actress Shaukat Azmi, she is an alumna of Film and Television Institute of India of Pune. Azmi made her film debut in 1974 and soon became one of the leading actresses of Parallel Cinema, a new-wave movement known for its serious content and neo-realism and received government patronage during the times.[1][2] Regarded as one of the finest actresses in India, Azmi's performances in films in a variety of genres have generally earned her praise and awards, which include a record of five wins of the National Film Award for Best Actress and several international honours.[1][3] She has also received five Filmfare Awards, and was honoured among "women in cinema" at the 30th International Film Festival of India.[4] In 1988, the Government of India awarded her with Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honour of the country.

Shabana Azmi
Shabana Azmi
Member of Parliament
In office
27 August 1997  26 August 2003
Personal details
Shabana Kaifi Azmi

(1950-09-18) 18 September 1950
Hyderabad, Hyderabad state, India
(present Telangana, India)
Javed Akhtar (m. 1984)
ParentsKaifi Azmi
Shaukat Kaifi
RelativesSee Akhtar-Azmi family
OccupationActress, Social activist
AwardsPadma Bhushan (2012)

Azmi has appeared in over 120 Hindi and Bengali films in both mainstream and independent cinema, and since 1988, she has acted in several foreign projects. Several of her films have been cited as a form of progressivism which portrays Indian society, its customs and traditions. In addition to acting, Azmi is a social and women's rights activist. She is the wife of poet and screenwriter Javed Akhtar.[5] She is a Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA). In appreciation of Azmi's life and works, the President of India gave her a nominated (unelected) membership of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament.[6]

Early life and background

Shabana Azmi was born into a Saiyyid Muslim family, in Hyderabad,[7] India. Her parents are Kaifi Azmi (an Indian poet) and Shaukat Azmi (a veteran Indian People's Theatre Association stage actress),[6] both of whom were members of the Communist Party of India. Her brother, Baba Azmi, is a cinematographer, and her sister-in-law, Tanvi Azmi, is also an actress. Shabana was named at the age of eleven by Ali Sardar Jafri. Her parents used to call her Munni. Baba Azmi was named by Prof. Masood Siddiqui as Ahmer Azmi. Her parents had an active social life, and their home was always thriving with people and activities of the communist party. It was not unusual for her to wake up in the morning and find members of the communist party sleeping about, from a previous night's communist social that ran late. Early in childhood, the environment in her home inculcated into her a respect for family ties, social and human values; and her parents always supported her to develop a passion for intellectual stimulation and growth.[8][9][10]

Azmi attended Queen Mary School, Mumbai. She completed a graduate degree in Psychology from St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, and followed it with a course in acting at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune.[6] She explained the reason she decided to attend the film institute, saying: "I had the privilege of watching Jaya Bhaduri in a (Diploma) film, Suman, and I was completely enchanted by her performance because it was unlike the other performances I had seen. I really marvelled at that and said, 'My god, if by going to the Film Institute I can achieve that, that's what I want to do.'" Azmi eventually topped the list of successful candidates of 1972.[11]


Azmi graduated from the FTII in 1973 and signed on to Khwaja Ahmad Abbas' Faasla and began work on Kanti Lal Rathod's Parinay as well. Her first release, however, was Shyam Benegal's directorial debut Ankur (1974). Belonging to the arthouse genre of neo-realistic films, Ankur is based on a true story which occurred in Hyderabad. Azmi played Lakshmi, a married servant and villager who drifts into an affair with a college student who visits the countryside. Azmi was not the original choice for the film, and several leading actresses of that time refused to do it. The film went on to become a major critical success, and Azmi won the National Film Award for Best Actress for her performances. Famous independent filmmaker Satyajit Ray commented "In Ankur she may not have fitted immediately into her rustic surroundings, but her poise and personality are never in doubt. In two high pitched scenes, she pulls out the stops to firmly establish herself as one of our finest dramatic actresses".

She went on to receive the National Film Award consecutively for three years from 1983 to 1985 for her roles in Arth, Khandhar and Paar. Godmother (1999) earned her another National Film Award, taking her tally to five.

Azmi's acting has been characterised by a real-life depiction of the roles played by her. In Mandi, she acted as a madam of a whorehouse. For this role, she put on weight and even chewed betel. Real life portrayals continued in almost all her movies. These included the role of a woman named Jamini resigned to her destiny in Khandhar and a typical urban Indian wife, homemaker and mother in Masoom.

She also acted in experimental and parallel Indian cinema. Deepa Mehta's 1996 film Fire depicts her as a lonely woman, Radha, in love with her sister-in-law. The on-screen depiction of lesbianism (perhaps the first in Indian cinema) drew severe protests and threats from many social groups as well as by the Indian authorities. Her role as Radha brought her international recognition with the Silver Hugo Award for Best Actress at the 32nd Chicago Film Festival and Jury Award for Best Actress at Outfest, Los Angeles.[6]

She was the initial choice for Deepa Mehta's Water, which was planned to hit the floors in 2000. A few scenes were already shot. Azmi had to shave her head with Nandita Das to portray the character of Shakuntala. However, due to political reasons, the film was shelved and later shot in 2005 with Seema Biswas replacing Azmi.[12]

Some of her notable films are Shyam Benegal's Nishant (1975), Junoon (1978), Susman (1986), and Antarnaad (1992); Satyajit Ray's Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players); Mrinal Sen's Khandhar, Genesis, Ek Din Achanak; Saeed Mirza's Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai; Sai Paranjpye's Sparsh and Disha; Gautam Ghose's Paar; Aparna Sen's Picnic and Sati; Mahesh Bhatt's Arth; and Vinay Shukla's Godmother.

Her other films include the commercially successful Manmohan Desai's Amar Akbar Anthony and Parvarish and Prakash Mehra's Jwalamukhi. Azmi starred in Hollywood productions such as John Schlesinger's Madame Sousatzka (1988) and Roland Joffe's City of Joy (1992).

Azmi debuted on the small screen in a soap opera titled Anupama. She portrayed a modern Indian woman who, while endorsing traditional Indian ethos and values, negotiated more freedom for herself. She has participated in many stage plays: notable among them include M. S. Sathyu's Safed Kundali (1980), based on The Caucasian Chalk Circle; and Feroz Abbas Khan's Tumhari Amrita with actor Farooq Sheikh, which ran for five years. She toured Singapore on an assignment with the Singapore Repertory Theatre Company, acting in Ingmar Bergman's adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House, which was directed by Rey Buono. She toured the UK, Dubai and India with British production Happy Birthday Sunita by Theatre Company Rifco Arts in 2014.

Pointing out the differences in all these media, she once remarked that theatre was really the actor's medium; the stage was the actor's space; cinema was the director's medium; and television was a writer's medium.

Personal life

Shabana Azmi was engaged to Benjamin Gilani in late 1970s, but the engagement was called off.[13] Later, she married Javed Akhtar, a lyricist, poet and Bollywood scriptwriter, on 9 December 1984, making her a member of the Akhtar-Azmi film family.[14] It was Akhtar's second marriage, the first being with Bollywood scriptwriter, Honey Irani. However Shabana's parents objected to her being involved with a very much married man with 2 children (Farhan Akhtar and Zoya Akhtar).[15][16] Indian actresses Farah Naaz and Tabu are her nieces and Tanvi Azmi is her sister-in-law.

Social and political activism

Azmi has been a committed social activist, active in supporting child survival and fighting AIDS and injustice in real life.[17][18] Azmi has voiced her opinion on a variety of issues. Initially, her activism drew scepticism and was dubbed by some as a publicity gimmick. However, she proved her critics wrong and used her celebrity status to emerge as a high-profile social activist.

She has participated in several plays and demonstrations denouncing communalism. In 1989, along with Swami Agnivesh and Asghar Ali Engineer, she undertook a four-day march for communal harmony from New Delhi to Meerut. Among the social groups whose causes she has advocated are slum dwellers, displaced Kashmiri Pandit migrants and victims of the earthquake at Latur (Maharashtra, India). The 1993 Mumbai riots appalled her and she emerged as a forceful critic of religious extremism. In 1995, she reflected on her life as an activist in an interview in Rungh.[19] After the 11 September 2001 attacks, she opposed the advice of the grand mufti of Jama Masjid calling upon the Muslims of India to join the people of Afghanistan in their fight by retorting that the leader go there alone.[20]

She has campaigned against ostracism of victims of AIDS.[17] A small film clip issued by the Government of India depicts an HIV positive child cuddled in her arms and saying: "She does not need your rejection, she needs your love". In a Bengali film named Meghla Akash she played the role of a physician treating AIDS patients.

She has also given her voice to an HIV/AIDS education animated software tutorial created by the nonprofit organisation TeachAIDS.[21]

She talks extensively about her social activism in a 2-hour interview for Harvard Business School's Creating Emerging Markets project.[22]

Since 1989, she has been a member of the National Integration Council headed by the Prime Minister of India; a member of National AIDS Commission (of India); and was nominated (in 1997) as a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament. In 1998, the United Nations Population Fund appointed her as its Goodwill Ambassador for India.[17]

In 2019 Indian general election, she actively campaigned for Kanhaiya Kumar who is contesting from Begusarai, Bihar for Communist Party of India (CPI).[23]


She has acted in more than one hundred Hindi films, both in the mainstream as well as in Parallel Cinema. Several of her films have received attention in the international arena and Scandinavian countries, including at the Norwegian Film Institute, the Smithsonian Institution and the American Film Institute. She has appeared in a number of foreign films, most of which have won international acclaim, including John Schlesinger's Madame Sousatzka, Nicholas Klotz's Bengali Night, Roland Joffe's City of Joy, Channel 4's Immaculate Conception, Blake Edwards' Son of the Pink Panther, and Ismail Merchant's In Custody.

Awards and honours

National Awards

Azmi has received the National Film Award for Best Actress five times, making her the overall most-awarded actor in the function:[6]

Filmfare Awards



International awards

Other awards

Honours and recognitions

  • 1988: Awarded the Padma Shri from the Government of India.
  • 1988: Yash Bhartiya Award by the Government of Uttar Pradesh for highlighting women's issues in her work as an actress and activist.
  • 1994: Rajiv Gandhi Award for "Excellence of Secularism"
  • 1999: Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image, Significant Contribution to Indian Cinema.[25]
  • 2002: Martin Luther King Professorship award by the University of Michigan conferred on her in recognition of her contribution to arts, culture and society.
  • 2003: She was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate by the Jadavpur University in West Bengal in 2003.[26]
  • 2006: Gandhi International Peace Award, awarded by Gandhi Foundation, London.[27]
  • 2007: She was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate in Art by Chancellor of the University Brandan Foster by the Leeds Metropolitan University in Yorkshire[28]
  • 2008: She was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate by the Jamia Milia Islamia on Delhi in 2008.[26]
  • 2009: She was honoured with the World Economic Forum's Crystal Award[29]
  • 2012: Awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India.[30]
  • 2012: She was honoured by Walk of the Stars as her hand print was preserved for posterity at Bandra Bandstand in Mumbai.
  • 2013: Awarded the Honorary Fellowship by the National Indian Students Union UK[31]
  • 2013: She was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate by Simon Fraser University.[32]
  • 2014: She was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate by TERI University on 5 February 2014.[33]
  • 2018: Power Brands awarded Shabana Azmi the Bharatiya Manavata Vikas Puraskar for being one of the greatest and most versatile thespians of Indian cinema, for being a champion of women's education and a consistent advocate for civil and human rights, equality and peace and for empowering lives every day through the Mijwan Welfare Society.[34]


  1. PTI (22 July 2005). "Parallel cinema seeing changes: Azmi". The Times of India. Retrieved 31 January 2009.
  2. K., Bhumika (21 January 2006). "Shabana's soap opera". The Hindu. Chennai, India. Retrieved 31 January 2009.
  3. Nagarajan, Saraswathy (18 December 2004). "Coffee break with Shabana Azmi". The Hindu. Chennai, India. Retrieved 31 January 2009.
  4. "Directorate of Film Festival" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 30 January 2013.
  5. Edward A. Gargan (17 January 1993). "In 'Bollywood,' Women Are Wronged or Revered". New York Times.
  6. Gulzar; Nihalani, Govind; Chatterjee, Saibal (2003). Encyclopaedia of Hindi cinema. Popular Prakashan. p. 524. ISBN 978-81-7991-066-5.
  7. "Shabana Azmi presented Akkineni award". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 14 January 2007.
  8. Kaifi Azmi (28 May 1997). "Kaifi Azmi". Outlook. Retrieved 5 March 2010.
  9. Shabana Azmi (2 October 2010). "To Abba... with love". Screen. Archived from the original on 19 December 2009. Retrieved 5 March 2010.
  10. "A conversation with actress and social activist Shabana Azmi". Charlie Rose. 6 March 2006. Archived from the original on 7 July 2009. Retrieved 5 March 2010.
  11. "Indo-American Arts Council".
  12. "The Politics of Deepa Mehta's Water". Bright Lights Film Journal. 1 April 2000. Retrieved 14 June 2019.
  13. "Actor and rebel: Shabana Azmi". Retrieved 14 June 2019.
  14. "THE DYNAMIC DYNASTIES: What would the world of films be without them?". Screen. 22 September 2000. Archived from the original on 10 February 2010.
  15. Ali Peter John (8 December 2000). "Javed Akhtar: It's not so easy". Screen. Retrieved 5 March 2010.
  16. "For Abba with Love by Shabana Azmi". Kaifiyat. Archived from the original on 22 January 2013. Retrieved 31 January 2013.
  17. "Biographies: A-F". United Nations. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  18. "World population crosses 6 billion". The Tribune. Tribune News Service. 12 October 1999. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  19. Merchant, Ameen (1995). "Being Shabana Azmi". Rungh - A South Asian Quarterly of Culture, Comment and Criticism. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: Rungh Cultural Society. 3: 5–9. ISSN 1188-9950.
  20. Rasheeda Bhagat (14 November 2001). "The Indian Muslims trial by fire". The Hindu Business Line. Retrieved 5 March 2010.
  21. "Animated film to educate students on HIV". The Times of India. 26 November 2010. Retrieved 16 December 2010.
  22. "Shabana Azmi - Creating Emerging Markets - Harvard Business School". Retrieved 14 June 2019.
  23. Rohit Kumar Singh (26 April 2019). "Shabana Azmi seek votes for Kanhaiya Kumar, attacks BJP". India Today. Retrieved 5 May 2019.
  24. "38th Annual BFJA Awards". Archived from the original on 1 May 2008. Retrieved 14 January 2010.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
    "50th Annual BFJA Awards". Archived from the original on 1 May 2008. Retrieved 8 January 2010.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  25. "Archives 1999". Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image. Retrieved 8 October 2011.
  26. Arif Roomy (21 March 2013). "Shabana proud of her hubby Dr. Javed Akhtar". The Telegraph. Retrieved 21 March 2013.
  27. "2006 Peace Award: Shabana Azmi". Gandhi Foundation. 14 November 2006. Retrieved 24 February 2009.
  28. Amit Roy (11 June 2007). "Amit degree in Gandhi hall". The Telegraph. Calcutta, India. Retrieved 5 March 2010.
  29. "WEF honours Amitabh with Crystal Award". The Financial Express. 2 February 2009. Retrieved 5 March 2010.
  30. "Padma Awards". pib. 27 January 2013. Retrieved 27 January 2013.
  31. "Shabana Azmi Javed Akhtar get UK fellowship".
  32. "Activist Shabana Azmi Receives Honorary Degree - Office of the Vice-President, Research - Simon Fraser University". Retrieved 25 May 2019.
  33. India, Press Trust of (5 February 2014). "TERI university honours Shabana Azmi, Anshu Jain". Business Standard. Retrieved 5 February 2014.
  34. PTI (30 August 2018). "Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das receive Bharatiya Manavata Vikas Puraskar". Business Standard. Retrieved 9 May 2019.


  • India’s 50 Most Illustrious Women (ISBN 81-88086-19-3) by Indra Gupta
  • Holt, Julia; Phalke, Shubhra; Basic Skills Agency. Shabana Azmi. London : Basic Skills Agency, 1995. ISBN 1-85990-022-4.
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