Shabana Azmi: A Change Agent Who Walked the Talk & Found Friendship


“I was amazed that somebody who had such a difficult existence had the generosity to become my friend…” – Shabana Azmi

Weeks have passed since Shabana Azmi arrived in Vancouver to receive her honorary degree from the Simon Fraser University for her social justice accomplishments. She graced us by opening the 2013 Indian Summer Festival.

I could use this space to write about her trajectory of experiences, but there are other places you can read about this. Instead, I want to share two items that personally resonated with me. Ms. Azmi, who is a very talented actress, often prepares for a role by finding someone close to the character to observe and borrow ideas, traits, etc., from in order to develop the character.

While working on a film she watched every detail of a woman who came to sweep the house where Ms. Azmi was staying. Ms. Azmi watched how she sat, ate, and walked. Then one day the woman asked Ms. Azmi if she would visit her home. Without hesitation, Ms. Azmi accepted the invitation, but she was unprepared for the shock. She had never seen the kind of poverty she witnessed that day; a 180 square foot space with no electricity, water or air, occupied by eight people:

I was amazed that somebody who had such a difficult existence had the generosity to become my friend and found that if I went away without doing anything for her, it would be a travesty of the trust that she had placed in me when we became friends and I couldn’t just use her to maybe win a national award in the bargain and then say I won’t have anything to do with you.

It was at this point that Ms. Azmi decided to begin her work in Mumbai with slum dwellers by joining an organization called Nivara Haq, which means the right to shelter. Later, a large slum was demolished and people from the organization decided to go on an indefinite hunger strike as a form of protest and action.

During this time, Ms Azmi was scheduled to be at the Cannes Film Festival. The night before she was scheduled to leave, a meeting took place and she decided it would be wrong to go and instead joined the protest.

After five days of the hunger strike, the government finally accepted the demand for alternative land for the demolished slum. One victory led to another. Today her organization has created 50,000 homes for free for slum dwellers in Mumbai.

I believe stories like these illustrate the importance of authenticity. If one is to really understand another’s struggle, then one needs to be directly involved. Medha Patkar is another example of someone who let go of a privileged life-style to help the Dalits in stopping the building of the Narmada Dam. Although I don’t have the same experience, I do have a story that influenced me in the direction I’d take in social justice work. I met a woman in a slum in Pune.

“Why are you here?” she asked.
“I’ve always wanted to help poor women and children.”

She said, “Go back to your own country. We don’t need you. We already have people here doing the work.”
I was shocked and asked, “How can I help? I am sincere.”
“Influence your government that impacts our lives,” she said.

This was my epiphany. For the first time in my life I felt like I belonged – visually as a person of colour – because in Canada I never did with my skin colour. However, I soon realized after meeting this woman I carried western economic privilege and as soon as I spoke people knew I wasn’t from India. I changed my career path to focus on government policy.

The next moment during Ms. Azmi’s talk came from a question by a young woman who is born and raised in Canada.
“What can we do as Canadian artists that can continue to somehow positively impact Indian society as well as maybe South Asians from your perspective, what is something that we can do?”

Ms. Azmi’s response: “just tell your stories. That’s what you can do. Because when you tell your stories we learn about multiple cultures and we learn about people who are straddling two worlds, that adds to our sensitivity.”

This hit home for me. As a spoken word performer (and as Ms. Azmi has been quoted) I, too, believe art should be used as an instrument for social change. Thank you for sharing your wisdom Shabana Azmi!

(Meharoona Ghani)

For more information about the 2013 Indian Summer Festival please click HERE.