Think of Shabana Azmi and images of her roles in off-beat Hindi cinema come to mind. What are today called indie films were those days known as parallel cinema or, in the spirit of the French La Nouvelle Vague, the New Wave. Low budgets, realistic stories and treatment, directors from outside the mainstream roster and relatively new actors, more often than not from among the alumni of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune—these were the foundational pillars of the Indian New Wave. Azmi, a freshly minted FTII graduate, was a leading light of such films and indeed, made her debut in one—Ankur (1974)—immediately capturing the attention of both critics and discerning audiences alike.
What is less acknowledged is the fact that along with the Shyam Benegalfilms, Azmi dived into commercial cinema right off the top. The same year as Ankur released, Azmi showed up as one of the many sisters in Dev Anand’s monumental flop Ishk Ishk Ishk and followed it with Fakira (1976) and then Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) in quick succession. Another film she acted in during that period was Shaque (1976), a middle-of-the-road venture by Aruna-Vikas. She played the wife of a middle-class man (Vinod Khanna), whom she begins to suspect as a murderer.
This switching between art cinema and the big world of masala films, or potboilers, was not as easy as it sounds. The New Wave directors wanted to break out of the stultifying conventions of the formula and choosing unknown faces was definitely part of that strategy. At the same time, the makers of big blockbusters were clear that the indie world, which made only “rona-dhona” (sentimental) films, was beyond the pale. Those actors were not glamorous and would not click with the masses, who wanted curvaceous beauties rather than intense-looking, independent-minded women. Azmi not only broke through this barrier, but she was clear she wanted to do so….