Mumbai: It was a collaboration that started with Shyam Benegal’s Nishant and now 44 years later, Shabana Azmi remembers theatre and film veteran Girish Karnad as a true intellect, whose life cannot be described in a single sound byte.
Azmi on Saturday finally opened up about her work relationship with Karnad, who died at the age of 81 at his residence in Bengaluru after a prolonged illness on 10 June.
In a Facebook post, titled “Farewell My Friend”, the actor said she first heard about Karnad during the making of Benegal’s 1974 feature Ankur, when he assisted the director with the editing.
“Few people know that when Shyam Benegal first made Ankur it was a very lengthy film. Shyam roped in Girish to help him edit the narrative. That’s when I first heard of Girish.”
Azmi recalled that when Karnad was a director at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), he showed immense maturity in handling the students’ strikes that she said were led by actor Naseeruddin Shah.
“It was a troubled tenureship (sic) because the students were on strike and very hostile. But Girish handled it with great maturity and compassion. Legend has it that Naseeruddin Shah was in the forefront of the strike and there were some unpleasant altercations between them.
“But to Girish’s remarkable credit that didn’t deter him from recommending Naseer to Shyam for a very important role in Nishant — his first break in films that launched his career and established him as a fine actor. A lesser person than Girish could have been revengeful.”
In Benegal’s 1975 film, Azmi remembers that it was the first time that she shared screen space with Karnad.
“I was playing the schoolmaster’s wife in Nishant. Girish played the somewhat timid schoolmaster — quite the opposite of what he was in real life — confident, articulate, erudite, a true intellectual.
“He didn’t fancy himself as an actor and rued that it would damage his reputation as a playwright (who was fast getting acknowledged as one of the best in India). I would tease him and say, ‘No matter… even if you aren’t good, you are so good looking that all will be forgiven!’ He would laugh loudly and then proceed to regale us with umpteen stories. it was a pleasure to hear him speak. I warmed up to him.”
Azmi said she was later cast as Karnad’s wife in Basu Chatterjee’s 1997 film Swami, which was based on a short story by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay.
“Girish and I were tickled pink and made a pact that we wouldn’t let on that we both thought otherwise! If that’s how the audience saw him, we would keep the secret between ourselves! But the fact is that he had undeniable screen presence and very soon turned into a fine actor.”
Azmi said her last film collaboration with the veteran was 2016 film Chalk and Duster.
“Gone was the initial reluctance and hesitation. He faced the camera like a total pro, as though to the manor born! Even so, being an actor was only a small aspect of his personality,” Azmi recalled.
The actor said she last met Karnad in Bengaluru on the sidelines of his play Broken Images and added that despite his failing health, the veteran was still full of “his passion or his commitment as an engaged citizen”.
“It was his fearlessness, his speaking his mind without mincing words, his total commitment to freedom of speech that defined him. We kept in touch on e-mail and the occasional phone call,” Azmi wrote.