She is disappointed by the lack of Indian representation in the narrative competition in this year’s film festival, and admits that she had no idea that Italian actress Isabella Rossellini was tipped to be in her place.
Her thoughts on taking Rosellini’s place (the actress reportedly pulled out due to medical reasons)? “This is the first time I have heard of it. I have no thoughts,” said Azmi, adding that it’s the seventh time she’s chairing a jury panel.
Fortunately, the 62-year-old actress, who has straddled Bollywood  blockbusters and art house films with ease, isn’t as brusque when it comes to airing her thoughts on the importance of film festivals and the rights of filmmakers to represent their realities.
A clear champion for filmmakers exercising their creative choice, the wife of renowned Bollywood lyricist Javed Akhtar believes in the power of creative democracy and that cinema is a weapon for social change.
“When we don’t know enough about countries you get informed through their cinema. If you look at Iranian cinema, our understanding of Iran is led by their cinema. Cinema for any country is an important vehicle for change,” said Azmi.
Q: How does it feel to be the head of the ADFF narrative jury?
A; I am interested in seeing what’s happening in the world of Arab cinema. Any festival that is new and young has my full support because I believe that a film festival brings world cinema to us.
Q: Some Arab filmmakers reflect war-ridden realities. Do you think that’s a good thing?
A: I don’t think anybody can be in a position to create a rule book that says you should do that or you shouldn’t do that. You can’t have a diktat which says that films should always be about the cinema that you like to watch. Democracy is about people -- or in this case filmmakers -- exercising that choice. It’s in the audience’s interest that a wider variety is offered to them so that they have the luxury of choice. Yes, there may be merit in [the] argument cinema is all about entertainment, but I come from a family that believes that cinema should be used as an instrument for social change. This has been reflected in the choices of the films I have been a part of. Art, especially cinema, has the ability to create a climate of sensitivity in which it’s possible to make change occur. That’s why cinema is extremely important to social change. When we don’t know enough about countries you get informed through their cinema.
Q: As you may be aware, Isabella Rossellini was slated to be ADFF’s head of narrative jury. Your thoughts?
A: This the first time I have heard of it. I have no thoughts on it. I was invited as a chair and I said yes. This is not my first time, I have chaired several film festivals including Montreal World Film Festival, Cairo Film Festival, APSA Asia Pacific Screen Academy and Mannheim Film Festival. This is the seventh time I am in the chairperson of a jury and I take it in my stride.
Q: What should a filmmaker participating in a film festival strive to do?
A: We need to be able to get away from the stranglehold of the Western world dominating movies we see.
Q: How can we make a festival more appealing to the blockbuster-watching masses?
A: A film festival largely should be attached to the market. A festival should open up opportunities for films that are made in the parent country to be marketed well. As far as my life goes, my aesthetics was shaped by the kind of films I saw during my stint at the film institute. It was an eye-opening experience because I was exposed to all kinds of world cinema. My belief is we should allow ourselves to watch films that you normally don’t watch or listen to music that you don’t listen to or even look at paintings that you don’t necessarily understand. Make the effort.
Q: What do you think of lack of Indian representation at ADFF?
A: It is very disappointing that there are no Indian films featured in the narrative competition section. One of the things I intend to do when I get back is to let people know about this Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Maybe, there isn’t much awareness. Remember, India is in its best phase. We are making all kinds of cinema.
Q: When we will you on the big-screen next?
A: I have three films coming up. You will see me in Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children, Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Vishal Bharadwaj’s Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola.
Q: You have found success in both commercial and art house films, a feat that not many actors in Bollywood have achieved. How do you pull it off?
A: I have been fortunate that I have been at the right place at the right time. Filmmaking is a collaborative medium. A host of people work towards the benefit of an actor. We may face the camera, and take the limelight, but remember there’s a string of technicians who hide our weaknesses and enhance our strength.
Q: What kind of an actress are you? Are you spontaneous or a method actor?
A: I find spontaneous one of the most tiresome words in the dictionary because I believe spontaneous often means an actor is too lazy to do homework. I believe we as actors cannot be spontaneous when we are on the big screen. Art needs rehearsals, which gives you an impression of pseudo spontaneity. You just have to work hard. Please don’t mug up your lines and call yourself spontaneous. Sorry, that’s not how the system works.