Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Ankur (1974) - Shabana Azmi's debut
Sometimes greatness is hard to define but you know it when you see it - such is the case of the movie 'Ankur', Shabana Azmi's debut film. While she is now considered a legend in Bollywood (both mainstream and art house) and a staunch political activist as well, her first foray into Indian cinema was based on a true story and quite humble. She was a recipient of the National Award for the film, arguably the most prestigious award given by the Indian Government for excellence in cinema (regardless of regional language) in 1975. The film was also the debut of director Shyam Benegal, a leader of the art house cinema movement in India. 'Ankur' went on to win 2 additional National Awards, 43 International Film Festival Awards and was India's official submission to the Oscars in 1974.
Shabana said the "trial by fire" she received from the director in her first role gave her invaluable training for her future in acting. As the filming commenced she was supposed to able to squat while sitting for her role as a simple village girl. Unable to do so she remembers the director banishing her from the dining table to eat her food on the ground "to get into the skin of my character". In fact, Benegal was very reluctant to hire Shabana as he first thought she was a model and therefore too glamorous for the part. His selection was validated a few weeks later when a group of students from the local high school stopped in to check out the shoot. They saw Shabana in the corner and asked where the heroine was and she answered that she was out sick today and that she was there to clean up the set. "As they walked away disinterested Shyam (who had overheard the exchange) came to me and said 'today you have earned your place back onto the dining table'!".
The story of 'Ankur' (The Seedling) centers around a rich landowner's son sent to look after his father's property in a village in which Shabana's character is a servant. What happens next is how the village hierarchy reacts to the relationship between the two and the realities of how the rich and the poor live in India. But watch this movie for Shabana Azmi - she is luminous, mesmerizing and just phenomenal as an actress carrying her first film. I saw 'Glory' recently in which Denzel Washington earned his first Oscar for a great performance. But what separated great from legendary was a 3 minute scene in which he is whipped for stealing a pair of shoes to keep his feet warm, absolutely devastating. In 'Ankur', Shabana Azmi similarly does a great job throughout the movie. And like in 'Glory', great is separated from legendary during the last 3 minutes of the movie, again, absolutely devastating.
As a true art film 'Ankur' did not have any original songs per se but I did manage to track down the one song that was playing on the radio at several different times in the movie. It is Yehi To Hai and is vocalized by the late Mohammed Rafi. It is from the 1958 movie 'Solvan Saal' starring Dev Anand & Waheeda Rehman - who incidentally was the first choice to play the lead in 'Ankur' but declined - interesting choice of a song in my opinion.