So, who was the most difficult character to portray? Which do you consider your most challenging role to date?
Azmi: You know, the one person that I was really surprised to discover in myself was Jamini, the character I played in Mrinal Sen’s Khandar. To find Jamini, I had to go deep inside the recesses of my own being and, when I did, I was actually startled to discover that she actually existed.
How do you get in touch with someone who you think exists within you? How do you isolate this person? Is there a process?
Azmi: The first time you hear a story is very important—whether it is narrated in three lines or as an entire script. The first narration is very important for me for something clicks during that time. Mrinalda narrated the story to me in five lines— and something pulled me to that character and I said, “Yes, this could be challenging”. What happened is that Khandar came immediately after Mandi. And for Mandi, I had put on weight and was very gregarious on the sets and it was one big jhamela…and in three weeks I was reporting for Khandar, set in these ruins in Shanti Niketan. And very subconsciously—it is only in retrospect that I am able to understand this—I decided that I was going to be by myself; no make-up man, no hairdresser, no nothing, just my books and my music. It was as though I had decided to withdraw from life’s experiences. For with Mandi I had expanded the barriers of my own persona and I had to find the quiet, tragic but dignified Jamini from somewhere within. So it was a very reserved Shabana on those sets. Looking back, I realize that it also had to do with the ruins. You know, they do something to you. You really get affected by your environment.
—Ameen Merchant with Shabana Azmi (Rungh, Film & Video Issue II)