In Conversation: Shabana Azmi on MAMI and Jagjit Singh

As MAMI, the Mumbai film festival opens today, Shabana Azmi shared her thoughts on the festival with Firstpost.

She sees MAMI as a much needed support for non-market focused films, films that need nurturing. She said that this edition will see 200 films from 56 countries being screened. Ms Azmi also shares her thoughts on Jagjit Singh’s passing, and on facets of the singer which very few knew about.

Your association with MAMI goes back to its inception stage. How do you see the progress?

It’s a wonderful feeling to see something grow from inception stage and take root. That is the case with MAMI, the Mumbai film festival which is very close to my heart. What is important that the Board of Trustees are all people deeply involved in the film industry. It was a great anomaly that a country which produces the largest number of films in a year did not have a film festival run by those in the industry. All I can say is ‘Der aaye durust aaye‘ (Better late than never). From modest beginnings, we are today offering $150,000 to the best Debutant Director. That is a lot of money and comes with huge acclaim!

So what are the Festival’s strengths in its 11th year?

Shabana Azmi in the “Shared History -The Indian Experience in South Africa” Festival celebrating the proud histories of both the countries. AFP

The quality of films has grown from strength to strength. It’s a huge encouragement for independent cinema. The Festival salutes young talent and by encouraging young directors, it paves the way for ground-breaking films. The concern was that most ‘festival film’s are not market driven. So at the moment I would say we are strongly interested in developing a proper market for these films and the Festival plays a big role in that agenda. Most mainline Bollywood films are market focused and films that attract festivals are out of the lowest common denominator’s range and need nurturing. Thus, a film festival is as important as the market it attracts. We want to develop the market for such films to make the festival a cinematic hub.

The French flavour of this festival, the presence of international names like Paul Schrader and Theo Angelopoulos are making film critics sit up and take note. Has MAMI finally arrived?

I would say India is the flavour of the season. Indian cinema per se has come into its own. And then with the involvement of a big name like Reliance backing MAMI, their own connections and personal contacts in Hollywood –Julia Roberts, Steven Spielberg – means things are sure to start looking up. There is such a huge market for Indian films and over the last decade MAMI has build an identity of its own.

What are the pluses this year for the audiences arriving at MAMI?

For me the attraction a festival holds is largely what it brings for its viewers. This year comes with an exciting package of over 200 films from 56 countries. The French films will be an added attraction. The venues are better—with Cinemax offering the complete experience of cinema going—food courts, comfort etc.

Javed and you shared a special rapport with Jagjit Singh. In his death we have lost an unforgettable icon of Indian music. How would you sum up the void left by him in the industry?

Both Javed and I shared a long association with Jagjit ji. He had a really soulful voice . ‘Tum itna jo muskura rahey ho’ from Arth and ‘Tumko dekha to ye khayal aaya’ from Saath Saath are two of my favourite numbers. I feel the pain of his personal tragedies was reflected in his voice and he took that pain and moulded it into his singing. He understood the nuances and intricacies of Urdu poetry and its words.Javed tells me he was deeply into charity too but did not like to talk about it.

I remember once Kaifi saab was holding a function in Kanpur and wanted some entertainment for the evening. He called up Jagjit Singh and told him “I would love you to sing for us, but will not be able to pay you for the same.” Jagjit’s immediate response was, “Aap humein sharminda na karein…I will be there” and sure enough he landed up with his accompanists, paying for all of them himself and regaled the guests.

In conversation with Shirin Abbas

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