Deepa Mehta's critically acclaimed and controversial film Fire, the first of her Elements Trilogy which opened in 1996 to widespread protests, opened the closet for gay issues in the country, said actress Shabana Azmi.

Shabana

Shabana Azmi receiving proclamation from Pat Kaufman, representing the New York State Governor's office, in New York last month.

It paved the way for a lot of gay and lesbian people, and ignited the whole debate, said Azmi. Before that, people just wanted to brush it under the carpet. They are very grateful for Fire.

The popular actress was in New York last month to receive a proclamation from The New York State Governor's Office for Motion Picture and Television Development for her commitment to the arts and contributions to New York City's film industry.

Azmi was the lead actress and protagonist in Fire, playing an unhappy housewife who has an affair with her younger sister-in-law. The film was opposed by Shiv Sena, which forced theaters to cancel screenings.

The actress said gays and lesbians are grateful to Mehta and the film for showing them the way forward, and gain acceptance in society.

According to Azmi, Fire was not ahead of its time in India, and a similar themed film would be a big draw in India today, if it was not sensationalized and done with sensitivity. She pointed out that the protests that took place in India to the screening of the film were by a single political party - Shiv Sena - and the film reopened in theaters without a single cut.

The public decided that it was up to them to watch what they wanted to, and not be dictated by any political party, said Azmi.

A reception was hosted by the Indo-American Arts Council in her honor. The event also kicked off the 12th annual New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF), which will be held from May 23 to 27 at Tribeca Cinemas in Manhattan. Azmi has been on the Board of the NYIFF since its inception 12 years ago.

Azmi wouldn't comment when asked about recent controversies in India, including the brouhaha over Salman Rushdie pulling out of the Jaipur Literary Fair, and the continuing developments of the Godhra riots.

Asked if it was also important for her to talk about her religion, about her Muslim identity, in public, like actor Shah Rukh Khan recently said it was so for him, in an interview, Azmi said: I don't know.

Asked if she would take subjects that are close to her as a Muslim, and be willing to play a victim of the Godhra riots, for instance, Azmi said it (the subject) was too much in the air.

It depends on the script and the role, not just on the theme, she said. I can only decide after I see a script.

Azmi said she had come to the United States this time around primarily at the behest of actor Aasif Mandvi, to help the organization Americares, which distributes medical supplies to 160 countries around the world.

I got associated with them after the Latur earthquake (In India), which happened in 1993, and now they (Americares) are working on their India chapter, and I helped them with a fundraiser in New York City, said Azmi, who was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Indian government earlier this year. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1988.

It is a matter of great pride for me to see how they (NYIFF) have grown. They were the only ones who were doing it, and now you can see how Indian film festivals are coming up all over North America, and that is a healthy sign. This is the 100th year of India cinema and now, it is better than ever, she said, lamenting that NYIFF, the pioneers in starting an international film festival, is still struggling to find institutional sponsors.

At the reception, New York State Governor's Office for Motion Picture and Television Development Executive Director Pat Kaufman, who presented Azmi with the proclamation, cited her many international accolades over the years, including winning a best actress award at a festival in North Korea.

I'm not sure if I would be even allowed there, Kaufman quipped. Shabana Azmi's talent has garnered international acclaim, helping to shape the Indian film industry and build awareness of Indian cinema in North America, she added.

Azmi won the Best Actress award for the film Libaas in North Korea, in 1993. She has also won  the Best Actress award for the film Patang at the Taormina Arte Festival in Italy, in 1994, and two years later won the Silver Hugo Award for Best Actress for Fire at the Chicago International Film Festival, and Outstanding Actress in a Feature Film, for Fire in L.A. Outfest. Azmi has also won five awards at the National Film Award for Best Actress and four Filmfare Awards.

Since her debut in 1974, in the critically acclaimed film Ankur, Azmi has acted in more than 125 feature film in both mainstream and independent cinema, apart from her stints in Europe and America, as well as acting in several stage productions.

To film buffs in America, Azmi is best known though for a retrospective of her films held at the 40th New York Film Festival, in 2002, the first time in the history of the festival where an actor's work was the theme of the retrospective, a departure from showing a retrospective of directors' works. She was also conferred the Martin Luther King Professorship award by the University of Michigan in recognition of her contribution to arts, culture and society, that same year.

Azmi has been busy of late: she recently finished Deepa Mehta's Midnight's Children, Mira Nair's Reluctant Fundamentalist, and Vishal Bhardwaj's film, Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, which is scheduled to be released next month.

Azmi is also busy with her roles on stage, with three product ions on currently: Broken Images, a play by Girish Karnad, which she also played in New York, Tumhari Amrita, which is in its 20th year now, and a play based on her parents' life, Kaifi Aur Main, in which her husband Javed Akhtar plays her father and she plays her mother.  (Global India Newswire)