Q. You play the character of a school teacher in your latest film Chalk n Duster for the first time, how was the experience and how did you prepare for it?
A. I didn’t have to look far for the character for my own bhabhi (sister-in-law), Shobha Arya, is a very well-known and respected theatre, television and film actress, and she has been a teacher all her life. And I was around when she would correct all these papers and bring home the note books. The character I play in the movie, of Vidhya Sawant, who is a middle-class school teacher and lives in a chawl, I have based her identically on Shobha. What I did do was go shopping with the dress designer to these places in Mumbai where the lower middle-class people go. And we picked up stuff from there like the bags, watches and chappals.
Q. How much do you identify yourself with the character of Vidhya?
A. Her sense of justice is very strong, her courage to fight against injustice is again very strong. And what is really nice about Vidhya is that she is a very gentle person but you cannot ride roughshod over her. Throughout the film you will see that she is a very gentle and soft-spoken person, except when she is faced with the indignity of being thrown out of the school by the principal, who is a very ambitious person and wants to modernise the school. The principal thinks Vidhya is outdated and throws her out. The story is about how Vidhya and another teacher Jyoti, played by Juhi Chawla, fight back for their dignity and status. So although she is gentle and soft she cannot be treated like a doormat. So, even in the strong scenes I had to make sure that I don’t do it like how I would react in real life to a certain situation, but instead how the character would react. I needed to calibrate this.
Q. What are your memories from your own school days?
A. I was a very good student, I was always a first class student. I was very active in theatre but there was only one subject that I was hopeless at and that was maths. And the irony is that in Chalk n Duster, I play a maths teacher. That I found really hilarious because the only part where I really had to work hard and act was the part when I’m teaching the hypotenuse and explaining the Pythagoras theorem or the triangle.
Q. So were you nervous during the filming of such scenes?
A. I was pretty daft, and the writer, who would be very happy with me otherwise, would be terrified and very patient with me during these scenes, as these were the only parts where I couldn’t understand anything. The writer Ranjeev Verma is an actor and his wife, a teacher, so a lot of the observations are actual. If my school teacher Mrs Varucha is around and watches this film, she would be very tickled because she used to come in the class and my name used to be the first on the list. So she would say, “Azmi Shabana”, and I would say, “Present”, and she would say, “Out of the class”, and throw me out of the class! And if today she sees I am playing a maths teacher she would be very tickled.
Q. So is this film all about recollecting childhood memories?
A. I think this is a very feel-good film and what it does is it kindles a degree of warmth in you for that teacher who has played such an important part in making you who you are today, but back then, you were too young to get it, and now, when you realise it, you have lost touch with her. So I feel some people at least will try to make some contact with their teachers after watching this film, and that would be beautiful.
“I think at times an actor’s excitement and enthusiasm carries the entire film with it and this is one of those movies. I can say this movie is Juhi’s baby. For she is the one who got the excitement and energy flowing in all of us, even during the filming.”
Q. Do you think this movie will help bring about some sort of change?
A. I don’t think films can bring about a direct change, but all art including cinema has the possibility to create the climate of change. For instance, in this film you will get to know that even today a teacher for marking a paper gets eight annas. Annas don’t even exist today, it was shocking! But I do want to emphasise that it’s not a boring, preachy, “cause” film. It’s about two teachers in the background of the education system.
Q. Was it a challenge for you working with young kids?
A. I don’t have that much of screen space with kids. It’s largely with teachers. But I get along well with kids. When I first came to the set, I made friends with all the kids. I spent time with them. I didn’t just go and start shooting. I established a kind of relationship with them so that they were much more involved.
Q. Does Chalk n Duster also have a social message?
A. Again, it’s a feel-good film. At the end of it, you would feel elevated and feel that justice has been done. And the one takeaway, I can say, is that it tells you that you must respect your teachers.
Q. Do you think a teacher’s job is extremely difficult and still the professional is not taken seriously?
A. Yes, even by the children. A teacher is somebody who is like, itna homework deti hai [she gives so much homework], itna daantti hai [she scolds so much]. People don’t realise that even teachers have problems and they take so much trouble. So many of the teachers travel by trains or public transport and then they look after their own kids and families and cook and so on. So this film humanises the teacher and makes us more aware. Our teachers are the ones that help shape the country in so many ways.
Q. What is your take on the current education system in India?
A. Well, I think our education system needs a lot of work, for there is a big gap between the private and public education system in India, unlike in the West, were a balance is maintained by the government. Children in public schools should also have the same amount of privileges and access to opportunities like the kids from the private schools get here.
Q. Does the character of Vidhya in this film believe in corporal punishment?
A. Not at all. In fact, there is a scene in the movie were Vidhya stops this parent who is beating up his kid for getting poor marks. Nobody has to the right to hurt a kid for being subordinate or rude. Kids can be taught things with love and politeness as well.
Q. How was it working with the rest of the Chalk n Duster team?
A. Well, when I first got the script, I really liked it but I was not sure about the team. But one day I got a call from Juhi who said she would like to see me. When she came to meet me she did it with the full crew and the way she was all excited about it, and the way she talked about it, convinced me to go forward with it. I think at times an actor’s excitement and enthusiasm carries the entire film with it and this is one of those movies. I can say this movie is Juhi’s baby. For she is the one who got the excitement and energy flowing in all of us, even during the filming.
Q. What are your upcoming projects?
A. My next film is titled Neerja, and I play the mother of this flight attendant from a Pan American flight that was hijacked. During this incident, the bravery of this girl, Neerja, saved numerous lives. It’s a movie that is based on a true event. And I play Sonam Kapoor’s mother, who is playing Neerja. It releases on the 16 February. In fact, these days, I have been meeting people in regard to both these movies, and sometimes even I get confused as to which movie I have to talk about.