'Farewell my friend': Shabana Azmi posts heartfelt note for late mentor Girish Karnad

Shabana Azmi was totally in shock when she heard that Girish Karnad, whom she was supposed to work with soon, was no more

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'Farewell my friend': Shabana Azmi posts heartfelt note for late mentor Girish Karnad


Veteran in literature, playwright and acting, Girish Karnad passed away on June 11. Four days later, his friend Shabana Azmi wrote a heartfelt letter remembering the Jnanpeeth awardee on Facebook. She described everything, from the time they met, to their last conversation and everything that happened in between their 43 year old friendship!

Talking about 43 years of her friendship with Girish Karnad and knowing that she would no longer get to see him, Shabana Azmi recollected, "I was coming out of a flight when the phone rang “ Mam I’m so and so reporter from so and so newspaper. “May I have your comments on Girish Karnad ?” “What about him?” I asked. “ He passed away this morning . Since he was your colleague we were keen to have your reaction please!” The phone almost slipped out of my hand as I tried to let the news sink in. How can I compress a friendship of 43 years in a single soundbyte ? Yes, thats how long Ive known Girish Karnad."

Shabana spoke about the first time when she heard the name Girish. It was on the sets of Shyam Benegal's film Ankur. She wrote, "Few people know that when Shyam Benegal first made Ankur it was a very lengthy film.Shyam roped in Girish to help him edit the narrative . Thats when I first heard of Girish."

Shabana also remembered how a student named Naseeruddin Shah mistreated Girisih, director of FTII. "Soon we learned that he had been appointed as Director of FTII Poona. It was a troubled tenureship because the students were on strike and very hostile. But Girish handled it with great maturity and compassion. Legend has it that Naseeruddin Shah was in the forefront of the strike and there were some unpleasant altercations between them. But to Girish’s remarkable credit that didnt deter him from recommending Naseer to Shyam for a very important role in Nishant - his first break in films that launched his career and established him as a fine actor. A lesser person than Girish could have been revengeful. My respect for him grew manifold as I watched him interact with Naseer on the sets without the slightest rancour. He became a hero in my eyes," penned Shabana.

Remembering the days of warming up to him, she wrote, "I was playing the schoolmaster’s wife in Nishant.Girish played the somewhat timid school master - quite the opposite of what he was in real life - confident , articulate , erudite , a true intellectual. He didnt fancy himself as an actor and rued that it would damage his reputation as a playright (who was fast getting acknowledged as one of the best in India.)I would tease him and say , “No matter .. even if you arent good , you are so goodlooking that all will be forgiven ! “ He would laugh loudly and then proceed to regale us with umpteen stories. it was a pleasure to hear him speak . I warmed up to him."

From laughing over his acting skills together, to seeing him turn into a fine actor, Shabana Azmi added, "Two years later we were cast together as husband and wife in Basu Chatterjee’s film Swami and he was hailed as a great actor ! Girish and I were tickled pink and made a pact that we wouldnt let on that we both thought otherwise ! . If thats how the audience saw him we would keep the secret between ourselves ! But the fact is that he had undeniable screen presence and very soon turned into a fine actor. The last film I did with him was Chalk and Duster just a couple of years ago. Gone was the initial reluctance and hesitation. He faced the camera like a total pro, as though to the manor born ! Even so being an actor was only a small aspect of his personality."

Girish considered himself as a playwright more than an actor. Shabana mentioned about his playwright skills by writing, "What he is most respected for is his remarkable talent as the best contemporary Indian playwright.Historian Ramachandra Guha says, “What was special about Girish Karnad was the astonishing range of his interest and expertise .There was no one alive who understood the richness of Indian cultural diversity as he did. He embodied the richness and diversity of India’s culture. A playwright, actor, aesthete and classicist, Karnad delved into tradition to understand and explain modernity." someone else was quoted as saying. The tributes have come pouring in. Even his severest critics have had to acknowledge that he was a force to reckon with."

Shabana added about the play Broken Images and mentioned how she is going to take the legacy he dreamt of, forward, by penning down, "Ive had the honour of acting in his play Broken Images directed by Alyque Padamsee. It has been running for ten years now but every single show is a fresh challenge for me as an actor not just technically but emotionally as well. It is so nuanced, so finely written that I find new meaning almost each time I perform it. The last time I met Girish was after a show of Broken Images in Benguluru two years ago. He had to carry an oxygen tank with him to the restaurant in which he and his wife Saras had hosted a dinner for a motley group of us. But his failing health had not taken away an iota of his passion or his commitment as an engaged citizen . It was his fearlessness, his speaking his mind without mincing words, his total commitment to freedom of speech that defined him. We kept in touch on email and the occasional phonecall. The last email exchange was two months ago when I complained to him because he was insisting I reshoot the image of Malini in Broken Images since it was ten years old. It was a daunting exercise because it is a single shot of forty four minutes and by some miracle I had got it right in the first take! I was loathe to try it again but because he insisted we reshot it .

Pushing my luck I asked, “now that Ive done it can we please go back to using the original image? “
He wrote back angrily , “ You can stop the play if you want but I will not settle for the earlier image !”

This was my reply:
I will honour your decision. There is no need to sound so strict ! 
I thought we were friends and it was a friendly suggestion . 
I think its a fantastically written play realised beautifully by Alyque. Ive enjoyed doing it and would love to continue to do so. 
You are becoming a grumpy old chap! Im a fan and deserve more love. Where is your lovely sense of humour gone ???

We are taking the play with the revised image to Benguluru day after tomorrow. I was so looking forward to giving him a hug and making up with him . Instead Im writing this salute to a man like no other....
Farewell my friend..You live on through your work ..
Shabana Azmi
12th June 2019"

Read the letter here:

Not only the highest award in literature Jnanpith Award, Karnad was also awarded two highly honoured awards - Padma Shri in the year 1974 and Padma Bhushan in 1992. He worked in some memorable films like Tiger Zinda Hai, Chalk n Duster, Shivaay, 24, Dheera Rana Vikrama and Hey Ram too. Karnad was also part of the Television show Malgudi Days. The actor played the role of Swami's father in the show.

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