For the second time in five minutes, I check my e-mail on my mobile to confirm that I’ve got the venue right. Yes, it’s at the Ductac in Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates. It’s now 3pm and in just half an hour, one of Bollywood’s most famous and respected stars will be arriving at the theatre for an exclusive Friday interview. But surprisingly, unlike regular film events in Dubai, there are hardly any fans lining up to meet Shabana Azmi, who stars in Happy Birthday Sunita, (the play that opens here the next day.)

The car park, which I expected to be packed with fans waiting to mob her when she appeared, is nearly empty on the warm Wednesday afternoon, while some of the 20-odd people milling around Ductac’s coffee shop are lazily sipping cappuccinos and exchanging pleasantries, totally unaware that a cinema icon is about to be in their midst.

Five minutes before the scheduled interview time, a faint buzz develops in the reception area of Ductac. A few heads begin to turn and hushed whispers can be heard as two women, one dressed in a bright pink top and a pair of smart black trousers, and the other, shorter and in jeans, walk in.

Sporting a pair of shades, a handbag slung over her shoulders, the lady in the pink top flashes a smile to a couple of girls who are at 
a table sipping coffees.

“That’s Shabana,” whispers one of them, nudging the other. Her friend shakes her head. “No, that can’t be a Bollywood actor,” she says. “They usually have half a dozen bodyguards around them.”

Although I’m surprised that there are no security personnel, hangers-on, glam squad or costumers trailing her, there’s no doubt that the 1.7m attractive woman is Shabana Azmi. With just a touch of make-up and without any airs, the extremely talented and down-to-earth actress portrays a picture of poise. Briefly pausing to look around the foyer, she quickly breezes into the auditorium.

“Oh my gosh!” a young girl exclaims, pointing towards the door. “I just realised that was Shabana Azmi – I missed taking a picture with her!”

The PR person leading me to the auditorium smiles. “Shabanaji [ji is added to a name in Indian culture as a mark of respect] is one artist who has fine-tuned the art of being invisible in a crowd,” she says.

We find the 64-year-old award-winning star seated in the auditorium, watching set decorators prepare the stage for her play that has just had a successful run in the UK. Shabana was also leading the actors during the UK leg of the tour and elicited rave reviews for her acting.

To break the ice, I ask her what she likes best about her role – as Tejpal, the head of a dysfunctional Punjabi family that is getting together to celebrate her daughter Sunita’s 40th birthday.

“First, the story is a heartwarmingly nice one,’’ she says, kicking off her black platforms and stretching her legs. “It’s a well-written comedy and my character, Tejpal has many layers to it.”

The English production, scripted by actor and writer Harvey Virdi, and directed by Pravesh ­Kumar, touched a chord with the audience, she says, “because it has a message with a universal theme that resonates with everyone – that it is never too late to follow your dreams.”

Shabana should know. Determined to follow her dream of acting, she enrolled in the Film and Television Institute of India, the nation’s much respected film school, and in 1974, at the age of 24, signed up for iconic art-house film Ankur, directed by Shyam Benegal, a relatively unknown film-maker at the time.

“It was an important movie because in a sense it launched the parallel cinema wave in Hindi,” says Shabana, leaning back in the chair, her twinkling eyes taking on a nostalgic glaze. “Of course, [award-winning art-house film-makers] Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen had been making movies that were critical successes, but Ankur was not only critically appreciated but was a commercial success.”

So powerful was her role – as Lakshmi, a married maid servant who falls in love with a young college student visiting the village and ends up pregnant – that it got her the first of her five national awards, all for best actress.

“I guess I was blessed to be at the right place at the right time,” she says.

The actor proved her credentials several times over, winning her second national award for Arth (meaning, life) in 1983. Two more awards followed in consecutive years for Kandahar (ruins) and Paar (crossing). And then a fifth in 1999 for Godmother.

But Shabana, keen to push the boundaries of acting, did not hesitate to grab strong roles that came her way from the world of commercial cinema as well.

Nishant (night’s end), Fakira (wanderer), Shatranj Ke Khilari (chess players), Amar Akbar Anthony, Makdee (female spider) and Junoon (passion), among several other commercial films followed in quick succession firmly establishing her as a leading actor who could bring perfection to any role given to her.

“The fact that I was doing commercial and parallel cinema simultaneously made a lot of people think that I might be doing the wrong thing – like, you know, having my feet in two boats at a time,” she says. “It wasn’t something many actors did at the time and critics were sure that I would sink. But fortunately that did not happen.”

Today with more than 120 movies and several plays including Feroz Abbas Khan’s Tumhari Amrita (Yours truly) and Ingmar Bergman’s adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (directed by Rey Buono), to her name, Shabana has also tried her hand at Hollywood films. John Schlesinger’s Madame Sousatzka with Shirley McLaine, Nicholas Klotz’s The Bengali Night with John Hurt and Hugh Grant, among others, quickly earned her a reputation for having the skill to add subtle and novel nuances to any part she plays.

So, does she think that commercial cinema has changed a lot over the four decades that she has been in the business?

“There is need for change in mainstream cinema,” says the actor, who is married to the famous poet and screenwriter Javed Akhtar. “There still persists a feeling among film-makers of saying ‘Let’s see which star will bring us the most viewership’ and then creating a story around 
the star.”

Mainstream cinema, she says, caters to the “lowest common denominator among viewers because the aim of commercial film-makers is to attract crowds into the theatre. And to boost collection records, songs and dance sequences that have little to do with the plot are thrust crudely into the films”.

Disgusted with the sexploitation of women in films, she says, “The advent of the ‘item song’ – a peppy, fast-paced, sexually provocative dance sequence – has made me think it is time to revisit commercial cinema’s role in our culture.

“Today, under the guise of ‘celebrating a woman’s sensuality’, what these item numbers are doing is surrendering to the male gaze.”

While admitting that she has no qualms about cinema celebrating women’s sensuality, she makes it clear that “what I’m against is commodifying and objectifying a woman’s body. Film-makers should be careful when realising their intentions. The business of film is the business of images, and when you show fragmented bits of a woman’s body – her heaving bosom or her quivering hips or a close-up of her navel – you are robbing her of all autonomy and making her an object of voyeuristic pleasure.”

She equally hates the inclusion of songs in film with lyrics that are loaded with double entendres.

“Apart from vulgar dance movements, some of these songs have extremely coarse lyrics that are leading to a sexualisation of children – small kids, dressed in skimpy costumes, like the dancer in the movie, prance to these songs, and I see a big problem there,” says Shabana. The onus of making an informed choice rests with female actors, she says. “They have to decide whether this is what they want to do with themselves.”

Warming up to the subject of unhealthy trends in cinema, Shabana comes down on another aspect of Bollywood films – the portrayal of courtship. “It’s a kind of eve-teasing – a euphemism for sexual harassment even molestation of women on the streets – and it’s not harmless fun. It’s actually a kind of stalking that is taken as part of courtship in movies. It’s a very dangerous signal to be giving out that when a woman says ‘no’ she is actually meaning ‘yes’.”

In fact, when the Delhi rape incident occurred, Shabana was one of the first celebrities who raised her voice against the incident. She tweeted: “May SHE [the rape victim] become the wake-up call our country needs. We must soul search.”She also said, “We must resolve to reflect and analyse how every segment of society is, in part, responsible for this misogynistic mindset that regards women as objects.”

The star firmly believes that it is up to all members in the film fraternity to ensure that women are projected in the right light. “I’m not saying that every single film should have this subject in its plot, but there should be subliminal messages that girls can be empowered.”

The good news is that an avatar of parallel cinema, now termed independent cinema, is growing in India and modern film-makers such as Imtiaz Ali and Dibakar Bannerjee are doing good work, says the award-winning filmstar.

“My own children Zoya and Farhan Akhtar (her husband Javed’s children with his first wife Honey Irani) are somewhere in between, because their films are mainstream but not mindless entertainment,” she says.

“In Zoya Akhtar’s film Zindagi na Milegi Dobara [Life does not give you a second chance], there’s a scene where Katrina Kaif emerges from the water. It’s tastefully done because the camera does not linger on her. It catches her in mid-frame and immediately establishes her as a working woman who is a diver. I feel it’s very important that male and female actors understand how the camera works.”

A committed social activist, Shabana has been at the forefront of several initiatives to raise awareness about HIV and Aids and to fight for the rights of children and slum dwellers.One of her pet projects – Nivara Hakk, which means right to shelter – aims to provide homes for thousands of slum dwellers who were evicted after their land was taken for developmental purposes, and has resulted in tenements being built for 50,000 families in Maharashtra.

“My activism took off from some of the movies that I did,” she says.

“It started with my role in Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth about a woman whose husband abandons her for his girlfriend. Although devastated, the wife pulls herself together and learns to become independent.”

She portrayed her role in the movie so powerfully that Shabana began to get invitations to speak at seminars on women empowerment. “That’s how I got involved in that kind of activism,” she says. Now she’s the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador on Population And Development and speaks regularly at various forums.

Another award-winning role that changed her outlook on life was that of Rama, in Gautam Ghosh’s Paar – a story of rural exploitation by landlords. While shooting for the movie in a remote village in northern India, Shabana met a slum dweller who “I began using as a role model to observe the way she walks, talks, eats, etc,” she said.

The two soon became friends and one day, the woman invited Shabana to her home. “I was shocked to see how poor the woman and her family were,” recalls the actor. “There was no water, no electricity, not enough food… I felt that if I went back after shooting the movie and didn’t do anything to bring about any change in the lives of people like her, it would be like saying, ‘I will use you and win an award, but I won’t concern myself with your life at all’.

“So when I got an opportunity after I was nominated as member of parliament, I decided to bring the voice of the poor people to the place where issues are discussed and I have been trying hard to make their voices heard.”

So is there any role she wouldn’t do? “Let me put it this way, there are a few roles I could – and would – never do,” she says. “If there is a film that shows that it is good for a woman to be subservient, I just cannot do it. It would never interest me. But again, if her subservience creates such a sense of outrage in the viewers’ mind that they feel this situation must change, or if from subservience she moves to independence or at least shows some signs of change, I would consider doing the role. Ultimately, I make the choice based on my instinct.”

Of all the movies she has done, which would she rate as her best?

“Ahh, that is very difficult,” says the star, smiling. “I’m very critical of my work and I can’t talk of a favourite film. There are several that are precious to me for different reasons. Ankur, because it was my first film and it got me my first national award; Arth, because it started my work with women empowerment; Paar because it started my work with slum dwellers. Then there’s Fire and Mandi (Market Place)… which are close to my heart. But I would say Fire and Kandahar (The Ruins) are the two movies where I’ve made the least number of mistakes in acting.”

In the background I see the PR woman gesturing to see if I am done with the interview. “It’s time for Shabanaji’s rehearsals,” she says. “The crew is waiting for her.”

Shabana looks at her watch, then politely asks if I have any more questions. “One more,” I say, preparing to wind up. She nods. “Okay,” she agrees. “Let’s talk on the way to the green room.”

While we walk I ask her if there’s one thing she could change, what would it be?

Shabana pauses then says: “An end to our patriarchal society’s mindset where boys are valued over girls. I feel strongly about this and I hope the patriarchal mindset will change one day.”