Shabana Azmi was born into the Azmi family. Her father, Kaifi Azmi, was an Urdu poet and lyricist, and her mother, Shaukat Azmi, was a veteran stage actress. Her brother, Baba Azmi, is a cinematographer who has worked on films like Pukaar, Tezaab, and Mr. India. Actors Farah Naaz and Tabu are her nieces.
Shabana Azmi is the only actor to win the National Award for Best Actor five times. She won it for her first release, Ankur, in 1974. She went on to win the National Award for three consecutive years, from 1983 to 1985, for her notable work in the films Arth, Khandhar, and Paar. Her role in the 1996 film Fire won her the Silver Hugo Award for Best Actress at the 32nd Chicago Film Festival and Jury Award for Best Actress at Outfest, Los Angeles.
Shabana met Javed Akhtar when he used to assist her father. Javed was a married man with two children when they fell in love. Shabana’s involvement with Javed and her decision to marry him created outrage. Here was a feminist ready to marry an already married man. Despite the issues, Shabana defended her love, and they got married after his marriage to Honey Irani ended in a divorce in 1984.
She was a graduate in psychology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, before her acting stint. She watched Jaya Bhaduri in a film and was so enthralled by the actor’s performance that she decided to enroll herself in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTTI), Pune. She topped the list of successful candidates of 1972.
She has appeared in a number of foreign films including John Schlesinger’s Madame Sousatzka, Nicholas Klotz’s The Bengali Night, in which she co-starred with Hugh Grant, Roland Joffe’s City of Joy, Channel 4’s Immaculate Conception, Blake Edwards’ Son of the Pink Panther, and Ismail Merchant’s In Custody.
The child of Communist parents who were part of leftist and progressive politics in the 1940s, Shabana became actively involved in activism. She also presides over the Mijwan Welfare Society, which is involved with girls’ education and upliftment through vocational training. She has served as a Goodwill Ambassador on behalf of India to the United Nations Population Fund. In 2006, she was awarded the Gandhi International Peace Award by the Gandhi Foundation in London, England for her efforts. In appreciation of Azmi’s life and works, she served as a nominated (unelected) member of the Rajya Sabha.