Azmi, 70, said it is “outrageous” that female foeticide continues to exist in the 21st century India when addressing this should be the first step towards women empowerment.

Veteran actor Shabana Azmi says she is an optimist by nature and believes art can nurture a “climate of sensitivity” which in turn can spur societal change.

This is why, the actor said, she decided to star in “Kaali Khuhi” (Black Well), a horror thriller directed by Terrie Samundra which explores the enduring impact of female foeticide, a malpractice still prevalent in India. Azmi, known for her powerhouse performances in films like “Ankur”, “Mandi”, “Khandhar”, “Fire”, “Godmother”, exploring the genre for the second time after Vishal Bhardwaj’s 2002 horror comedy “Makdee”.

Set in a Punjab village, the Netflix Original film traces the journey of a girl named Shivangi (Riva Arora), who is put to the ultimate test when she witnesses her entire family fall deeper into the secrets of the black well.

Azmi, 70, said it is “outrageous” that female foeticide continues to exist in the 21st century India when addressing this should be the first step towards women empowerment.

“Female foeticide and infanticide exist all around – not in the back or beyond only but in our metropolitan cities too. And yet we aren’t as focused on it as we should be. The right to be born is taken away from a girl just because she is a girl.

“That has to be the starting point of any work that you do about a girl who doesn’t even have a right to be born. How cruel, unjust and unacceptable that is? We are a patriarchal society. We entitle the boy from birth just for being male and the girl is made to go through a lot of discrimination,” Azmi, also an activist, told PTI in an interview over Zoom.

The National Award winner said she decided to board the project as first-time feature film director Samundra had her heart in the right place. Los Angeles-based Samundra, who has written and directed short films and documentaries including “Kunjo” and “Ice Cream Wallah”, has told the story in a cinematically “compelling” manner, the actor said.

“Terrie could have quite easily made it into a documentary that would have its own reach. But the fact that she does it through this thriller is what makes it more accessible to audiences. My parents always told me that art should be used as an instrument to societal change.

“I am not saying it has an immediate reaction. You don’t watch the film ‘Gandhi’ and the next day start behaving like Gandhi. But all arts have the possibility to create a climate of sensitivity in which it is possible for change to occur,” Azmi said.

The actor, who plays Satya Maasi, a mysterious woman haunted by her past in the film, emphasised that “Kaali Khuhi” is “not a propaganda” project.

“By the end of the film, you feel this cannot be allowed to happen. That is a powerful reaction that you can get from a film. Terrie has made the film taking cinema into consideration. It doesn’t become a propaganda film.”

The topic of women empowerment has become far more important than a mere trending word on social media, Azmi said, adding that treating women and men equally is the only logical way ahead for the world.

“I’m an optimist and when I see darkness all around me instead of getting completely overwhelmed by it, I tell myself that dawn is just about to come. I react to things with optimism and hope because I see that things are cyclical.

“I feel in present-day society, empowerment of women is not merely a buzzword, it has come to because from all points of view it only makes sense. From economic, social, to materialistic point of view, it makes sense that women and men are treated as equal. We are only saying give them equal opportunity.”

The actor also cautioned that the problem lies in deifying women as “mother goddess” as it allows the society to deny them equal opportunity conveniently.

“We call her ‘mother goddess’. But I don’t want to be treated as a goddess, I want to be treated as equal. This is a convenient way off. You have to face the fact that today society cannot afford to do anything except treat these genders as equal because that’s where all the sense lies,” she added.

Also starring Leela Samson, Sanjeeda Shaikh, and Satyadeep Mishra, “Kaali Khuhi” is produced by Anku Pande and Ramon Chibb.

The film is set to premiere on the streaming platform on October 30.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.)

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