Shabana Azmi was first introduced to colour-blind casting more than 30 years ago. The veteran Bollywood actor was in New York in the Eighties, soaking in Broadway shows, when she bought a ticket to a production of Peter Brook’s The Bone. In it was a family of characters of all kinds of races, though those differences went unmentioned. A white man was brothers with a Chinese man, who was the uncle of a Black man. “In the beginning it takes you by surprise,” Azmi recalls over Zoom from Los Angeles. “But then, within less than two minutes, you believe it. The strength of theater and films is that they persuade audiences into a suspension of disbelief.”
Decades later, the 71-year-old has only just experienced colour-blind casting for herself. She plays the authoritarian – and traditionally white – Admiral Parangosky in the TV series Halo, based on the popular video game. It’s also a rare first for her de ella, with Azmi long having conquered the Indian film industry, alongside her de ella storied legacy of outspoken activism. With five Best Actress wins, she is currently the most awarded actor in the history of India’s National Film Awards, while the diversity of her roles resembles a beautifully stitched patchwork quilt. No square of fabric is the same.
She has played the betel-chewing madame of a whorehouse (in the satire Mandi), a mafia boss (in the dark drama god mother), and a middle-aged bride (in the comedy Honeymoon Travels Pvt Limited). With 1996’s Fire, she became one of the first mainstream Bollywood stars to portray an LGBT+ character on-screen. The film remains one of Indian cinema’s most progressive depictions of same-sex love. Then there’s Makdee, a horror comedy from 2002 in which she played a pale-faced witch who torments the film’s young heroines for breaking the rules. I tell her that I first watched Makdee during a school trip, and was so frightened that I was on my best behavior for months afterwards. “Lesson learned,” she laughs.
As she orders herself a cup of black coffee at the hotel she’s calling from, Azmi says she’s “excited to play a badass” in Halo. “As I grow older, the authoritative me is emerging more. I’m fed up with playing the good, understanding me. The bossy me is emerging.” What was even more exciting was that Halo‘s showrunners Kyle Killen and Steven Kane never expected her to alter her accent for the part. She is effusive that it is the way forward.
“There’s no one accent,” she says. “Why is it automatically assumed that all the best parts must only go to the Caucasians? I also think colour-blind casting makes a lot of economic sense. when you cast [actors] from all over the world, you bring on board the fan bases of those stars [as well].”
Halo dramatises the showdown between a group of military controlled super soldiers called the Spartans and ruthless aliens known as the Covenant. “Parangosky is someone who plays by the rules of the game,” Azmi explains. “She gives instructions and nobody questions her. Then she gets into this relationship with [Natasha McElhone’s] Dr Catherine Halsey, who seduces her into breaking the rules. And that conflict is the central point of Parangosky.”
The show may be Azmi’s first experience working on a colour-blind US production, but her Hollywood break came in 1989, when filmmaker John Schlesinger cast her as an Indian immigrant in the drama Madame Sousatzka alongside Shirley MacLaine. “I was the only Indian on set so I [found] that experience very strange,” she remembers. “Even the way I used to speak English sounded very alien [to me]. Although I believe English is my main language, and I also dream in English, when you’re placed with other English speakers, you find your accent [changes] to such a convent-educated, ‘proper’ way of speaking, which is so different. I used to get ragged about it.”
With a cast comprising of 12 different nationalities, Halo felt nothing like that to Azmi – she calls the show’s set a “microcosm of the world.” “In some cases, it’s almost a self-conscious attempt,” she says. “But colour-blind casting will soon become the norm. Particularly for the fantasy and science-fiction genres – Marvel indulges in a lot of colour-blind casting.”
Halo has garnered mixed reviews so far, something Azmi says the cast and crew were prepared for. “I think the series has tried very hard to stay true to the game because there are so many passionate Halo lovers, but you also have to tell a story,” she says. “When you have nine episodes, you have to say something.” She points out that changes to the character design of Cortana – a feminine AI who is integral to the game – has already caused a stir. In the series, she has been transformed from a blue and overtly artificial hologram to a less fantastical, human-looking presence. Unfazed by these criticisms, Azmi says: “The more diverse it is, the more [tumult] it will create!”
Halo has already been renewed for season two, Azmi tells me, which will put her back on the road again. I ask her what it’s like to be jet-setting all over the world for work, with her family de ella based in Mumbai. “As an actor, you needn’t get overwhelmed by [distance], because it’s so easy to travel,” she says. She’s also not looking to conquer Hollywood overnight, with Azmi explaining that she’s “relishing the wide diversity of roles” being offered to her from different countries. Her forthcoming projects from her include Shekhar Kapur’s British romcom What’s Love Got to Do with It?alongside Emma Thompson and Lily James, and a Bollywood cricket film back home.
“As an actor, if there’s something interesting for me to do in Timbuktu, I’ll fly there to do it,” she laughs. “I don’t fancy the idea that I’m going to pack my bags and live in the West in search of work. Whatever work comes my way, I’ll take it.”
‘Halo’ can be streamed every Wednesday on Paramount Plus in the US and Voot Select in India. It will be released in the UK later this year