Revered Indian actor Shabana Azmi, who plays the pivotal role of Admiral Margaret Parangosky in hugely anticipated mega-budget Paramount Plus series “Halo,” describes her experience on the show as “completely different.”
The series is based on Microsoft’s iconic video game “Halo,” a sprawling science fiction epic that involves multiple warring factions and far-flung alien species. Pablo Schreiber plays the central character Master Chief. Azmi’s Parangosky, second billed in the credits after Schreiber, has frequent interactions with Natascha McElhone’s Dr. Catherine Halsey.
“The interesting thing about Margaret is that she’s conflicted, because she is somebody who plays by the rules of the game. She is somebody who is used to giving orders and having those orders obeyed. And here she’s all but manipulated by the scientists to break the rules, because she keeps [hearing] that this will be good for humanity and she does unscrupulous things,” Azmi told Variety. “Margaret becomes privy to that, in fact, has to actually agree to that, and that conflicted nature of that relationship forms the centrality of the character that I play. It’s always interesting to play a character that is conflicted, or is saying something on the surface, but beneath that you can see that there are other considerations.”
Azmi debuted with a series of acclaimed roles during the Indian arthouse “parallel cinema” movement of the 1970s. She has won India’s national film award for best actress five times, including for her debut “Ankur” (1975), “Arth” (1982) and “Paar” (1985). Her Western credits include John Schlesinger’s “Madame Sousatzka” (1988), Roland Joffe’s “City of Joy” (1992), Blake Edwards’ “Son of the Pink Panther” (1993) and Deepa Mehta’s “Fire” (1996) and “Midnight’s Children” (2012).
In all her Western roles, Azmi has played characters of South Asian origin. “Asian actors have been saying that they really were struggling for color blind casting, because they were saying why should the Caucasian be recognized as the mainstream?,” asked Azmi. “And why if Laurence Olivier can play Othello, then why can an Asian actor not do it? And now when I do ‘Halo,’ I realize that they have really got color blind casting, because in spite of the fact that I play, Margaret Parangosky, I have not been asked to change my accent, the color of my eyes is exactly the same, they did not color my hair.”
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“And that’s true of Yerin [Ha, playing Quan Ah] who’s from Korea – there were people from all over the world, and nobody was cast because of their ethnicity,” added Azmi. “That was a very wonderful experience, because something that we’ve been struggling for so long, finally, we could see that actually happening.”
Azmi was put up for the “Halo” role via her agent Geoff Stanton and bagged it via a FaceTime call with executive producer and director Otto Bathurst, whose work in “Peaky Blinders” and “Black Mirror” she was familiar with, followed by a boot camp in Budapest. However, Azmi was unfamiliar with the “Halo” universe. “What happened is an entire parallel ‘Halo’ universe descended on me,” Azmi said, once she was cast. “And I realized, there are these people who absolutely love the game. And for me, the ultimate thing was that my nephew Viraj, who had never given me time of day before that, ever, suddenly looked up at me with these bright eyes and said my bua [aunt] is really worth something.”
Azmi says that as the world becomes a global village, casting Asians and actors from other global film industries makes sense because they have fan followings that guarantee an additional audience. “So apart from the morality of it, it also makes economic sense, and this is being realized more and more and so that’s why Asians are now finally getting some visibility,” said Azmi. “It’s not perfect. It’s going to be a long time coming, but at least it’s in the right direction.”
Next up for Azmi is Shekhar Kapur’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It?,” a “lovely, delicious rom-com,” as the actor describes it, which shot in the U.K. at the height of COVID over 48 days. “My character is that of Aisha, who is the head of this large Asian family,” says Azmi. “Emma Thompson, who is my British neighbor, really aspires to be part of that family because she leads a very lonely life and she would want to become family with Ayesha’s family. And in the process, she wears the most atrocious Asian clothes.” The film is written by Jemima Khan and also stars Lily James and Shazad Latif.
Azmi promises some witty dialogue by Khan and “Shekhar being Shekhar, he’s also given a nice, warm, emotional angle to it,” Azmi said.
Back in India, Azmi has a “sophisticated and artistic” role in Karan Johar’s “Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani” and in R. Balki’s “Ghoomer” that of a cricket-loving grandmother.
Azmi spoke to Variety from the University of Southampton, U.K. where she was talking about her NGO, Mijwan Welfare Society, that works for the empowerment of the girls. The university has a scholarship named after her father, the late poet Kaifi Azmi, and is in the process of creating a Mijwan app. The actor will next travel to Los Angeles for the premiere of “Halo.”
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