Drive to Live: Shabana Azmi on her road accident and the learnings from it

Interview/ Shabana Azmi, actor

60-Shabana-Azmi Shabana Azmi | Rahul R. Pattom

Shabana Azmi is often called the Meryl Streep of Indian cinema. In a career spanning over 47 years, Azmi, 71, has acted in more than 120 films, which includes legendary ones like City of Joy and Madame Sousatzka. She is the only actor to have won the National Award for best actress five times. A well-known social activist, Azmi and her husband, lyricist Javed Akhtar, are known for their support for the oppressed.

In January 2020, Azmi met with a road accident on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway; her car rammed into the rear of a truck. She suffered severe injuries and was briefly unconscious. She was moved to a Mumbai hospital, where she recovered in less than a month.

In an exclusive chat with the Drive to Live team, Azmi talks about the accident and the learnings from it. Excerpts:

Q\ Your husband was travelling in another car on that day. He said your car had become a heap of junk. Do you remember anything?

A\ I was sleeping on the back [seat], and rolled over to the floor. I must have fainted immediately. So, I remember nothing except that I woke up at the intensive care unit of Kokilaben Hospital in Mumbai.

I was told that I was attended to at a hospital on the way, in Panvel. They provided first aid and put my neck in a cast. An ambulance from Kokilaben was rushed there and then I reached smoothly, all thanks to Tina and Anil Ambani.

Miraculous escape: Shabana Azmi’s car after the accident on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway in 2020 | PTI Miraculous escape: Shabana Azmi’s car after the accident on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway in 2020 | PTI

Q\ How long did it take for you to recover?

A\ I was in the hospital for three weeks. It is really surprising that there were no fractures, because I have a tendency to break my bones easily. I have broken my shoulder, my wrist and my foot previously. I was shooting in Budapest 40 days after I had this near-fatal accident.

Q\ How has the experience changed you as a person?

A\ I was overwhelmed by the love and prayers I received from all over the world. My family and friends stood by me like a rock. I bow my head in gratitude to them. I realise life cannot be taken for granted.

Q\ One debate triggered by your accident was whether the media should refrain from publishing images linked to road accidents, as it could be distressing for loved ones. Do you agree?

A\The media was [only] doing its job. When you are a public figure this is inevitable. My friends were shocked because they had seen me dancing away till 5am that morning at Javed saab’s birthday celebrations.

Q\ A few blamed the Mumbai-Pune expressway, and said there is little monitoring to prevent rash driving. Is it so?

A\ One, the first ambulance took a long time to come. What was sadder was that the ambulance that arrived was a Maruti van. The steel stretcher was placed on the floor of the van with no cushioning. My legs were sticking out, so they had to keep the doors [of the ambulance] open. And this [was] on a national highway.

It’s on occasions like these that you realise the difference between your [country’s] standards and those in the west! All said, people were very kind. They helped to push me over the divider because the ambulance was parked on the opposite lane.

Q\ Today, what are the safety steps you take while in a car?

A\ I make sure everyone puts their seat belts on, and that the driver has had enough rest before we go on a long road trip.

Q\ Around 1.54 lakh people have died in road accidents in India in 2019 alone. What is your advice to rash drivers? What are the urgent steps to be taken to reduce road accidents in our country?

A\ First, respect human life. Even one fatal accident is one too many. [There should be] strict adherence to speed limits. There should be strict monitoring of those driving under influence. And help [should be] available within minutes. It also requires the public to be responsible. We should have zero tolerance for reckless driving.