Iconic Indian writer Kaifi Azmi has left a lasting legacy of beautifully woven words which is still revered and celebrated today.
The poet, writer, lyricist and social activist inspired many with his timeless body of work. His daughter, noted actress Shabana Azmi, has been paying tribute to the greatness of her late father with stage production Kaifi Aur Main, which has been playing to packed houses around the world.
She shares the stage with her acclaimed writer husband Javed Akhtar for the show, which is being staged in Birmingham and London next month. Together they pay tribute to the renowned Urdu maestro by recounting the real-life love story shared by Kaifi and his wife Shaukat Azmi, and seamlessly juxtaposing that with romance, humour and tragedy through a theatrical experience combining live music and stage drama.
Eastern Eye caught up with Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi for an in-depth conversation about the stage show, poetry, the secret of their long-lasting marriage, unfulfilled ambitions and more.
How much of an influence were your parents on you artistically?
Shabana: I grew up in a commune-like flat called Red Flag Hall, where eight families lived in 225 sq ft rooms with a common bathroom and a common toilet. I was four months old when my mother Shaukat Kaifi would strap me on her back and take me for rehearsals to Prithvi Theatre, where she was working full time.
My father, noted Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi, would take me to political rallies for workers rights carrying me on his shoulders. My brother Baba who is now a respected cinematographer and I also accompanied Abba (father) to mushairas (poetry sessions) where inevitably we would go to sleep on stage behind the bolsters. We would wake up to thunderous applause knowing that it was meant for Abba who was loved for his poetry and beautiful voice. Both my parents were the strongest influence in my life.
What is the biggest thing you learned from them?
Shabana: That art should be used as an instrument for social change, and you must practice what you preach.
Javed saab, when did you first become aware of Kaifi Azmi’s work?
Javed: It is difficult to answer this question. Sajjad Jafri and many other poets made such an impact on me. They were all known to the family and it was like one big clan. They were like uncles and aunties to me. I was aware of Mr Kaifi since childhood. He was a name that I knew.
Which of his work is your favourite?
Javed: Well, there are quite a few. If I have to choose one, it would be Dayra, which means circle. It is about society and civilisation and how everything reaches the place it once started at. It is a lovely metaphor.
Shabana: An early poem of Abba’s called Aurat. It’s what made my mother fall in love with him, so in a sense, I owe my birth to the poem (laughs). Jokes apart, the poem written almost 70 years ago continues to be so relevant even today. It exhorts women to stand shoulder to shoulder with men on equal terms.
How did the idea for the show Kaifi Aur Main first come about?
Shabana: It was Javed’s idea to do it as a one-time tribute on my father’s death anniversary. We had no idea that it would become so popular and play for so many years around the world.
Tell us about the show?
Javed: When Kaifi passed away in 2002, the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) made him the president. It is the biggest theatre in the world. Every year they have an event to celebrate his work. The first and second year they celebrated his work with his lyrics and poems, but the third year they wanted to do something different. They approached me, and at the same time, Mrs Kaifi’s book was released. In there, there were moments where she supported him as a wife, partner and friend.
So I thought, let’s get the book and gather all his interviews and make this a narrative about their love from both perspectives. I started collecting all his interviews, remarks and lyrics – it was difficult, but we got there.
So it was a challenge?
Javed: I had never written a play before and it was difficult. I know screenwriting, cinematography and editing, so I felt slightly inadequate when writing this narrative. I thought it was for one evening and I would never have to do it again. However, to my pleasant surprise, it has become a thing and now we have done it again and again. Kaifi Aur Main is the story of Mr and Mrs Kaifi’s love – a complete 55 years.
How does it feel being on stage with each other?
Javed: Shabana is an extremely competent actor and one has to respect that. As a scriptwriter, I live the story. It was not completely difficult for me, as it is not regular acting. It was not totally strange.
Shabana: I firmly believe that nobody other than Javed could have played Kaifi, even though he is not a professional actor. In many ways, Javed is like Kaifi – they come from identical backgrounds and shared a common world view. Also my father’s humour, a rather unknown fact, is beautifully captured in Javed’s portrayal.
What can audiences expect from Kaifi Aur Main?
Shabana: We have received standing ovations from every country in the world. Kaifi Aur Main has something for everybody. It has romance, drama, humour and pathos, poetry and live music, but above all, it is a deeply inspirational story of two extraordinary people and their times.
Every word spoken in the play has actually been recorded in Shaukat Kaifi’s memoir Yaadgar Ki Rahguzar (translated by Nasreen Rehman in English as Kaifi Aur Main) or taken from various interviews of Kaifi. It has been collated by Javed. I think it is also the first time ever that a son-in-law and daughter portray the lives of their parents on stage in this unique show.
Kaifi Aur Main has played to sold-out shows, but what has the audience response been like?
Javed: It sounds a bit immodest to say it, but we have received standing ovations every single time and people have clapped with tears in their eyes.
What is your favourite moment from the show? Shabana: The first time Kaifi and Shaukat meet and their romance is kindled.
Javed: There are so many. I have only corrected things in order to turn it into a narrative. It is very warm, funny, emotional, intellectual and humorous. There is a lot of humour, but at the same time, there is depth and thought-processing moments. There is a complete spectrum of emotions. It is very difficult for me to select one moment as I feel I am being unfair to the other moments.
As a writer yourself Javed saab, what can you relate to most with Kaifi Azmi?
Javed: He had a complete value system. He wished for a secular society without any discrimination on the basis of religion, creed, caste, colour. He was a man who believed in women’s empowerment. I totally agree with these values.
Do you think the new generation is disconnected from poetry and the beauty of words?
Shabana: Alas, this is true. I am very word sensitive and cringe when I hear how loosely words are used. And pronunciation seems to be nobody’s concern. It pains me.
Javed: I believe the worst is behind us. Civilisation and priority from the last two decades has changed. It’s like they were on a train and missed the platform. The younger generation, 20-25 year-olds, somehow on their own, they have recognised the loss. They are trying to revive, discover and connect with poetry and the fine arts. I am not pessimistic. I am optimistic about the future of poetry.
You are seen as a golden couple. What is the secret of your successful marriage?
Javed: First, we rarely meet. Both of us are so busy. Quite often we are not in the same town. Let me give you an example. I had gone to Delhi and she was in a village where she set up a school for girls. We were together for two days. She’s going to Chicago now and is back on Wednesday (24) and I go to Ludhiana on Thursday (25). We say we will spend time together, but we never get the chance.
Second, you can be happy in any relationship if you have respect for the other person, as long as you do not think you are the centre of the universe, the world revolves around you and you’re better than your other half. There needs to be equal rights between both and half the problem is solved.
Shabana: (Laughs) Yes, we rarely meet. And both of us are so busy that there is no time to fight. The fact is that we are each other’s best friend. Javed often jokes that I am such a good friend that even marriage couldn’t ruin our friendship. The most important thing that binds us together is that we come from similar backgrounds and share common ideals.
What is your favourite work that the other one has done?
Shabana: It’s difficult to narrow it down to one. I love his songs from Swades and Sardari Begum. He is an amazingly versatile lyricist. What, for instance, is common between the worlds of Dil Chahta Hai and Lagaan? And yet he does equal justice to both. That his films have morality is unquestionable, even when his protagonist is a rebel. His protagonists’ angst never succumbs to crudity or vulgarity. My father used to say Javed is the finest poet of his generation because his voice is his own and not an echo of another.
Javed: She is an actor par excellence. I can say that without hesitation because everyone will agree. It is difficult to choose one because I will be unfair to the other roles, but if I had to, it would be Khandhar (1984). It was directed by senior Bengali director Mrinal Sen. She hardly had any dialogues. It was about a girl in a totally helpless situation, but despite that and her environment, she had such dignity. If you met her, you would respect her, in spite of being somebody who had no support. Her silence was a great performance.
Today, what are your greatest unfulfilled ambitions?
Shabana: To be able to cook. I have such talent for cooking that if the most delicious dish is being made and you ask me to merely look at the pot it gets burned to a cinder. But one day, I shall overcome.
Javed: Sometimes I feel like all my ambitions are unfulfilled. I should have done much more than I have in terms of scripts and lyrics. I don’t feel there is any ambition which is totally fulfilled.
What inspires you now?
Javed: You are lying if what you see and hear around you is not the biggest inspiration. Life is the biggest inspiration. I saw such beautiful art in Italy and Paris. They inspire you and it makes you think that they had nothing, no electricity, yet they did so much. Looking at beautiful pieces makes you wonder, have you achieved this kind of perfection in your poetry?
Finally, why should we all come to Kaifi Aur Main?
Shabana: Because it is guaranteed you will go away moved and inspired.
Kaifi Aur Main is being staged at Symphony Hall in Birmingham on September 3 & Indigo at The 02 in London on September 4. Log onto thsh.co.uk & axs.com to find out more.