Kaifi Azmi: A Profound Versifier
Regarded as the pioneer of Urdu literature in Indian cinema and among the last poets of the Progressive Writers' Movement, Kaifi Azmi's poetry was overwhelmed with themes of compassion and equality
Like Majhrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi too was a reluctant poet. Though his quantum of work was much less than Majhrooh's, whatever he wrote was majestic. Unfortunately, his films didn't fare well at the box office, and hence, he was considered star-crossed by the film fraternity. One day, a producer approached him to write lyrics for his film, and Kazmi sarcastically replied, "Don't you know, the industry considers me to be an unlucky lyricist." The producer told him, "Don't you worry; the fraternity holds the same opinion about me, too." Though reluctant, Kaifi Azmi gave his consent. The producer was actor-director Chetan Anand, who also signed another 'unlucky' composer Madan Mohan. This trio created history with Haqeeqat. What an irony!
Born as Athar Hussain Rizvi in Mizwan (Azamgarh) of Uttar Pradesh on January 14, 1919, Kafi Azmi was the seventh sibling in the family of a landlord. Given his love for verses, he was duly encouraged by his older brothers. This familial support had the desired impact and he wrote his first ghazal at the age of eleven – Itna to zindagi mein kisi ki khalal pade, that was recited in a mushaira. Years later, it was sung by the ghazal queen, Begum Akhtar.
Kaifi was fascinated by Persian poetry during his school days. In 1936, when he moved to Lucknow for higher studies, the first conference of the Progressive Writers' Association was being held in the city – presided over by the legendary Premchand. Upon attending the conference, he was deeply influenced by Marxist ideology and joined the Communist Party of India (CPI). Leftist ideologies made him quit a life of comfort and surrender to social cause. He took up a job in a shoe factory in Kanpur. But, after the Quit India Movement in 1942, CPI set up its office in Bombay, and Kaifi was sent across to take care of the party work. He met the stalwarts of Indian cinema - Khawaja Ahmed Abbas, Chetan Anand, Balraj Sahni and Shailendra – with whom he was to work in the following years.
Kaifi met Shaukat in Bombay. She had heard his shairi in a mushaira and was fairly impressed. They fell in love and got married in May, 1947. Shaukat left a comfortable life and joined her spouse to assist in the party work. They lived in a commune in central Bombay, where the kitchen and toilet were shared. To meet both ends, Shaukat also worked with All India Radio as a casual announcer and acted in radio plays. The couple was blessed with two kids – Shabana Azmi and Baba Azmi.
This was the era when renowned poets – Majhrooh, Sahir, Ali Sardar Jafri, Jaan Nisar Akhtar, were writing for films. Though Kaifi started late, he began his association with cinema writing ghazals. However, his close links with the Progressive Writers' Association and CPI made him embark on the path of socially-aware poetry. One could see that in several of his poems as he highlighted the exploitation of the subaltern, thereby, conveying the message of creating a social order by dismantling the existing system from its roots. And, over a period, intense empathy and compassion for the underprivileged became the hallmark of his poetry.
Kaifi got his maiden break in Shahid Lateef's film Buzdil (1951) and wrote two songs composed by S D Burman: Dar lage duniya se balam, and the other he wrote jointly with Shailendra, Rote rote guzar gayi raat re (Lata), were great hits.
Kaifi had a long association with producer Nanu Bhai Vakil and even wrote stories for his films: Yahoodi Ki Beti (1956), Praveen (1957) Miss Punjab Mail and Eid Ka Chand (1958).
I met Kaifi Saab through a mutual friend in the late sixties. Rais Bhai had known Kaifi Saab for long and we both requested him to spend an evening with us. We organised a programme which elicited a packed audience at the Aiwan-e- Ghalib auditorium. Kaifi Saab recited his kalam in the first-half and, in the second-half, Begum Akhtar sang his ghazals. After this programme, I spent several memorable evenings with him in the CPI office at Ajay Bhawan, at the Delhi Doordarshan Kendra, and my official residence in Bengali Market.
Once I asked Kaifi Saab, "You have not written much for films, and we all are familiar with that work. Please shed some light on your non-film poetry." He laughed and said, "Sharad Miyan, log to mere asli naam se bhi waqif nahi hain. Woh to mujhe Akhtar Hussain Rizvi Kaifi Azmi kah kar mera tarruf karate hain to unse meri shayari ke bare mein kaya twaqqo ki ja sakti hai (They are not even familiar with my real name, then how can I expect them to appreciate my poetry?). I wrote for films to honour my commitments and support my family. I had written a song or two for films earlier. But I wrote several songs for Guru Dutt's Kagaz Ke Phool."
While talking about his composers, he said, "Though I made my debut with Burman Da in Buzdil, I enjoyed working with him more in Kagaz Ke Phool. Those days music composers were known for their creativity and dedication. Their music had a distinct signature. Among them, working with Khayyam Saab and Madan Mohan was truly regaling."
I have known Khayyam Saab personally. While doing a documentary with him, he authenticated Kaifi Saab's statement: "We did Lala Rukh, Shola Aur Shabnam, Akhri Khat, Shankar Hussain and Razia Sultan. Kaifi Saab had written all the songs for Lala Rukh (1958), a home production of Shahid Latif and his wife Ismat Chughtai. A romantic love story, this film had singer-actor Talat Mehmood and Shyama in the lead. Kaifi Saab's songs, Hai kali kali ke lab par (Rafi), and a duet in a dialogue style between Husn-o-ishq (beauty and love). I loved recording this particular song that was sung with such intensity by Talat and Asha: Ishq says, Pyaas kuchh aur bhi bhadka di jhalak dikhla ke, tujhko parda rukh-e-roshan se hatana hoga, and Husn responds, Itni gustakh na ho husn ki awara nazar, husn ka paas nighaon ko sikhana hoga. This is one of my favourites and I had great satisfaction that I did full justice to Kaifi Saab's lyrics."
In 1961, Shola Aur Sabnam was released with fourteen songs by five lyricists – Kaifi Saab had written five of those unforgettable songs.
Chetan Anand had approached Khayyam Saab with a lullaby written by Kaifi Saab for Akhri Khat (1967), and told him that this was the sole number in the film. When Khayyam Saab recorded this lullaby in Lata's voice, Mere chanda mere nanhe, Chetan was so impressed that he asked Kaifi Saab to write four more songs. Thus came Lata's haunting melody, Baharo mera jeevan bhi sawanro.
Kaifi and Khayyam combined for a few films – Mera Bhai Mera Dushman (1967), Sankalp (1974), Shankar Hussain (1977) and Razia Sultan (1983). When Guru Dutt announced his semi-autobiographical film, Kagaz Ke Phool (1959), he asked Kaifi Saab to write the lyrics and he penned Geeta Dutt's all-time great, Waqt ne kiya kya hansi sitam and Rafi's Dekhi zamane ki yaari.
Hemant Kumar was another favourite of Kaifi Saab and the renditions they created – Ye nayan darey darey, Raah bani khud manzil (Hemant Kumar), Ae beqraar dil and Jhoom Jhoom dhalti raat (Lata) in Kohra (1964). The pair was at its best in Anupama (1966) with a variety of heart-felt songs, Dheere- dhere macchal, Kuch dil ne kaha (Lata) and Ya dil ki suno duniya walo in Hemant's own voice.
Haqeeqat was India's first war film on Chinese aggression. Kaifi Saab's lyrics was composed by Madan Mohan and it created history both in terms of music and lyrics.
The trio (Chetan Anand-Madan Mohan- Kaifi Azmi) also combined to create Heer Raanjha (1970) and Hanste Jhakhm (1973). Heer Raanjha had several hits – Milo na tum to, Do dil toote, Doli chadey heer ne bain kiye (Lata), and a unique song, Meri Duniya mein tum aaye, in Raj Kumar and Priya Rajvansh's voice supported by Rafi and Lata. That film also had Rafi's song in his full-throated voice, Ye duniya, ye mehfil, mere kaam ki nahin. Hanste Zakhm also had such memorable numbers: Betab dil ki tammana and Aaj socha to (Lata), and a romantic duet, Tum jo mil gaye ho (Rafi-Lata).
Though Kaifi Saab was ignited in his early days by Nehruvian socialism, years later, he seemed disillusioned by this ideology, and yet, he paid a glorious tribute to Pt Nehru after his death, in a song, Meri awaz suno in film Naunihal (1967). Kaifi Saab and Madan Mohan did 15 films together and gave 76 hits. Kaifi Saab also wrote for Mahesh Bhatt's Arth (1982), and its songs, Jhuki jhuki si nazar and Tum itna jo muskara rahe ho, were composed and sung by the inimitable Jagjit Singh.
Kaifi Saab diversified and wrote the screenplay with Shama Zaidi for M S Sathyu's Garam Hava (1974), which won the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration, and also bagged several awards for its screenplay – including three Filmfare awards.
In his sunset years, he spent most of his time at his native place Mijwan, where he devoted himself to social work. He was bestowed with the Padma Shri in 1974. He is three collections of poetry, Akhari Shab, Jhankaar and Awara Sajde, earned him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1975.
A political thinker, Kaifi Saab was perturbed by the demolition of Babri Masjid and subsequent Mumbai riots. Afflicted with partial hemorrhage along with heart ailment, his health kept deteriorating with respiratory complications. He breathed his last on May 10, 2002 in Jaslok Hospital, Mumbai. But his literary creations will remain with us forever.