By Subhash K Jha
MUMBAI: Actress Shabana Azmi opens up about her memories of her great father Kaifi Azmi who died in May 2002.
“Earliest memory of Abba…Of him sitting on a writing table in his kurta-pyjama smoking incessantly and writing till the wee hours of the morning. As a child, I was convinced a poet was a euphemism for someone who didn’t have any work. Daddys were supposed to put on trousers, shirts and ties and go out to work. In fact when people would ask me what my father did I said he was a businessman and quickly changed the topic….Oh , the follies of innocence…My father was a really gorgeous looking man with this beautiful voice. People don’t know this, but he had a tremendous sense of humour. I remember once I was putting eye-drops in his tiny eyes. The drops kept falling all over his face. He told me about this inept prince who was taught archery and who broke everything in the house during practice. Then he said, ‘Put the drops in my ears they’ll go in my eyes.’ He said such lines with a poker face. He always made digs at the strange procedure in our films where tunes came first and lyrics were written into them later. ‘It’s like first digging a grave and then trying to fit a corpse into it. But I constantly keep fitting the corpse into the grave, so everyone thinks I’m a good lyricist’ he said…. You know I took my father for granted, as all children tend to. But as a poet he continues to overwhelm me each day even four years after his death. Whether it was his poem Makaan or Aurat…they’ve been a great source of inspiration. My concern for slum-dwellers started with my father’s poem Makaan which talks of the irony of the construction worker who builds a building with his sweat and blood but isn’t allowed to enter it.”
Shabana pauses and then resumes: “In Hindi cinema, along with Sahir, Majrooh, Jaan Nissar Akhtar and Shailendra, my father raised the standards of film lyrics. They were often deceptively conversational–Kuch dil ne kaha…..kuch bhi nahin….As a film lyricist, he was a mixture of simplicity and poeticality. Take these lines Kissi ka na ho jiss pe saaya mujheaisi din aisi raat do/ Main manzil to khud dhoond loongi mere haath main zaraa apna haath do/ Qadam-do-qadam tum mera saath do….And when Lataji sang these lines by my father….what can be said? You know what was exceptional about my father? He never spoke at home about his work.
“My most favourite Kaifi Azmi lyrics? Hmmmmm… Koi kaise yeh bataaye ke wohtanha kyon hai/who jo apna tha who aur kisika kyon hai/yehi duniya hai to phir aisi yeh duniya kyon hai/yehi hota hai to aakhir yehi hota kyon hai?…The simplicity of these lines kills me. Imagine , a spouse-deserted woman (in the film Arth) being faced with these lines!….That sense of commitment which artistes of my father’s generation had, has been missing. But slowly it’s coming back in my film fraternity. I like it when film people come out to involve themselves with social issues. I find it very strange when people say, how could Aamir Khan have taken up an issue without knowing the nitty-gritty of it? Arrey when Gandhiji was thrown off the train in South Africa, he responded emotionally. When I went on a hunger strike twenty years ago on behalf of slum-dwellers, I didn’t know the issues as well as I do today. I come from a background where my parents believe art is an instrument of social change. At a time when my father could’ve reveled in the luxury of his success in the film industry he chose to go back to his village in Azamgarh to work on its development. Imagine a man paralyzed for thirty years making his village into a place of progress single-handedly. One day I asked him if he feels frustrated when change doesn’t happen as speedily as he’d have liked. He told me we must all be prepared for that change to not happen in our lifetime. This to me, is the one mantra that I’ve taken from my father. I don’t look for instant results at all. That’s why I couldn’t be a politician.
“If you ask me who among contemporary lyricists has inherited my father’s legacy I’d say my husband Javed Akhtar. Abba himself used to say this. They both have this amazing vocabulary which if they wanted, they could flaunt generously. Still they both keep their poetry simple. There was never a word in Urdu that my father couldn’t give me the meaning of. I told Amit (Bachchan) this. And he said, ‘My father could do this in both English and Hindi.’ Can you imagine! To this day it’s a big void in my life that I can’t write Urdu, though I can read it. It’s something I have to do. Javed keeps telling me I’ve my father’s restless spirit. But if I’m cleaning a cupboard that’s relaxation for me, though Javed doesn’t agree.
“I want to share an incident with you about Abba. The last time he ever got out of bed was 14 January 2002 which was his birthday. I had gone down to Mijima (our village in Azamgarh) to meet him. From early morning I had been sitting waiting for him to finish meeting all the villagers. Finally my father hauled himself out of bed and asked my mother for some money. No one had the guts to ask this very old and frail man where he was going off to with his man-Friday. Forty-five minutes later he came back, all drained out. He looks at me and says, ‘Mere gaon wale tumhara subah se bheja chaat rahen hai na? Main apne chidiya ke liya khaas taur se wohsamose lekar aaya hoon jo ussey bahut pasand hai.’ That was the last time he moved out of bed. When Abba passed away I realized nothing prepares you for the loss of a parent…NOTHING! I was completely devastated. But now years later I feel his spirit envelopes me like the air I breathe. I remember him with celebration. I do not remember him with sorrow….My brother Baba Javed, his poem ‘Ajeeb Aadmi’ on my father…these have helped me heal.
“My mother was a remarkable companion to my father. It was an amazing relationship. I was attracted to Javed because he was exactly like my father. In getting to know Javed I got to know my father. Like Abba, Javed is a feminist. My father had this complete dependence on domestic matters on my mother. Even I’ve to buy all the clothes and shoes for Javed. Likewise the tailor who stitched my father’s kurta-pyjamas never saw his face. Neither Abba nor Javed have seen the kitchen in the house. Nor can they fix anything around the house. But both can do anything if they set their heart on it. Javed fights to win. I fight to play the game…..My brother Baba is an extreme introvert. He shared an extremely deep relationship with my father. Baba’s wife Tanvi, who’s the most talkative person in the world, would run out of the room when Abba and Baba were together. They just shared silences. Baba is now writing a script which he’ll direct. In that script you can see the prodigal son return. Abba was everything to me. I continue with his good work in our village. He was my comrade, I remember when I went on my padyatra from Delhi to Meerut. There was so much tension. But when I went to my father he caught my face in his hands and said, ‘Meri bahadur beti jaa rahi hai? Jao tumhein kuch nahin hoga. Sirf kaamyab hoke lautogi.’ It was like a gust of oxygen pumped into me. Ours was an open house during Abba. It continues to be so. My reference point and the choices in life will always come from him, his poetry, work, life and courage.”