“Kaifi, I love you boundlessly, No power in the world can stop me from coming to you; no mountain, no river, no sea, no people, no sky, no angel, no God; and God alone knows what else.”
The woman who wrote these lines in throes of passion for her beloved, husband and lifetime companion reunites with him in afterlife. Yet Shaukat Azmi or Shaukat Kaifi as she preferred to add the first name of her man, renowned poet and lyricist Kaifi Azmi, to her own, leaps out like a forceful gale.
She was last seen on screen in Shaad Ali’s Saathiya back in 2002, but her compelling presence lingers on... Her filmography is brief yet impressive, dotted with powerful performances in Garm Hava, Bazaar and Umrao Jaan. Her portrayal of Khanum Jaan in Rekha-starrer Umrao Jaan directed by the redoubtable Muzaffar Ali (who calls her “the soul of his films”) is often rated her best. Even talented daughter Shabana Azmi couldn’t match her calculated poise when she reprised the same part in its remake by JP Dutta. However, today, as we look back, it’s not just an actor of mettle that we recall but a woman of many shades who was made of steel yet was all heart too.
Shaukat lived in an era, pre-Independence and after, when women were hardly given their due or place. But here she was a firebrand who knew her mind and stood by it. No power on earth could cow her down. Indeed, a lesser woman would have been overshadowed by her husband’s towering persona. However, Shaukat was not only Kaifi’s shadow but added to his stature with her strong identity.
A leading light of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and the Progressive Writers Association (IWA), cultural wings of the Communist Party of India, she and her husband set new parameters for life, love, sacrifice and public service.
No wonder ‘progressive’ is one epithet that comes automatically to the minds of those who knew her. But even those standing at a distance could feel her magnetic charisma. Poet Sudeep Sen, who has only recently edited a book on Kaifi’s poems, may not have had the chance to meet her in person, but he still feels acquainted with her remarkable persona as she was ‘the backbone, the torchlight’ of her family. He is also taken in by the fact that back in those days there existed a family that gave equal status to women. He exclaims, “Imagine, in an era when most women were cocooned and confined to domesticity, she stepped out to support her family.”
Of course, it helps him and others to know Shaukat better, for Shabana Azmi has always spoken about her mother effusively and in glowing terms. If Shaukat spilled the beans of her love affair in her memoir Yaad ki Rahguzar, the daughter adds to it each time with the same chutzpah and spark one could see in her ammi’s persona. Filmmaker Ketan Anand’s meetings with Shaukat Kaifi might have been restricted to the days his father, Chetan Anand, was making Heer Ranjha written by Kaifi. But her infectious laughter continues to ring in his ears. National Award-winning actor Divya Dutta can’t get over her exuberant zestfulness that age couldn’t dent.
Vivacious, irrepressible, feisty... several words could define Shaukat, but theatreperson Rani Balbir Kaur chooses ‘beautiful’ to describe her many splendoured personality embellished by flowers in her hair. Rani, in fact, is brimming with anecdotes that throw light on Shaukat’s endearing personality and enduring bond with her husband. She says with just one line — “Shaukat ko nibhaana khoob aata hai” — Kaifi would sum up the essence of her commitment towards their relationship. Then an impish refrain would bring forth the playfulness of their bond that lasted more than five decades. Rani, whose play Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam covered many aspects of Kaifi’s life, says, “Both she and Kaifi saheb belonged to an era when people like them could survive on conviction alone. In the initial years of their married life, they would often struggle for basic necessities. Even when they made money, theirs was a simple life pulsating with energy and charged with enlightened socialist beliefs. Even 10 minutes with them would energise, rejuvenate you.”
Ek lamha, by Kaifi
Zindagi naam hai kuchh lamhon ka
Both Shaukat and Kaifi saheb belonged to an era when people like them could survive on conviction alone. In the initial years of their married life, they would often be struggling to meet basic necessities. Even when they made money, theirs was a simple life pulsating with energy and charged with enlightened socialist beliefs. Even 10 minutes with them would energise, rejuvenate you. — Rani Balbir Kaur | Thespian
Rani, however, feels Shaukat didn’t really know the art of negotiating with the world and didn’t encash on her immense talent. Even though she ignited the screen with her powerful presence each time she touched it, she never went all out to seek roles. But that was the Prithvi Theatre training in her where even men like Prithviraj Kapoor would not demand, only give. Her days in theatre, with IPTA and Prithvi Theatre, showcased and shaped the actor in her. She called herself a method actor. Amusing stories of how she would remain in her ‘get up’ even at home abound. In her memoir she wrote about how even Kaifi got a trifle annoyed. She talked about how she plonked herself in his car still dressed as brothel madam for Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay!, a role she had incidentally said yes to with some degree of reluctance.
She may not have been hungry for success or driven by ambition, but that is not to say Shaukat didn’t have any worldly desires or material ambitions. Her love for crisp cotton sarees is almost legendary and corroborated by not just daughter Shabana and close friends like Subhasini Ali but by her own accounts as well. Much has been written about her sartorial choices and Shaukat has written in vivid detail as to what she wore when she met Kaifi for the first time at a mushaira in Hyderabad in 1947. Or what colour her kurta was when her father decided to take her to Bombay and take the final call on whether she should marry Kaifi.
Filmmaker Sumantra Ghoshal, who has made the documentary Kaifinaama, goes back in time. He reminisces how she took a long time to get ready and face the camera. He adds, “She was conscious of what she wore and how she presented herself to the world.”
Feminist and feminine, affable and indomitable, between devoting a lifetime to her husband and standing by her own free will, there was no contradiction in the sum of her many parts. And that, feels author Rakhshanda Jalil, is what makes her so inspirational, a role model for all working women. She says, “Often feminism is seen as either/or state of being. But here was a woman who proved one could have it all. As a working mother she would strap a four-month-old Shabana to her back and go to work. A good cook, hospitable hostess, a loving wife and muse to a poet — she was all this and more.”
Kaifi’s feminist anthem Aurat was penned before they met and could have impacted Shaukat enough to want to be the one to fly unfettered with him. Yet many of his poems were an ode to her gracious charm and their undying love in which silences spoke as evocatively as his verses. Both Sen and Rani cite Kaifi’s Ek Lamha (see box) in particular as a testimony to their deep love.
Shaukat believed in love as the singlemost emotion nurturing all human relations and felt compromise was not a bad word at all, nor divorce for that matter. She had refreshing and progressive opinions on that too. In her strong beliefs, far ahead of her times, she leaves behind life’s many lessons. A legacy that not only daughter Shabana cherishes with pride and affection but also the entire world. Murmurs are in the air about the possibility of Kaifi Aur Main, a stage performance based on her memoirs, enacted to acclaim and applause, being adapted into a film. Either way, she lives on...
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