'Nationalist, agnostic, feminist, romantic': Remembering Kaifi Azmi

Farhana Farook
·8-min read

Crusader, nationalist, agnostic, feminist but above all a romantic… Writer/lyricist Kaifi Azmi was the sum of many parts. Reliving his journey on the poet’s 102nd birth anniversary.

Director Kamal Amrohi played around with poetry and pain to create the monumental Pakeezah. Meena Kumari’s ornamented anguish mirrored in Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics in Chalte chalte yunhi koi mil gaya tha.

Waqt ne kiya kya haseen situm… Kaifi not only worded the silence between Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman in Kagaz Ke Phool, he made it an allegory of showbiz infamous for its shifting affections.

Adhering to the soul of Waris Shah’s epic poem Heer was Kaifi’s Heer Ranjha, a film written entirely in verse!

Cut to Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth about broken promises and broken people where Kaifi’s Koi yeh bataaye ke woh tanha kyon hai confronted romance with reality.

An atheist, Kaifi wrote the Sufi qawwali Maula Saleem Chisti in Garm Hava just as he did the mystical Tu hi sagar hai tu hi kinara (Sankalp)… proving that spirituality is way beyond the rubrics of religion…

Kaifi saab preserved the purity of language. He could create a painting with words… … Those songs stay alive, which don’t belong to just the film. Their reach is beyond generations. That’s why Kaifi saab’s lyrics have filtered through the sieve of time. He was the common man’s poet,” contemporary lyricist Irshad Kamil thus summed up Kaifi’s genius.

While a delicate sensibility was Kaifi’s hallmark, he was not oblivious of stark truths. But what didn’t corrode his romanticism was his ability to remain besotted with life, though conversant with its whims.

A communist, his writings gave voice to the oppressed and blasted prejudice. A socialist, his work in Mijwan (post the paralytic attack) for girls is a tangible proof of his passion to create and contribute. Revisiting his life and times on his 102nd birth anniversary …

Kaifi was born as Sayyed Athar Hussain Rizvi on 14 January 1919, in the village of Mijwan in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh.

At 11, the prodigious youngster recited his ghazal Itna toh zindagi mein kisi ki khalal pade at a mushaira. It won him great admiration. The ghazal was immortalised forever after Begum Akhtar sang it.

Feeling strongly about societal injustice, 20-year-old Kaifi joined the Communist Party of India (CPI). He united with Ali Sardar Jafri in writing for Qaumi Jung, the party’s paper in Mumbai.

A member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Kaifi also worked with the labour union movement. His poetry targeted communalism, religious fundamentalism and advocated the rights of women. His best-known poems are Aurat, Makaan, Daaera, Sanp and Bahuroopni.

He was the All India President of the Indian People Theatre Association (IPTA). He acted in plays with other leftists such as Balraj Sahni.

The poet’s career in films began when Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai urged filmmaker husband Shahid Lateef to sign Kaifi on to write the lyrics for his Buzdil (1951). Rote rote guzar gayi raat was Kaifi’s first offering.

His big break came with Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959). S D Burman and he created Waqt ne kiya kya haseen situm, a soliloquy against the tyranny of time. Apparently, there was no situation for the track. But Guru Dutt loved the subliminal song so much that he incorporated it in the film. Filmed on Waheeda Rehman and Guru Dutt it’s a metaphor of the darkness inherent in limelight. Another gem is Dekhi zamane ki yaari, bicchde sabhi baari baari, about transient loyalties.

Ramesh Saigal’s Shola Aur Shabnam (1961) had melodious songs like Jaane kya dhoondti rehti hain and Jeet hi lenge baazi hum tum. But Kaifi’s efforts went unnoticed as the film didn’t strike a chord.

Consequently, when filmmaker Chetan Anand asked him to write the lyrics for Haqeeqat (1964), the poet said his ‘stars’ were not favourable. Chetan argued that the same applied to him and that two negatives could make a positive. Haqeeqat is remembered for the free verse Main yeh sochkar uske dar se utha tha and the patriotic Kar chale hum fida, set to tune by Madan Mohan.

Kohra (1964) was another milestone with the intimate and inviting Yeh nayan dare dare. While the bitter-sweet O beqaraar dil was based on Hemant Kumar’s earlier Bengali composition O nodi re (film Siddarth). The (1966) lyrics of Anupama – Kuch dil ne kaha and Ya dil ki suno duniya walon – had the same elegiac quality.

Mention must be made of Kaifi’s Meri awaaz suno (Naunihal 1967), sung by Mohammad Rafi, which attained immortality when it was played along the funeral procession of the late Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Kaifi and Madan Mohan collaborated for Chetan’s Hanste Zakhm and Hindustan Ki Kasam (both in 1973). Aaj socha toh aansoo bhar aaye and Betaab dil ki tamanna yahi hai in Hanste Zakhm mirrored the filigree of feelings.

However, Kaifi-Madan Mohan’s Heer Ranjha (1970) remains a classic. Based on Waris Shah’s epic Punjabi poem Heer (1766), Kaifi wrote the dialogue of the film in verse. Yeh duniya yeh mehfil, filmed against changing landscapes and changing seasons, is sublime. Just as is the veiled-in-sensuality Meri duniya mein tum aayee. Apparently, the humungous work that the film demanded took a toll on his health.

Kaifi won acclaim for the script, dialogue and lyrics of M.S. Sathyu’s classic Garm Hava (1974), based on a story by Ismat Chughtai. Starring Balraj Sahni, the film depicted the alienation of Muslims in post-Partition India. It won Kaifi, the Filmfare Awards for Best Dialogue, Best Screenplay (with Shama Zaidi) and Best Story (with Ismat Chughtai).

In 1983, Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics (Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho, Koi yeh kaise bataaye, Jhuki jhuki si nazar) about love and betrayal, deceit and desire elevated Mahesh Bhatt’s semi-autobiographical Arth (1983) into a poetic comment on human frailties.


Interestingly, in 1995, Kaifi played a patriarch in Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s award-winning film Naseem. It was a tale of a Muslim family that witnesses the communal frenzy post the Babri Masjid demolition.

Actor/writer Shaukat Azmi first met Kaifi at a mushaira in Hyderabad in 1947. There she heard him recite his poem Aurat, which had the lines, “Uth, meri jaan! Mere saath hi chalnaa hai tujhe (Come, my beloved! With me, you must walk) …” His feminist sensibilities won her over. The legendary romance began on this note and culminated in marriage.

Initially, the couple survived on the party stipend and shared a commune-like apartment with others. They turned parents to daughter Shabana (Azmi) and son Ahmer (cinematographer/director Baba Azmi).

Kaifi encouraged Shaukat in her creative pursuits. He’d sit up with her at night, giving her cues, while she rehearsed her lines. Their little cottage in Juhu’s Janki Kutir was a sanctum sanctorum with eminent poets Josh Malihabadi, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Firaaq Gorakhpuri and singer Begum Akhtar as frequent visitors.

To document their rich innings, Shaukat wrote Yaad Ki Rehguzar, an account of her life with Kaifi, which was adapted as the play Kaifi Aur Main (Kaifi and I). It premiered in Mumbai in 2006 on the fourth death anniversary of Kaifi and was enacted by Javed Akhtar and Shabana.

In the early ’70s, Kaifi suffered a brain hemorrhage, which rendered his left leg and hand incapacitated. Then on, he dedicated himself to the upliftment of Mijwan, his birthplace.

In 1993, he set up Mijwan Welfare Society (MWS) for the girl child and women in rural India and made education and skill training its fulcrum. Mijwan stayed Kaifi’s pet project till he passed away, at 84, on May 10, 2002.

The chikankari done by Mijwan’s women has today reached the glamour world under the guidance of Manish Malhotra. The Mijwan Fashion Show, with Shabana Azmi as President, is a hi-profile annual event.

On Kaifi’s centenary, son Baba Azmi premiered the film Mee Raksam as a tribute to him. Shot in Mijwan, it’s about a girl, whose passion for dance is strengthened by a liberal father. “Junoon mein hi sukoon hai (only in passion can one find peace),” once said Kaifi.

Truly, Kaifi’s zest permeated every area of his life. He was someone who remained as possessive about his collection of Montblanc pens as he felt privileged with his Communist Party membership card.

“This is my most precious capital,” he would quip about the emblem that was reportedly buried with the bard.

Unravelling the world of classic Bollywood cinema - here’s more from Farhana Farook.