My father said if you work sincerely, then change will occur: Shabana Azmi

Kaifinama, which looks at the life and work of Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi, is being screened across cities in India and abroad to mark his birth centenary year

A screening of the film, Kaifinama: A Celebration of the Art and Times of Kaifi Azmi, that looks at the life and illustrious body of work of the Urdu poet (1919-2002), is perhaps the best way to celebrate his birth centenary year. The film is being screened across cities in India and abroad.

At the event organised by the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru, under its Art and Culture series, at the Bangalore International Centre on August 12, the screening of the film, directed by Sumantra Ghosal, was preceded by a reading of Kaifi’s poetry in Urdu by his daughter, thespian Shabana Azmi, and in English by Sumantra. After the screening, there was a guftagu (conversation) between Shabana, Sumantra and writer Aakar Patel.

Shabana Azmi sat down for a chat with MetroPlus.


Can you tell us about the influence your father had on you?

My father was my friend, my mentor, my guru. He never directly influenced me on anything. But, both he and my mother lived a life by example. My brother (cinematographer Baba Azmi) and I inherited their world view, almost by a process of osmosis. My parents believed that art should be used as an instrument for social change. And whether it was in his poetry or my mother’s (Shaukat Kaifi) work as an actress, that’s what they always did.

I have been influenced by my father’s poetry. His poem, Aurat, which was written 70 years ago, is iconic. He says, ‘Arise my love, come walk, march shoulder to shoulder with me.’ My work in the women’s movement is informed by Aurat. My work in the slums is informed by his poem, Makaan, which I like because it is about the irony of a construction worker who built this fabulous building. And when the building is completed, he is not allowed to enter it. His poems Bahuroopni and Doosra Banwas informed my work against religious fundamentalism.

A memory of your father that stands out?

There are so many. Very few people knew my father had a great sense of humour. He was not given to materialism at all. The only thing he loved passionately was his Mont Blanc pen. He would send them to the Fountain Hospital in New York. When a friend gifted me a Mont Blanc, he had absolutely no qualms about stealing it and writing a beautiful letter to my friend saying how it was much safer in his custody.

Then, one day I was putting eye drops for him. He had the smallest eyes in the world! The drops would just fall out. He held my hand and said, “I will tell you a story.” He said that once there was a king who had a very useless son. Because he was very worried, he asked his wazir to teach the son something. The son was then taught archery. Now because he was useless, the bow would go and destroy all the chandeliers, all the beautiful things.So then the king ran to the wazir and said ‘Please help me, what can I do. How do we save ourselves?’ The wazir said there is only one way. ‘If you stand right in the centre of the target, you will be saved because the arrow will go everywhere except there.’

I said, “So?” Then he said, “You put the eyedrops in my ears and they will automatically go into my eyes.” Such a long story for something like that! (laughs)

When he set up the Mijwan Welfare Society in his village, there were lots of obstacles. I asked him, “Don’t you get frustrated when change doesn’t happen at the pace you want it to?” He said, “When you are working for change, you should build into that expectation the possibility that change might not occur within your lifetime. But you must have the confidence that if you work sincerely and are committed, then change will occur, even after you are gone.” That has been my biggest mantra.

How did the film, Kaifinama, come about?

For the centenary, I felt that it was important that we should make a film. I requested Sumantra to do it because I thought he had a feel for poetry. I felt it was important for somebody to discover Kaifi through the process of making the film rather than have a preconceived notion of who he was. Kaifi had a very imposing persona; people would get quite awed by him. That was not the case with Sumantra

He has explored Kaifi through his poetry. Kaifi was many things but, in essence, he was a poet.

You mentioned the era where Sahir Ludhianvi and Kaifi Azmi were writing lyrics for film songs. Can you elaborate on that period?

What is very interesting is that the Communist Party of India, although it supported and encouraged the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) and the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), it did not do it directly. Not everybody in PWA was a communist. What happened was that PC Joshi, general secretary of the party, felt that the medium of film was very important but they could only afford [to do] theatre. But theatre doesn’t have the reach of film. So, he asked these people to infiltrate the film industry in the hope that their view would find its way into the films. This was a party policy which got revealed much later.

Dream directors

  • Shabana Azmi says she would have loved to work with Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman. “I used to say that if he just asks me to take a broom and sweep the ground from one end of the frame to the other, I would be happy to do it,” she says with a laugh.
  • As for her favourite Bergman films, she says, “it is difficult to say”. Finally, after some deliberation, she names Autumn Sonata and Cries and Whispers as must-see films.
  • As for the directors of today, she says, “I look forward to working with Zoya (Akhtar). I would be interested to work with young people and in fact, I have probably worked with the maximum number of first-time directors. It is just an instinctive reaction. Something about when I’m talking to them, I can see that there is real passion there.”

When you look at the work of lyricists such as Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Kaifi, Shailendra, you see that its actually poetry. It’s very beautiful. Even today, when you think of songs that you have an association with, they are songs of the past!

I am not a classicist in the sense that I don’t think things should be static. Culture definitely cannot be static. But you can rue the fact that sometimes changes are bad. As somebody who was raised in a family where words were very important, it bothers me that no attention is paid to language, to grammar, to spelling.

Last year, Section 377 of the IPC, which criminalised same sex relations, was read down. How much do you think has changed from the time Fire (1998) was released?

I think there has been a tremendous change because at the time of Fire, we were not used to discussing the issue openly at all. We used to just brush it under the carpet. Now, there are many people coming out in the open as they should. It is much, much easier today but much more needs to be done. Because when you talk about minorities, the LGBTQIA+ community also has to be included. How is it anybody’s business what they do in their personal life?

Can you tell us about Halo, the series produced by Steven Spielberg?

Halo is one of the most popular video games with more than 77 million users and now they have decided to make it into a web series. We have been asking for colour-blind casting for years now and it has taken that long. Suddenly, Indian and Asian actors are being seen in America. This has happened also because the world is shrinking and has become a global village. And so, the fact that I don’t play an Indian in the series. I play Admiral Margaret Parangosky. It is a challenge and I look forward to it. (smiles). Of course, the fact that it is Spielberg…

Has shooting begun?

No, it starts on November 1, but I go to Budapest (Hungary) in the middle of October.

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