Veteran theatre and film actor and writer Shaukat Kaifi is no more. According to a family source she was in her 90s and ailing for a long while and passed away in the evening at her Juhu home in the arms of her daughter, actor Shabana Azmi.
Shaukat Aapa, as she was lovingly called, along with her husband, Urdu poet and film lyricist, Kaifi Azmi, had been the leading light of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and the Progressive Writers Association, the cultural wings of the Communist Party of India.
In the world of films one of her early major appearances was in M.S. Sathyu’s Garm Hava (1974) , the most compelling human exploration of the aftermath of Partition, the havoc it wreaked and the frustrations it bred in the Muslim families that decided to stay on this side of the border. Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan (1981) and Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar (1982) have been the other notable performances.
In Umrao Jaan she played the key role of the Lucknow brothel owner Khanum Jaan under whose tutelage the shy and unsure Amiran transforms into a resplendent Umrao. She was effortless and easy in the role and a great presence on screen, certainly many notches above her own daughter Shabana who reprised the same character in J.P. Dutta’s 2006 version of the film.
Shaukat Kaifi's memoirs, Kaifi and I , published by Zubaan , had been turned into an IPTA production, a theatrical rendition called Kaifi aur Main with Shabana and Javed Akhtar reading the parts of Shaukat and Kaifi respectively.
Earlier this year, while talking to The Hindu, about the ongoing centenary celebrations for Kaifi Azmi, Shabana had recollected how her mother, a liberal and a rebel in her own right, saw Kaifi for the first time in a mushaira in Hyderabad in 1947. She was fascinated with his looks, voice and the beautiful poem, Aurat, that he had recited. “In those days when it was considered a woman’s lot to stay at home and raise the children and for the man to go out and struggle, Kaifi said ‘rise my love, you have to march shoulder to shoulder with me’,” Shabana said. After the mushaira got over the college girls surrounded Kaifi for autographs. Shaukat looked at Kaifi and then mischievously turned towards Sardar Jafri instead, for his autograph. Those days your worth was recognised by the beautiful sher the poet wrote in your autograph book. When she eventually gave hers to Kaifi he got back at her just as naughtily by writing some jibberish. And a love story was born out of a sweet squabble.
Initial years of marriage were full of hardships with the family surviving on the meagre stipend given by the party and living in accommodation which was one bedroom in an apartment shared with three other families. In fact her initial inclination towards theatre and cinema was both a passion and also a necessity, a mode to augment the limited family income.
Shabana recalled how for years they lived in a tiny cottage in Juhu’s Janki Kutir that didn’t even have an attached bathroom. Yet star poets like Josh Malihabadi, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Firaaq Gorakhpuri and singer Begum Akhtar used to be their house guests. Later Guru Dutt, S.D. Burman, Chetan Anand--with whom Kaifi worked in films--used to visit frequently. It was a place where all the festivals and India’s composite culture were celebrated. And the one to manage and oversee all of that was none other than the ever welcoming and hospitable Shaukat.
“She was instrumental in keeping IPTA running and was the glue that kept the Azmi household together. The selfless struggles that Kaifi Saheb and she undertook in their village Mijwan, Azamgarh, UP to bring prosperity, dignity, and an identity to it cannot be fathomed by today’s minds seeking instant gratification,” said actor, poet, theatre director and dastango Danish Husain.
She is survived by her daughter Shabana, son and noted cinematographer Baba Azmi, daughter in law actor Tanvi Azmi and son in law, poet, writer and lyricist Javed Akhtar. She has passed away even as the year-long Kaifi centenary events roll on.