Shaukat Azmi, or Shaukat Kaifi as she referred to herself, was a stage and movie talent, a voice artist for All India Radio, the wife of Progressive poet and lyricist Kaifi Azmi, and the mother of actor Shabana Azmi and cinematographer Baba Azmi. She was born in 1928 in Hyderabad, and died in Mumbai on Friday at the age of 91.

In 2010, Zubaan published the English translation of Yaad Ki Rahguzar, her 2004 memoir. Kaifi & I is an engaging, sharply observed and often moving account of her childhood, her romance with Kaifi Azmi, her years on the floorboards and movie sets, and the challenges she faced as the wife of a brilliant but often penurious writer who was also a card-carrying Communist. Two extracts from Kaifi & I demonstrate Shaukat Kaifi’s keen eye and self-deprecating wit.

Meeting the love of her life

Choti Apajan was married to Akhtar Bhai, a Progressive writer and poet who was invited to Hyderabad in 1946 by Qazi Abdul Ghaffar of Laila Ke Khut (Laila’s Letters) fame, to join him as editor of the Urdu daily, Payam. Akhtar Bhai was a gracious host and Choti Apajan was always by his side in their open house where writers from the Progressive Writers’ Movement, such as Makhdoom Mohiuddin, were regular visitors.

In February 1947, a Progressive Writers’ Conference was organised in Hyderabad and Akhtar Bhai arranged for the poets Kaifi Azmi and Majrooh Sultanpuri to stay with his elder sister, Baji. His younger sister Rabia Burney lived next door, and it was here that Sardar Jafri was staying with his friend Sultana, who later became his wife. Fortuitously, this was during the long school holidays, and as I happened to be visiting my sister in Hyderabad, I was able to attend the Conference and meet the Progressive Writers about whom I had heard so much. In Hyderabad it was not uncommon for writers with the slightest claim to fame to put on airs and treat with disdain those whom they considered less fortunate or famous than themselves. The young progressive writers were a refreshing change; they wore their fame so lightly that I was overwhelmed. Little did I know that this chance encounter would change my life forever.

One night there was a mushaira. I was sitting in the front row with Bare Bhaijan. The air was filled with expectation. Finally, I was going to hear the celebrated poets. I had spent hours before a mirror, trying on one kurta after another and had settled on a white kargah kurta, a white shalwar, a dupatta skillfully dyed in the colours of the rainbow and golden salimshahi shoes. I was determined to overshadow all the other young women. When Kaifi began to recite his poem Taj (Crown), I felt impelled to fix my gaze on this tall, slim and charismatic young man, whose voice, God help me, had a timbre like the rumble of storm clouds. How brave of him to recite a powerful poem against monarchy and injustice in the Nizam’s city!

Bare Bhaijan turned to me and said, ‘Such a bold poem one so young; these people are truly fearless.’ After the mushaira people began rushed towards the three poets with their autograph books. College girls swarmed around Kaifi like flies but I preferred to wait my turn, and giving him an arch look, I turned towards Sardar Jafri and asked for his autograph instead.

After the crowds had dispersed, I walked up to Kaifi with great confidence and held out my autograph book to him. From the corner of his eye Kaifi has caught me going towards Sardar Jafri, and to my dismay, he scribbled some meaningless couplets in my book,

The flaming cloud that seems to shine
The earth of the nightingale’s honour
Came into my domain like a secret
My heart bell rings and lightning swims
Grab the beauty and come into my heart.

I was miffed. Kaifi had inscribed a charming couplet for my friend Zakia who was beaming with delight and I was consumed with envy. When we returned to Choti Apajan’s, I joined Kaifi on the steps heading to the house and demanded petulantly, ‘Why did you write such silly couplets for me?’

‘Why did you ask for Jafri saab’s autograph first?’ Kaifi asked mischievously. He was pleased to see that I was amused in spite of myself and we sat right there on the steps, slipping into a conversation as though we were old friends. The eagle-eyed Choti Apajan descended upon us announcing, ‘Dinner is served.’ Then she continued, ‘And yes, Kaifi don’t forget to congratulate Shaukat, she is getting married in three months time to Usman, our Maumun’s son.’ Kaifi’s crestfallen expression mirrored my dismay, as we made our way to dinner. I had learnt from Sardar Jafri that Kaifi was getting married to some lady in Bombay who wanted to have a sherwani made for him, and that too of hemru, a rich brocade, which was a specialty of our region. I could not help but feel a twinge of envy.

After dinner Kaifi and I returned to sit on the steps. ‘In three months time you’ll be married and you won’t even think of me,’ Kaifi said in a very subdued voice.

‘And you’ll go back to Bombay and get married,’ was my rejoinder.

‘Now, I will never get married, not for the rest of my life,’ Kaifi declared.

‘Marriage is a must,’ I counselled him like an agony aunt, ‘without marriage life is incomplete… a human being remains unfulfilled…’

I was rambling on when I caught Kaifi staring at me. Avoiding his gaze, I rushed off to my room! Something had stirred in me – an emotion unfamiliar but exciting.

Shaukat Kaifi, the actor

When Muzaffar Ali started work on Umrao Jaan (1981) he offered my Khanam’s role. I was more interested in playing Umrao’s mother, but Subhashini, who was Muzaffar’s wife at the time, impressed upon me that Umrao Jaan’s mother is a lackluster and helpless woman whereas Khanam who is a strong, autonomous and impressive woman is a far more interesting character to portray. I am glad I took Subhashini’s advice because to this day, I get praise for my performance as Khanam, a worldly woman who runs the premier salon of courtesans in Lucknow. In fact after watching the film Kaifi told Subhashini, ‘Shaukat was so convincing as Khanam that had I seen the film before I married her I would have investigated her family tree!’

After Umrao Jaan I worked in several other films such as Bazaar (dir. Sagar Sarhadi, 1982), which explores the tragedy of young Indian girls who are ‘sold’ into marriage to rich Arabs from the Gulf. Lorie (dir. Vijay Talwar, 1984) is a compelling story about a young woman, Geeta Malhotra (played by Shabana), who loses her first child and is unable to have another.

Shaukat Kaifi (centre) in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988). Photo by Sooni Taraporevala.

One day, Mira Nair came to my house in Janki Kutir and said, ‘Shaukat Apa, I am making a film called Salaam Bombay. I would like you to act in it.’ By now I had given up acting because of chronic health problems and showed little interest, thought I did ask her what the film was about. She narrated the story in some detail and told me that the film was about the prostitutes of Kamati Pura, and offered me the role of the Madam of the brothel. Trying to slip out of doing the role, I said, ‘Madam of the brothel! I have never set eyes on such a creature.’ Shabana called out from inside, ‘Mummy, you must do her film; she is a good director.’ I asked Mira about her earlier work and told me at some length about a documentary that she had made on cabaret dancers. ‘I shall give you a video cassette that you must watch. You will see how I went into their homes and filmed them, even though I had to face so many difficulties including police harassment – but we got away with making the film.’

Now I was interested and asked Mira, ‘What makes you think that I can play this role?’

‘I have seen you in Garm Hawa.’

I looked at her, perplexed, ‘Garm Hawa! The two characters could not be more different!’

She laughed and said, ‘You give yourself completely to your part. It’s not as though you are trying to prove, “Look this is I, Shaukat Kaifi, playing this role!’”

My interest was further aroused. ‘I am not sure I can play this role because I am not sure what that world is like.’

She persisted, ‘I shall take you there and introduce you to these women who are wonderful. I have been working with them for the past year and a half, and am also running a workshop for twenty-five children.’

The following afternoon I went with Mira to Kamati Pura, Bombay’s famous red light district. My eyes were searching for a role model whom I found sitting under a tree. I observed her very carefully. She was a middle-aged woman who was busy playing cards with a male friend. I went up to speak to her, and saw that her arm was burnt and she was trying to hide an ugly scar. I could not bear the sleaziness that permeated the atmosphere and left hastily. This was certainly not a project for the fainthearted. The following week I re-visited Kamati Pura several times with Mira.

When we started shooting Mira booked two rooms in a nearby hotel for make-up and other facilities. On the first day when I descended the stairs all made-up, nobody could recognise me. Mira was pleased with my first shot, as was Sandi Sissel, the camerawoman who was from the United States. I knew I had succeeded in playing the character when the local prostitute laughed and said, ‘Lordy, can it be true that she’s Shabana Azmi’s mother? She’s a real Madam! Look at the brazen expression in her eyes!’

After the shoot Kaifi came to pick me up and I got into the car without bothering to remove my make-up or change my clothes. He looked at me and said very quietly, ‘You could have at least spared a thought for my reputation.’

Excerpted with permission from Kaifi & I by Shaukat Kaifi, edited and translated by Nasreen Rehman, Zubaan.

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