The Shilpakala Vedika auditorium was full. After all, the ‘daughter of Hyderabad’, as she is often proclaimed, was there to enthral them. Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival’s precursor event (the festival starts on October 26), Kaifi Aur Main, an IPTA production, was mesmerising, with its interesting presentation and the subjects — Kaifi Azmi, one of the most progressive poets of the time, and his beloved wife Shaukat (Shabana’s parents).
Directed by Ramesh Talwar, this presentation blended two aspects. On one side of the stage were seated Shabana narrating Shaukat’s lines and Javed Akhtar narrating Kaifi Azmi’s lines. On the other side was Jaswinder Singh with his crew, performing live some of Kaifi Azmi’s popular compositions. Javed and Shabana duo read to the audience, talked to them, recited poetry and took them along Shaukat and Kaifi’s journey through pre- and post-independence turmoil.
The narration began with how Kaifi, the youngest of the siblings, grew up in a household obsessed with shayari, presenting one of his earliest poems at just 11 — Itna toh zindagi mein kisi ke khalal pade, immortalised by Begum Akhtar’s voice. The story of how this nazm came about from Kaifi Azmi’s pen took the audience on a nostalgia trip. Tumhari zulf ke saaye mein was another that lovers of Kaifi Azmi’s poetry could recollect.
However, the narration was not all about Kaifi Azmi’s poetry. Draped in a turquoise sari, Shabana Azmi was a vision as she effortlessly brought the magic of Shaukat’s love for Kaifi, from the time they had first met during the Progressive Writers’ Conference. The two narrators, Javed and Shabana, regaled the audience with several episodes of the duo’s (Kaifi and Shaukat) romance, until Shaukat convinced her father to take her to Mumbai (after tormenting times where she was even house-arrested for a while), so she could marry Kaifi. That love story had pangs of separation, smuggled letters, and plenty of conspiracies to reach her beloved; audiences barely had trouble imagining Kaifi pinning dozens of his beloved’s letters on his notice board at his room, when he lived in Sandhurst Road, Mumbai.
Scripted by Javed Akhtar, the presentation was beautifully divided into several phases — the romance of Kaifi and Shaukat, the independence struggle — Kaifi along with PC Joshi and Ali Sardar Jaffrey was an active member of the Communist Party, abandoning his studies in Persian and Urdu in a madarasa to join India’s freedom struggle. There was the period of post-Partition riots and unrest. There was the journey of Kaifi as a lyricist in Bollywood, his metamorphosis from being considered an unlucky writer, because the movies bombed, to being one of the most sought-after lyricists, even as Shaukat chalked out her own career in theatre to support the family, there were the times of Kaifi’s ill-health; and finally, there was the story of how Kaifi helped transform his village of Mizwaa in Azamgarh district, Uttar Pradesh, respecting his roots.
This journey was laced beautifully with anecdotes, stories, wit, and heart-warming compositions. Javed and Shabana made the audiences roar in laughter often, thanks to witty dialogues, most of which have directly been picked from past recordings, writings and interviews of Kaifi and Shaukat.
Javed Akhtar narrating some of Kaifi Azmi’s greatest poems was enchanting, ‘Aurat’ — a progressive call to arms directed at women, instigating them to rise up and achieve their full potential against patriarchies — got the loudest cheer but there were several such recitations. Aaj ki raat bohot garam hawa chalti hai was recited and so was Kar chalein hum fida.
The audiences were laughing through tears at times and crying through smiles at others as tales of how Chetan Anand resurrected Kaifi Azmi’s career as a lyricist were narrated. Waqt ne kiya, with a mention of Guru Dutt, and Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho soaked the air in more poetry. How tunes were written first and lyrics written later to fit into them, comparing the tune with the grave and the lyrics with the corpse had the audience in splits; how Chetan Anand thought two ‘seemingly’ unlucky men could make a successful movie (and he was right) brought more cheer. Heer Ranjha was mentioned and so was SD Burman, taking the poetry-movie-music enthusiasts on a trip down memory lane.
The narration had some gorgeous moments that highlighted Shaukat’s role in her husband’s glittering career. The audience could feel Shabana bring the enlivening mischief and tenderness of her mother alive. It was interesting to note how Kaifi and Shaukat were struggling at one time to make ends meet and almost didn’t have Shabana, but Shaukat didn’t want to go for an abortion. (Thank God!) Shaukat was by Kaifi Azmi’s side during his paralysis days, and yet, was his strength as Kaifi, seated in a wheel chair, was part of the strike that ensured important trains stopped at his town.
The rollicking start to the theatre festival owes it to the charisma of Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar.