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Shabana Azmi Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Indian National Award-winning actress Shabana Azmi had just landed in Dubai an hour before this exclusive interview at her suite and she was understandably fatigued. But any sign of tiredness dissipated when the 68-year-old thespian and actress began speaking about her father and legendary Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi.

“He had such a huge influence on me and my brother Baba… When we celebrate Kaifi, we celebrate his times, his works and we celebrate other artists who think like him and are committed to the idea that art should be used as an instrument of change,” said Azmi in an interview with Gulf News tabloid!. She describes her father as her guru and her friend, who always encouraged her to be an agent of change.

Shabana was in the UAE this weekend to spearhead Mehfil-e-Urdu, a cultural extravaganza at Sheikh Rashid Auditorium, along with her sister-in-law and actress Tanvi Azmi and actor Kanwaljit Singh for a night that celebrated Kaifi’s poetic genius. 2019 is recognised as the birth centenary of the legendary Urdu poet who has penned songs for several Bollywood films such as Guru Dutt’s ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’ (‘Waqt Ni Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam’) and ‘Pakeezah’ (‘Chalte Chalte’).

“I had many of his fans come up to me and say that they loved his songs without knowing he wrote them,” said Azmi.

Here’s her take on ...

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Shabana Azmi and Tarannum Ahmed. Photo: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Her father shaping her existence:

“Both my parents taught by example and they did not merely tell us about the values we should grow up with. Until the age of 19, I lived in the Communist Party commune where eight families lived in 180 to 200 square feet of space. In that world, social justice was a given. We grew up valuing that. I was 19 when I first realised that gender equality is an exception rather than a rule. My parents always encouraged us to speak our minds and to be respectful while doing so about issues that we thought strongly about and that was unconditional … My father has been my guru, my teacher and my friend. I could always rely on him to give me an objective opinion.”

Preserving the legacy of her father:

“Let me begin by saying that January 2019 marks the birth centenary of my father Kaifi Azmi and throughout the year we have been having many celebrations all over the world. There is even a movie called Kaifinama, directed by Sumantra Ghosal, travelling to four international film festivals in the US soon. What makes me happy is that as a family we started celebrating his birth centenary this year, but it took a life of its own. Different people from across the globe sprang up saying they are his big fans. In Dubai, at the Mehfil-e-Urdu, it will be a celebration of Kaifi and what he loved. It’s a perfect night for all those who love Urdu.”

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Shabana Azmi. Photo: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Her father’s socially-charged works:

“My father was a rare poet. He was somebody who worked in the trenches. When he wanted to speak about social justice or gender empowerment, he spoke through his poetry… His iconic poem, ‘Aurat’, was written 70 years ago at a time when women were expected to stay at home by the kitchen fire as men struggled. But his poem said, you have to march with me. It was a remarkable poem about women empowerment. In his poem ‘Makaan’, it was about the irony of a construction worker who builds a fancy building, but when it is ready a chowkidaar [watchman] is at the entrance to block him from going into that building. When I work with slum dwellers, that poem works as an inspiration … Even in the Hindi film songs he wrote, you recognise a few homilies that are like philosophies of life that you can cling onto if you are sad or in love.”

Artists living in fear in India with the recent political developments:

“No I don’t live in fear… This is a simplistic way of looking at things. Not just in India, but all over the world there is a shift towards the right. It is not particular to India. Look at France in Europe or the US, it is a cycle that happens after every 33 years. I am an optimist and my father was an optimist. My father believed that India cannot be but a pluralistic country. Because she [India] is a country that lives in several centuries simultaneously. Her people live back to back in multiple cultures, languages and religions. The very existence of India can be common, but never uniform.”

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Bollywood superstar Shabana Azmi during an interview at Crowne Plaza Deira in Dubai on 28th August, 2019. Photo Clint Egbert/Gulf News

The complex Kashmir issue:

“Kashmir is a complicated issue. Let us concentrate on the thing we are here to talk about.”

Her biggest pet peeve:

“I come from a writer’s family and, therefore, I find pronunciation, use of grammar and correct spellings important. What is happening in this WhatsApp world of instant messaging is that we are losing all our sense of spelling, grammar and pronunciation. It somehow seems to be the cool thing to do. I don’t understand it. I may sound ancient, but I don’t understand why language has to be compromised. It’s a deep part of our culture and if you use language sensitively, it conveys a lot.”

Shabana Azmi’s dream legacy:

“I believe that every person has the capacity to be the catalyst for change, if we are motivated. Sometimes, we get overwhelmed at the task in hand. But every single drop contributes to the ocean. If we can commit to being responsible for even one person outside our own self, then we are on the right path… I once asked my father once whether he doesn’t get frustrated when change doesn’t happen at the pace that he had wished for. We are an impatient lot and we want changes to happen like it happens with a litmus test. His mantra was, ‘When you are working for change, you have to build in that expectation that change may not occur during your time. But you have to have the confidence that if you carry on working with sincerity and dedication, then change will happen’. I hold that close to my heart when I get frustrated. That’s the biggest lesson that I have learnt from him.”

Tanvi Azmi remembers her father-in-law

Indian National Award-winning actress Tanvi Azmi describes her father-in-law and late legendary Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi as an incredibly charming man who wrote intense poetry.

“When I met Kaifi saab [sir] and got married into the family, he just welcomed me and embraced me into his family and never let me go. He was special. I never felt like the bahu [daughter-in-law], but he gave me the status of his daughter… I shared a special bond with him,” said Tanvi, ahead of Mehfil-e-Urdu night in Dubai last weekend.

Tanvi Azmi.
Tanvi Azmi. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Tanvi, who has acted in blockbusters including Bajirao Mastani and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, is married to Shabana Azmi’s brother Baba, an ace cinematographer.

“I come from a traditional Maharashtrian family and Urdu was not a language I was familiar with. But his writing was extremely deep. His command over Urdu was fantastic… When he recited his poems, we were spell bound,” said Tanvi.

Even though she isn’t proficient in Urdu, she enjoyed hearing him recite. “Even though his poetry was intense and sharp, there was a funny side to him. Surprisingly, the world views him as a serious person. But he had another side to him. He was wonderful with a great sense of humour and was incredibly charming. He was the complete package.”

She also remembers having competitions with her sister-in-law Shabana about “who does Abba love more”.

“He used to call Shabana, his gulaab ka phool [rose]. But when I entered the family, he was extremely fond of me and when Shabana wasn’t around he used to call me ‘his gulaab ka phool’. He used to call me ‘Dulhan Pasha’ [wife of the last Nizam of Hyderabad] just to make me special.”

Kaifi, who wrote his first poem at 11, lived by what he wrote. “There was equality in his house and what he wrote was him ... Even if you begin to understand his poetry, it’s a tip of the iceberg. Kaifi saab’s era was the golden era,” said Tanvi.

Meanwhile, actor Kanwaljit Singh, who also participated in reciting Azmi’s poems during Mehfil-e-Urdu, described him as a legend.

“Reading his poems make you feel a deep bond with him,” said Singh.