About Kaifi Azmi – by Shabana Azmi

Kaifi Azmi wrote his first film lyric ‘Rote Rote Guzar Gayi Raat’ for Shahid Lateef’s ‘Buzdil’ in 1951 and thereby hangs a tale. The famous Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai was a prominent member of the Progressive Writers Associationand a sympathizer of the Communist Party of India. The young Kaifi, quite the star at many mushaira’s was wholly committed to the Communist Party and wrote for their paper Qaumi Jung apart from also working at the grassroots with mazdoor kisan unions. For his work he received a stipend of Rs.40/- a month.

Shaukat his wife was expecting a baby and Ismat Chughtai realized he needed some extra income. She decided to help out by requesting her husband Shahid Lateef to sign on Kaifi for their film Buzdil. Kaifi was an extremely popular poet, feted and felicitated at mushairas for his passionate, socially relevant poetry and his sonorous voice but he had no previous experience in lyric writing and expressed his apprehensions. Shahid Lateef reminded Kaifi thathe had a wife and baby on the way and that the remuneration would be paid directly to Shaukat. Kaifi grabbed the opportunity and a healthy baby was born who later came to be known as the celebrated actress Shabana Azmi.

Next followed a series of films written for Nanubhai Vakil and a few others which didn’t receive much acclaim but helped Kaifi eke out a living for his family which now included a son, Ahmer who later gained fame as a cinematographer of repute, Baba Azmi.

Kaifi’s big break came in 1959 with Guru Dutt‘s ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’ with S.D. Burman as music director. Kaifi recounts that the business of writing songs in films was strange because very often the tune would be composed first and then words would be fitted in. In one of his interviews, Kaifi, who had a great sense of humour says “This is like first digging a grave and then finding a corpse to fit into it … So sometimes the head would stick out and sometimes the feet – but with me the directors were satisfied that I could bury corpses competently!”

He also recalled that between SD Burman and him they created the immortal Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam but there was no situation for it in the film! Guru Dutt fell in love with the song and created a situation for it later!

The songs of Kaagaz Ke Phool were a huge hit but unfortunately the film failed at the box office. Guru Dutt sank into depression and Kaifi had to look elsewhere for work.

Then followed Ramesh Saigal’s ‘Shola Aur Shabnam’ – all the songs because very popular, particularly ‘Jaane Kya Dhoondte Rehti Hain’ and ‘Jeet Hi Lenge Baazi Hum Tum’ but the film didn’t find favour at the box office. Ek ke Baad Ek, Apna Haath Jagganath met with more or less the fate. The success of Shama redeemed him somewhat but Kaifi found himself without work because he began to be considered ‘unlucky’.

One day out of the blue Chetan walked into Janki Kutir and asked Kaifi to write the lyrics for a film he was going to direct after a hiatus of several years. Kaifi said “Chetan Saheb people say I write well but my stars don’t favour me” Chetan Saheb retorted “They say the same thing about me … So who knows two negatives might end up yielding a positive so let us take up the challenge undaunted by what people say”. Prophetic words because Haqeeqat became a turning point for both Chetan Anand and Kaifi Azmi.

‘Main yeh Sochkar uske Dar Se Utha tha’ became the cry of unrequited love. Soulfully composed by Madan Mohan, ‘Kar Chale Hum Fida’ is regarded as one of the finest patriotic songs to date.

The trio of Chetan, Madan Mohan and Kaifi became a force to reckon with and gave us several ever green numbers such as ‘Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho’ sung with immense passion by Mohammed Rafi.

The crowing glory was Heer Ranjha in which Kaifi not only wrote the songs, he also wrote the entire script in verse and created an all time record. It was a very demanding task and took a toll on Kaifi’s health. Kaifi was suffering from high blood pressure and for several nights in a row he would force himself to stay awake with liberal doses of anti sleeping pills. On 8th Feb 1972 Kaifi suffered a brain haemorrage which rendered his left leg and left hand incapacitated for life. After going through bouts of depression, Kaifi pulled himself together and dedicated himself to the uplift of Mijwan, the tiny village in Azamgarh which was his birth place.

He set up an NGO Mijwan Welfare Society that runs

  • The Kaifi Azmi High School for Girls
  • Kaifi Azmi Inter College for Girls
  • Kaifi Azmi Computer Training Centre
  • Kaifi Azmi Sewing & Embroidery Centre

In a period of 15 years, he single handed by transformed Mijwan, a village frozen in time to a model village.

His work as a lyricist continued. Mahesh Bhatt approached him in 1983 for his film ‘Arth’. The maverick Mahesh and the old world Kaifi struck an instant rapport inspite of the great age difference. Mahesh roped in ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh not only to sing the songs but also to compose the lyrics and such gems as ‘Tum tha Jo Muskura Rahe Ho’ and ‘Koi Yeh Kaise bataye ke woh tanha kyon Hai’ were produced, hauntingly enacted by Shabana Azmi and Raj Kiran.

Several films followed but Kaifi was more or less now settled in Mijwan. His last song was written for an unreleased film Chand Grahan in 1997.

Interesting Asides

  • Kaifi was persuaded by Saeed Mirza to act in the pivotal role of the grand father in his film Naseem.
  • Kaifi was also the All India President of IPTA, the largest theatre group in the world and initiated its Youth Wing, its Choir, the Inter Collegiate Drama Competition. He opened several IPTA centres in mofussil areas like Gorakhpur, Azamgarh etc.
  • In early years Kaifi used to recite his poetry in ‘tarranum’. It was the great Sarojini Naidu who persuaded him to start reciting in ‘tehtul lafz’ and use his sonorous voice to advantage.
  • Kaifi is the most awarded Urdu poet of his times. He was also conferred the prestigious The Sahitya Akademi Fellowship just before he passed away on 10th May 2002.
  • Kaifi wrote his firs ghazal at the age of eleven! ‘ Itna To Zindagi mein Kisiki Khala pade‘…. It was later immortalized by Begum Akhtar.
  • It remains a mystery how Chetan Anand and Kaifi created such wonderful work together. Daughter Shabana says “It was routine for Chetan Saheb to walk into our Janki Kutir cottage around 10 am. He would sit opposite Abba, twirling his car keys in total silence and leave after an hour. The rapport between them was established by some process of osmosis!”


Kaifi was a devoted father and even though he spoke seldom both Shabana & Baba recollect the unconditional support he gave them. When Shabana expressed her desire to join FTII, Kaifi accompanied her to Poona for her audition. When Baba expressed an interest in cinematography he ensured that S. Sukhdev the brilliant documentary film maker took on as an apprentice. He told his children “No work is too small. If tomorrow you want to become a ‘mochi’ I will support you in that too, provided you work hard to become the best shoemaker in the business.”

Shaukat his wife of 55years recalls that Kaifi was very supportive of her career as an actress. He would sit up with her and give her cues so she could memories her lines for her plays.

He was very proud to have Javed Akhtar as his son-in-law and claimed that Javed was by far the tallest of the new Urdu poets. Baba’s wife Tanvi often speaks of the warmth he bestowed on her, treating her more like a daughter than a daughter – in law.


Writing film songs came very easily to him and he rarely put pen to paper until the deadline loomed large in front of him. He wrote on a particular lined writing pad and the only worldly possession he coveted was his collection of 18 Mont Blanc pens, which he would send all the way to the Fountain Pen Hospital in New York to be serviced. He only used blue black ink and never used a ball pen.

Kaifi could never peddle himself as a writer and continued to earn very modest sums of money because he was embarrassed to ask for an increase in his price. Many a producer owed him money but he could never get himself to ask for more.

Kaifi was tuned in to the sound of a different drummer because he believed Art should be used as an instrument for social change.

… Shabana Azmi