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Friday, January 28, 2022

Kaifi Azmi: Celebrating multi-layered legacy of the poet-lyricist on his 103rd birth anniversary

On poet, scriptwriter and lyricist Kaifi Azmi's birth anniversary, we revisit his rich legacy he bequeathed to Indian cinema.

Written by Anvita Singh | New Delhi |
January 14, 2022 8:29:04 am
kaifi azmiKaifi Azmi was a prolific poet and songwriter. (Photo: Express Archive)

It would be difficult to crunch the many facets and achievements of Kaifi Azmi the artiste in one piece. An important part of the Progressive Writers Movement, Azmi was also a poet, a dialogue and a script writer, and more popularly, a lyricist. The first time he picked his pen to write songs for a movie was in 1951. Kaifi Azmi wrote the tracks for Buzdil, and pretty much worked throughout his life as a songwriter till the late 90s. He passed away in 2002.

Born into a family of artistes, nearly all of Kaifi Azmi’s family members are active in the field. His three brothers were also shayars; he was married to a film and theatre actress, Shaukat Azmi. His daughter Shabana Azmi is an actor, son Baba Azmi is a director-cinematographer, while son-in-law Javed Akhtar is a well-known Hindi film lyricist. A natural skill and fondness for writing developed early on in Kaifi Azmi, when at the tender age of 11, he wrote his first ghazal “Itna to zindagi mein kisi ki khalal pade”. Over the years, he developed a real nuance for Urdu poetry, and later turned his attention to the world of cinema in early 1950s to support his growing family.

Arguably, one of his most loved and well-remembered songs is from Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool, “Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam.” The song is melancholic, but it also has a whiff of nostalgia about it that lends it a bittersweet aftertaste. The track speaks of two people who once knew each other, but have fallen prey to the curse of time which has transformed them and turned them into familiar strangers. Its universal theme of the passage of time and how it changes us, has been rendered in the hauntingly aching voice of Geeta Dutt. Another classic is a number that features Kaifi’s daughter Shabana Azmi, from the movie Arth — “Tum itna jo muskara rahe ho.” From romantic verses, to songs that spoke of sincere patriotism (“Kar chale hum fida” from Haqeeqat), Kaifi Azmi had done it all, and done it with such passion and honesty that we are still singing his songs, more than five decades later when they were first birthed.

In an earlier interview with, Shabana Azmi had explained the relevance of her father’s songs, saying, “These songs had little philosophies of life. They have taught us how to manoeuvre our way through life in times of sorrow, crisis, love and glory. Every time you hear these songs, specific memories related to them erupt.”

For his work in the arts, Kaifi Azmi was conferred with various prestigious awards, including two National Film Awards (for Saat Hindustani and Garam Hawa), two Sahitya Akademi Awards, as well as a Padma Shri. But despite all this, one of his most seminal works remains the 1970 Chetan Anand movie Heer Raanjha, whose entire dialogues were said to be written in verse, the first of its kind and a unique achievement.

In an interview now uploaded by Prasar Bharati Archives on YouTube, Kaifi Azmi spoke about how he was firmly drawn into the world of Hindi cinema when Guru Dutt decided to hire him. However, in the same breath, the songwriter bemoaned the fact that Dutt’s beloved work Kaagaz Ke Phool failed to connect with the audience. Kaifi said, “They (the film industry) did not think I could not write just because Dutt’s movie flopped, they merely came to the conclusion that ‘his stars are not favouring him.'”

But the stars of poetry, dreams and moving pictures have always shone brightly for the poet-lyricist, and they continue doing so as different generations of songwriters take inspiration from his vast, versatile body of work.

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