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The Life Force Called Shaukat Kaifi

Last updated on: November 25, 2019 18:47 IST
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'My mom is a riot! I thank her with all my heart,' Shabana Azmi tells Subhash K Jha.

The legendary theatre personality Shaukat Azmi passed into the ages on November 22. She was 93 and still spirited to the hilt when it came to her two favourite topics: Theatre and saris.

Shaukat Appa had been ailing for quite some time, but for her children Shabana and Baba, the loss is not diminished by its expectancy.

Shabana was at home with her mum when the end came.

It is very hard for me to write about the passing of a legend who is the mother of a dear friend.

I remember how close Shabana was to her father, the great poet Kaifi Azmi.

The day she lost him, she was devastated.

But not one to show her feelings, she had said, 'Losing a parent is difficult, but I did not realise how painful it was until it actually happened.'


Shabana grew closer to her mother after Kaifisaab's death.

Her constant travelling bothered her. She would have liked to spend more time at home with her mum.

'The woman I admire most is my mother Shaukat Kaifi,' Shabana once said to me. 'She has been a wonderful wife, mother and housekeeper, but most importantly, her own person and a noted theatre actor. She found the perfect balance.'

'My mother was working with Prithvi Theatres and used to strap me on her back as a four-month-old child and carry me to work because we could not afford a maid. When I was about three years old, I started accompanying her on tours during school vacations. I would go to sleep backstage with the smell of greasepaint all around me.'

The bond between beti and mum was evident.

'She is my mother, my child and my friend. Warm, compassionate and generous to a fault,' Shabana had said. 'But brutally frank. Her memory is failing, but she remembers lines from a play that she did at age 10! She continues to be a fabulous hostess. Her love for saris has only increased with time.'

'When (Nobel Laureate) Amartya Sen wrote a glowing review of her memoir Kaifi & I, she bought 16 saris for herself at one go! When I gasped that I had never done that in my life, pat came her answer: 'Well, Amartya Sen has never praised you during your life so far. My mom is a riot! I thank her with all my heart. By the way, I honestly think she would rather have me gift her a sari than speak so sentimentally about her!'

Shaukat Kaifi married the love of her life, Kaifi Azmi, when she was very young.

She often spoke passionately about her early years of struggle with her husband: 'Kaifi was closely associated with the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) and the Progressive Writers Association (PWA). Through him, I became associated with theatre. From the day we were together, our struggles were mutual. The children Shabana and Baba came shortly and our struggles grew. But they never seemed insurmountable.'

Speaking about her most memorable movie role in M S Sathyu's Garm Hava, she had told me. 'I vividly remember the shooting of Garm Hava. I had played many lead roles with Balraj Sahni in theatre for IPTA. This role of his supportive wife was not difficult for me at all. Even today if you tell me to do a scene I can do it in a jiffy.'

'What helped my performance was the dialogues by my husband (Kaifi Azmi), which were very natural. Balraj was hesitant about doing the role. He asked me, 'Kya main yeh role kar sakta hoon, Shaukat appa?'

'I assured him that only he could pull it off, that he was a better actor than me. It was because I convinced him that he did the role.

'For me, the hardest scene was the one where I had to react to my screen daughter (Gita Siddharth)'s death. I am a method actress, and I could actually feel the emotions of a mother who has lost her child. For the first time we felt we were working in a movie where the dialogues seemed to be like real life.'

'If I tell you how we did the dubbing you'd probably laugh in amazement. Balraj and I had to dub without sound on screen and the tape containing the dialogues was lost. So we had to relive the emotions through our imagination. We had no audio reference for the dubbing. We were all from IPTA and we had no money. But being from a theatre background, we were used to roughing it out. My nephew Ishan Arya was the cameraman. All of us believed in the film. We knew we were working on something extraordinary.'

IMAGE: Shaukat Kaifi with Balraj Sahni on the sets of Garm Hava. Photograph: Kind courtesy Film History Pics/Instagram

One of the most memorable sequences in Garm Hava was borrowed from Shaukat aapa's life.

'The scene where the old lady wants to return to her ancestral home is from my own life,' she had said. 'When my father left his ancestral home, a distant relative took over the house. My grandmother felt it was unjust to evict her from her own home where she had come as a bride. When she was on her deathbed, she told her son, my father, that unless she returned to the ancestral home she cannot die.'

'My father took his mother in his arms and carried her to the ancestral home. I had related this incident to Kaifi and he included it in the film so beautifully.'

Multi-faceted, passionate about art and life, a fiercely committed wife and a devoted, protective, mother, Shaukat Kaifi, you were much more than a woman.

You were the life force.

Subhash K Jha has written about movies and movie stars for more than 40 years. He can be reached at


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