Kaifi Azmi was one of the greatest lyricists in Hindi cinema, still remembered for his work in films like Kaagaz ke Phool (1959), Haqeeqat (1964), Heer Ranjha (1970) and Garam Hawa.
Uncertain about his date of birth, Azmi Saab however was certain that he was born in enslaved India, grew old in Independent India and that he would die in Socialist India. He was born as Akhtar Husain Rizvi, in a small hamlet, Majwan, in the district of Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh in a family of landlords. His father Syed Fateh Husain Rizvi, though was a landlord, but took up employment first in a small native state, Balharah, as a tahsildar and later on other areas of Uttar Pradesh. He decided to send his sons to schools imparting modern education, including English, against the stiff opposition of his relatives. However, Azmi Saab could not get this opportunity because his elders wanted him to be a theologian. He was admitted in Sultan-ul-Madaris, a reputed seminary in Lucknow. However his nonconformist nature created many problems for the authorities of the seminary. He formed a students' union and asked all the students to go on strike for getting their demands fulfilled. The strike continued for one and half year. Though the strike was called off, he was expelled from the seminary. This was the end of his elders' dream to train him to be a theologian. Azmi Saab could not seek modern education but he passed various examinations of Lucknow and Allahabad Universities that helped him acquire command over Arabic, Persian and Urdu languages.
During this period the leading progressive writers of Lucknow noticed him. They were very much impressed by his leadership qualities. They also saw in him a budding poet and extended all possible cooperation and encouragement to him. Consequently, Azmi Saab began to win great acclaim as a poet. His initiation into poetry was most interesting. At the age of eleven he, somehow, managed to get himself invited to a Mushaira and over there recited a ghazal, rather a couplet of the ghazal, which was very much appreciated by the President of the Mushaira, Mani Jaisi, but most of the people, including his father, thought that he recited his elder brother's ghazal. When his elder brother denied it, his father and his clerk decided to test his poetic talent. They gave him one of the lines of a couplet and asked him to write a ghazal in the same meter and rhyme. Azmi Saab accepted the challenge and within no time completed the ghazal. That particular ghazal was to become a rage in undivided India sung by none other than the legendary ghazal singer, Begum Akhtar and went thus: Itna to Zindagi Mein Kisiki Khalal Pade Hasne se ho Sukoon Na Rone se Kal Pade. He however abandoned his studies of Persian and Urdu during the Quit India agitations of 1942 and shortly thereafter became a full time Marxist when he accepted membership of the Communist Party in 1943. He was asked to shift base to Mumbai and work among the workers and started party work with lot of zeal and enthusiasm and at the same time would attend Mushairas in different parts of India. In 1947, he reached Hyderabad to participate in a Mushaira. There he met with Shaukat, fell in love with her and both got married. Shaukat Kaifi, later on, became a well known actress of theatre and film.
Like most of the Urdu poets, Azmi Saab began as a ghazal writer cramming his poetry with the oft-repeated themes of love and romance in a style that was replete with cliches and metaphors. However, his association with the Progressive Writers' Movement and Communist Party made him embark on the path of socially conscious poetry. In his poems he highlights the exploitation of the subaltern masses and through them he conveys a message of the creation of a just social order by dismantling the existing one. Yet, his poetry cannot be called plain propaganda. It has its own merits; intensity of emotions, in particular, the spirit of sympathy and compassion towards the disadvantaged section of society are the hallmarks of his poems. His poems are also notable for their rich imagery and in this respect his contribution to Urdu poetry can hardly be overstated. He published three anthologies of poetry - Aakhir-e-Shab, Jhankar and Awaara Sajde . Recently Penguin came out with a translation of his poems in English - Selected Poems of Kaifi Azmi.
Azmi Saab was also an active member of Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) and in later years its president. His role in theatre was very important - he ensured that even after the communist movement started dying, its cultural component was kept alive. Once or twice he got young writers to produce plays and perform them at the Bhulabhai Desai Hall to collect funds for the Communist Party.
Azmi Saab's stint in film includes working as lyricist, writer and yes even actor! His early work as story writer was mainly for Nanubhai Vakil's films like Yahudi ki Beti (1956), Parvin (1957), Miss Punjab Mail (1958) and Id ka Chand (1958). But perhaps his greatest feat as a writer was Chetan Anand's Heer Ranjha (1970) wherein the entire dialogue of the film was in verse. It was a tremendous achievement and one of the great feats in Hindi Film writing. Azmi Saab also won great critical accolades for the script, dialogues and lyrics of MS Sathyu's Garam Hawa (1973), based on a story by Ismat Chughtai. The film, chronicles the plight of the minority Muslims in North India and is set in Agra after the first major partition exodus. Balraj Sahni played to perfection the central role of an elderly Muslim shoe manufacturer who must decide whether to continue living in India or to migrate to the newly formed state of Pakistan. Garam Hawa remains today one of the most poignant films ever to be made on India's partition. Azmi also wrote the dialogues for Shyam Benegal's Manthan (1976)and MS Sathyu's Kanneshwara Rama (1977). As a lyrics writer though he wrote for numerous films, he would always be remembered for Guru Dutt's Kaagaz ke Phool (1959) and Chetan Anand's Haqeeqat (1964), India's greatest ever war film. In the former who can forget Dekhi Zamaane ki Yaari Bichde Sabi Baari Baari or Waqt ne Kiya Kya Haseen Situm and Hoke Majboor Mujhe Usne Bhulaya Hoga or Kar Chale Hum Fida Jaan-o-Tan Sathiyon in the latter. The last mentioned patriotic song causes goose pimples even when heard today.
Some other notable films for which he wrote the lyrics include Uski Kahani (1966), Bawarchi (1972), Pakeezah (1972), Hanste Zakhm (1973) and Razia Sultan (1983).
He also played a memorable old man in Naseem (1995), a touching film centered around the destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. The film is set in June-December 1992, the days preceding the demolition of the Masjid on December 6, 1992 by Hindutva fanatics. Naseem (Mayuri Kango) is a schoolgirl belonging to a middle class Mumbai based Muslim family. She enjoys a warm relationship with her aged ailing grandfather (Azmi Saab). With increasing horror the family watches on their TV the news of the build up at Ayodhya while the grandfather regales her with stories of life in pre-independence Agra. The grandfather dies on December 6 coinciding with the news of the destruction of the mosque. Azmi Saab's brilliant performance provides not just a reminder but a literal embodiment of the cultural traditions at stake those tragic days. It was a performance his daughter, multiple National Award winning actress Shabana Azmi, was proud of.
Kaifi Saab has won various awards and he has been honoured by various national and international institutions. These include the Uttar Pradesh Urdu Academy Award, the Soviet Land Nehru Award and the Sahitya Academy Award for his collection, Awaara Sajde, the Maharashtra State Urdu Academy's Special Award for his contribution to Urdu literature and the Afro-Asian Writers' Committee's Lotus Award. He also won the National Award and Filmfare Award for the screenplay and dialogue of Garam Hawa. Azmi Saab was also the subject of a documentary film Kaifi Azmi (1979) made by Raman Kumar.
His son Baba Azmi is a reputed cinematographer while son-in-law Javed Akhtar is a well known writer, lyricist and poet and daughter-in-law Tanvi, a fine actress in her own right.
Azmi Saab passed away in Mumbai on May 10, 2002 following cardiac and respiratory infection.