100 years of Kaifi Azmi, protest in art and #MeToo: Shabana speaks in Kolkata

Shabana Azmi talks with Indulge about her father, the late Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi, while looking at the state of cinema today, as well as social movements like #MeToo 

author_img Sharmistha Ghosal Published :  11th December 2018 12:00 AM   |   Published :   |  11th December 2018 12:00 AM

Shabana Azmi

Shabana Azmi, who was in town to attend the inauguration of the Kaifi Azmi Centenary Celebrations hosted by the Indo Occidental Symbiosis, took time out from her whirlwind trip to talk with Indulge about her father, the late Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi, while looking at the state of cinema today, as well as social movements like #MeToo. Excerpts from the interview:

The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) is also in its 75th year. Do you think IPTA is losing its relevance in this age?

IPTA is the largest theatre group (in India) with about 10,000 members. In his tenure as all-India president of IPTA, Kaifi Azmi believed that theatre needed to come to the streets from the auditorium, and reach the people, and he took a lot of initiatives, and the IPTA Bal Manch was one among them. He also was instrumental behind setting up an inter-collegiate drama competition in Mumbai, which is now 45 years old, and since then a lot of talented film actors have been discovered from there.

Neelima Azeem and Shabana Azmi with Kolkata Mayor, Firhad Hakim

I do feel that the belief that art should be used as an instrument for social change seems to be shrinking, and I think it is very important to reclaim that place. Kaifi always believed in empowerment of women, social justice and communal harmony and he practised what he preached. As long as 75 years ago, when it was a norm for women to stay back and look after the kitchen, he wrote a poem called Aurat, invoking women to walk shoulder to shoulder with men. We grew up in such an environment.

IPTA was a part of the progressive writers movement, and it’s a fallacy to think that it doesn’t wield the same power, because the young people today do not have so much faith in the political system, and they look at theatre and the arts as a medium to voice their protest.

So, what are the plans to celebrate Kaifi Azmi’s 100th birthday?

We have a calendar of events all over the world, including the US and Middle East to celebrate Kaifi’s birthday. There’s a play called Kaifi and Me by Javed Akhtar, based on my mother’s book Kaifi and I, where Javed plays Kaifi and I play my mother, Shaukat Azmi and it’s been put together by Javed with Kaifi’s poetry and film songs. We already had over 300 shows across the world and the audiences are still loving it.

There’s one new production that we are staging called Raag Shayari, which is again conceived by Javed Akhtar, with Shankar Mahadevan singing Kaifi’s poetry, Zakir Husain interpreting it, Javed reciting original in Urdu and me reciting the English translations. It will be first staged in Mumbai and will be brought here on January 17, which is also incidentally Javed’s birthday.

Another special thing we are doing is the Pen Fest, where we are launching 100 limited edition fountain pens called Kaifi Azmi, since the only thing he was fond of were Mont Blanc fountain pens. He always used to write with fountain pens and the only worldly possessons he had were 18 Mont Blanc fountain pens and his Communist card.

Actors Neelima Azeem and Shabana Azmi


Do you think the voice of dissent is diminishing in our society?

No, I don’t think so. I feel that be whenever the establishment will try to muzzle a voice of dissent, it will invariably end up creating even more resistance, because ultimately, freedom of expression is what gives art and creativity its strength. So, when you try to muzzle it, resistance will be there. Look at the space called social media, where there’s no fear of censorship and the ability to reach out to a million of people at the click of a button is empowering. So, the social media space is becoming important. Also, there is a lot of stand-up comedy using that space. So, it’s not really correct that the voice of dissent is disappearing.


What do you feel about the recent #MeToo movement?

#MeToo is an extremely important issue. It’s very important for women to feel secure at the work place. On one hand, we talk about women’s empowerment and safety, and on the other hand, there’s gross abuse of power. It’s good to see that some actual action is being taken, and we should make girls feel safe in their working environment.


What’s your take on art films and their future?

I think there’s a difference between a film and a painting. In a painting, all that is at stake are your canvas, paints and brushes. But to make a film, the minimum budget is about a crore of rupees and that needs to be recovered. In today’s time, I think films such as Masaan and others, which don’t adhere to the box office formula, are the new generation art films. I feel Indie cinema today is a different avatar of art cinema.


What are the projects you are busy with?

Right now I am continuing to be a part of Girish Karnad’s play Broken Images, directed by Alyque Padamsee, and also a few other projects will soon be announced.