Actor, writer and social activist (1928 -2019)

Shaukat Kaifi, nee Shaukat Azmi was a veteran Indian theatre, film actor, writer and comrade and also a voice artiste for All India Radio (AIR).

Shaukat, born into an upper class Shia family saw the celebrated progressive Urdu poet and later film lyricist, Kaifi Azmi for the first time at a mushaira in Hyderabad in 1947. Fascinated with his looks, voice and the beautiful poem, Aurat that he had recited, love blossomed and at a young age she married him.

Passionate activists for social change and nation-building, they were leading lights of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and the Progressive Writers Association (IWA), cultural platforms of the Communist Party of India.

Being with communists involved with theatre or cinema, Shaukat was also bitten by the theatre bug. Her husband’s film industry association helped get film roles too. Her initial inclination towards theatre and cinema was both a passion and also a necessity, a mode to augment the limited family income.

After Kaifi Azmi died in 2002, Shaukat wrote a compelling memoir, Yaad Ki Rahguzar, published in 2004, and later translated in 2010 into English by Nasreen Rahman as Kaifi & I: A Memoir.

An engaging, often moving account of her childhood, and courtship with Kaifi, it was unapologetic and giddy and nothing passive or wilting and her young self came through as flirtatious and assertive, charmingly aware of her own striking attributes.

With self-deprecating wit, it also touched on her years on the floorboards and movie sets, and the challenges she faced as the wife of a brilliant, but often penurious writer who was also a card-carrying Communist — a personal history filled with drama and circumstance, and also an account of a nation in flux.

A theatrical rendition Kaifi aur Main for IPTA was premiered in Mumbai in 2006 on the 4th death anniversary of Kaifi Azmi.

In her sporadic roles on celluloid, Shaukat Kaifi brought more than just a regal bearing and moral composure. She debuted in films with Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat in 1964, playing a soldier’s wife, and later in M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hava, a parallel-cinema film depicting the most compelling human aftermath of Partition. However many of her later film outings were walk-on parts that utilised little more than her sheer presence and deadpan gravitas.

But soon significant roles came in major films like Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar, which explored the tragedy of young Indian girls sold into marriage to rich Gulf Arabs; Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan where she played the key role of the Lucknow brothel owner Khanum Jaan under whose tutelage the shy and unsure Amiran transforms into a resplendent Umrao; ; Mira Nair’s Oscar nominated film Salaam Bombay; Vijay Talwar’s Lorie, Anjuman, and finally her last film, Shaad Ali’s Saathiya.

It was on stage that Shaukat had etched her name in history, long before she stepped in front of a camera. Her plays with IPTA include Bhisham Sahni’s Dhani Bankein and Bhootgaadi. Her other plays include Aazar ka Khwab (a version of Pygmalion), Tanhai, and Africa Jawan Pareshan.

Later, with Alyque Padamsee, she worked on Urdu adaptations of American plays like Tennessee Williams The Glass Menagerie (staged as Sheeshon Ke Khilone) and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (staged as Sara Sansar Apna Parivar). The mother of actress Shabhana Azmi and cinematographer Baba Azmi Shaukat Azmi passed away aged 92. Her legacy and contribution to art will always be remembered.

A. Radhakrishnan

A. Radhakrishnan is a Pune based freelance writer, poet and short story writer.