Kaifi Azmi once said in an interview "I, was born in ghulaam Hindustaan, am living in an Aazad Hindustaan and will die in a socialist Hindustaan." Kaifi Sahab is one of the greatest lyricist of the Hindi cinema.
He was born as Akhtar Hussain Rizvi, in a small town, Mejwaan, 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 a 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. At the age on 19 he joined the Communist Party and started activities in the textile mill areas of Kanpur. As a full time active worker, he left his life of comfort though he was a son of a Zamindaar. 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 clichés 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.
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 Idd 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 M.S. Sathyu's Garam Hawa (1973), based on a story by Ismat Chughtai. Azmi also wrote the dialogues for Shyam Benegal's Manthan (1976) and 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. 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.
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.
Kaifi Azmi passed away in Mumbai on May 10, 2002 following cardiac and respiratory infection. His demise is a great loss not only to our Film industry but also to the Urdu litrature and of course to us.