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Powerhouse power couple

Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar’s creatiVe synergy proves that life can actually begin after 60

By Khalid Mohamed

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Published: Fri 27 Jan 2012, 6:47 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 2:54 PM

An emotion-ally stirring tribute to the memory of the extraordinary poet, writer, lyricist and political firebrand, Kaifi Azmi, was paid in Mumbai recently by his daughter Shabana Azmi and son-in-law Javed Akhtar.

Kaifi Azmi passed away nearly 12 years ago at the age of 83 but the stage play Kaifi aur Main continues to narrate an extraordinary love story. Shabana enacts the role of her mother Shaukat and Javed incarnates his father-in-law. Simply designed, with interludes of several memorable songs written by the poet during the 1950s to the 70s, the play tells of the almost-love-at-first-sight encounter of Kaifi and Shaukat in Hyderabad. It goes on to describe their struggle against poverty, and the autumn years of the poet whose left hand was struck by paralysis.

The ‘house full’ show was packed with aficionados of Urdu poetry, and it goes without saying that the Urdu diction of both Shabana and Javed was flawless. Besides Akhtar and Gulzar — despite their stray lapses into bazaar-pleasing lyrics — there are no wordsmiths on the Bollywood scene who have sought to preserve the sanctity of the language. Similarly, no actor or actress can do justice to Urdu dialogue the way Shabana can, unless you count the bravura attempt by Rekha (Umrao Jaan) and Vidya Balan’s plans to get her Urdu diction letter perfect.

At the stage performance, it was evident that Shabana is a powerhouse performer. She did not let the audience detect the fact that she was performing the two-hour-long play with her fractured left hand in a plaster cast. Frankly, her portrayal was far more accomplished than Javed’s, but perhaps that’s being unfair to the writer who sought to match skills with an actress of over 100 films.

Their creative synergy was palpable, asserting that life can actually begin after 60. Late last year, the 62-year-old Shabana and the 66-year-old Javed, who have now been married for 27 years, hosted a housewarming party at their dream house in the hilltown of Lonavala, a two-hour-drive away from Mumbai. Vis-à-vis the tastefully-appointed but lavish villa, Shabana said, “Javed would have liked a blockbuster house like Sholay. I would have liked a smaller cottage like Ankur. I think we have found a house that’s in between the two extremes.”

To Shabana’s credit, she still does not accept stereotyped roles of the weeping willow of a mother like Dimple Kapadia has (Dabangg, Patiala House). Neither does she accede to a minor role simply because of an offer from a powerful film production company (she nixed the role eventually played by Zarina Wahab in My Name is Khan). On the other hand, she grabs roles which are of some spleen and substance in films made on shoestring budgets (she shot without charging a rupee for a new director’s environment-protection film titled Kalpavriksha). It’s an ethos inherited from her leftist father, which perhaps explains why she is being seen far more frequently on theatre than in cinema. Besides Kaifi aur Main, shows of her long-running play Tumhari Amrita and Broken Images, don’t have a seat to spare, in Indian cities as well as overseas.

ALL IN THE FAMILY: Shabana Azmi with her husband of 27 years, Javed Akhtar (above); with her father Kaifi Azmi (right)

Javed Akhtar appears to be tilting more towards lyric-writing rather than scriptwriting. Also, in his capacity as a Rajya Sabha MP, he is frequently in New Delhi. At one point, the showbiz grapevine had said that he was about to direct his first film based on a long-nurtured script. The dream project didn’t materialise. Now news is that he is scheduled to put together a short film on the subject of education, with a cast including Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra and Anil Kapoor.

He is engaged in social causes but his involvement in films appears to have diminished out of choice rather than compulsion. From the look of things, he could play a larger role in national politics. Shabana, who was Rajya Sabha MP from 1997-2002, has so far refused to contest the general elections. During her tenure in Parliament, she was one of the few Mumbai film personalities who gave her time as well as progressive inputs to the proceedings.

Whether Javed or Shabana, or both of them plunge into the whirligig of politics can only be conjectured. What they can be saluted for is their unwavering crusade for theatre, meaningful cinema, the Urdu language and the vital prose and poetry of Kaifi Azmi.

(The writer has been reviewing Bollywood for decades, has scripted three films and directed three others. Currently, he is working on a documentary and just finished a book of short stories.)

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