Yes, this post is four months late: Kaifi Azmi’s birth centenary was on January 14th this year. I will not make excuses about why I missed that date. Let me just say that I didn’t know about it until the 14th itself, and by then, it was too late. I cursed myself for having forgotten that 2019 marked the birth centenary year of one of Hindi cinema’s finest lyricists. But today is the death anniversary of Azmi Sahib, and in any case, all of this year is his birth centenary, so I thought better late than never.
Born Syed Akhtar Hussain Rizvi in Mizwaan (Azamgarh, Eastern Uttar Pradesh) on January 14th 1919, Kaifi Azmi famously wrote and recited his very first ghazal when he was just 11 years old—a feat that so baffled those who heard it that they could not believe it, and set the boy a challenge to prove his worth by creating a ghazal to a set metre and theme: a task he performed ably. Azmi’s poetry was initially the stuff of popular Urdu poetry—love and heartbreak and similar themes—but his growing affinity for the leftist movement, his joining of the Communist Party of India (the CPI) in 1943 and the Progressive Writers’ Movement, gave a whole new tone to his shaayari. Themes of social consciousness, revolution and an empathy towards the downtrodden became an integral part of much of his poetry.
In 1951, Azmi made his first foray into Hindi cinema, by writing songs for the Shaheed Latif-directed Buzdil. Over a span of almost fifty years, he wrote lyrics for nearly an equal number of films. A telling fact, this restraint: several of his contemporaries far outnumbered Azmi Sahib in their output when it came to sheer quantity, but Azmi Sahib may have stolen a march over most of them when it came to quality.
But, to cut a long story short, a selection of ten of my favourite songs written by Kaifi Azmi. As always, these (barring one, from Pakeezah) are from pre-1970s films that I’ve watched, and no two songs are from the same film.The transcription and translation of each of these songs is available here.
1. Dekhi zamaane ki yaari (Kaagaz ke Phool, 1959): Dekhi zamaane ki yaari is my favourite Kaifi Azmi song. One of those rare songs that pretty much contains within it the essence of the film, this one does not occur in a single stretch, but in bits and pieces, starting at the time when a hugely successful film maker, Mr Sinha (Guru Dutt), surrounded by adoring crowds, finds himself realizing that fame and wealth do not necessarily bring happiness. It reaches its climax near the end, when, now a broken and old man, Sinha returns to the place where he had once ruled but is now derided by all.
The cynicism of this song is somewhat similar to that of Sahir Ludhianvi in Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai, but with one difference: instead of the anger bubbling forth in Sahir’s verse, here there’s a softer, more heartbroken realization that the glitter and beauty of this world hide a mercenary selfishness. It’s as if the singer blames the world, yes; but he also blames himself, for having been so gullible as to be dazzled by the world. A brilliant song, and what powerful imagery: the bumble bee, buzzing madly about among paper flowers; the boat, stuck in the sand but with its oars working madly to move forward towards its goal; the world, giving with one hand, taking away with a hundred. SD Burman and Rafi do total justice to Azmi’s lyrics.
2. Chalte-chalte yoon hi koi mil gaya thha (Pakeezah, 1972): Dramatically different in tone from Dekhi zamaane ki yaari is Chalte-chalte yoon hi koi. Meena Kumari’s tawaif, Sahibjaan, is a sad and lonely young woman, yearning for the man whom she has not even seen, but who in a memorable encounter on a train, left behind a note praising the beauty of her feet, which he watched as she slept.
Since then, though she goes through the motions of entertaining her clients, the love songs she sings, the desire and the anguish of separation that wells up in her is addressed to that unknown admirer. He is the one whose praise, whose love for a woman of whom he knows nothing, has made her his. For him she waits, glowing like the flickering lamps of her haveli, and dying out too, like those lamps do… will he come to her before her lamp flickers out? There is a restlessness, a hopeless waiting in Chalte-chalte that I find very touching. That, and the loneliness that shines through in the words: she is alone, she waits—and she knows that she will perhaps never meet him again.
3. Ya dil ki suno duniyawaalon (Anupama, 1966): Anupama is a beautifully sensitive story of a young woman repressed and unloved (or loved only when he’s completely drunk) by a widowed father who blames her for the death of his beloved wife, who died in childbirth. Uma (Sharmila Tagore) is painfully retiring, scared not just of her father but of the world itself—and the world, misunderstanding her, tends to regard her with a mixture of pity and derision. It is this world, in the form of a party crowd, whom Uma’s lover and friend (Dharmendra) addresses in this song. He sings, unlike most party singers, not of his own sorrow and sense of betrayal, but that of someone who will never be able to pluck up the courage to do so for herself.
The sadness of these words, the loneliness and sorrow that weighs them down, is beautifully expressed. Tragic, yes, but not melodramatically so.
4. Jaane kya dhoondti rehti hain (Shola aur Shabnam, 1961): Kaifi Azmi wrote lyrics for several films starring Dharmendra. Shola and Shabnam, one of the star’s earliest films, was fairly forgettable, except for a couple of songs. Jeet hi lenge baazi hum-tum was a repeated song, played in a couple of versions—and there was this one, a sad lament for a love that cannot be. She is certain she loves him, and certain, too, that it is reciprocated; but he tells her no. He is merely a heap of ashes, the ashes of a love that once was and cannot be again—and he does not blame her for it, but the world: the world, cruel and materialistic and unable to accept love, which will not let them be together. The despair and pain in the words is palpable, yet controlled.
5. Main yeh sochkar uske dar se utha thha (Haqeeqat, 1964): Another Dharmendra film, though Haqeeqat—arguably the most realistic Hindi war film ever made—also starred Balraj Sahni, Vijay Anand, Jayant, Priya Rajvansh, and featured many other known faces, including Sanjay Khan (in his debut role), Mac Mohan, Sulochana, Jayant, Bhupinder… and Sudhir, who went on to gain an audience as a villain in 70s cinema, but played some likeable characters in the 60s. Here Sudhir’s character, a soldier at the China front, sings a song of regret. He acted as all lovers sometimes do, manipulating a loved one, deliberately putting on airs to entice her, to tease her into manaao-ing him. He left her home in the firm belief that she would call him back, but she did not.
And there his life is stuck, because her not calling him back, and his stubbornly going on, has turned into a separation forever. Because he has gone into battle and chances are he will never return from here.
Kaifi Azmi wrote some wonderful songs for Haqeeqat, from the beautiful song of anticipation, Zara si aahat hoti hai, to another song, full of yearning, about missing home and loved ones: Hoke majboor mujhe. There is the joyous, carefree Masti mein chhedke taraana koi dil ka, and the very epitome of patriotism, Kar chale hum fida jaan-o-tan saathiyon. While all these songs are good, there is a heartbreaking woe about Main yeh sochkar that makes it for me the most poignant song in Haqeeqat.
6. Jhoom-jhoom dhalti raat (Kohraa, 1964): Kohraa, the Hindi version of the Hitchcock classic (or Daphne du Maurier classic, if you go back to the original, literary source), Rebecca, had just a handful of songs. Of those, the one which was repeated was this hauntingly beautiful one. Considering the character who’s singing it, an adulterous wife and a woman who is, by all appearances, thoroughly depraved, the song is surprisingly anguished. These are not the words of a black-hearted villainess, but those of a woman so lonely and in so much pain that she lets the night take her where it will. She tries to drown her sorrows in whatever she thinks will assuage it—drink, sex, finery—but nothing does: that pain remains, that pain grows. And nobody will understand it.
If you were to listen to Jhoom-jhoom dhalti raat as a standalone song, not in conjunction with the film, you may well feel a sense of empathy or at least pity for the singer. Azmi Sahib was good at using his words to evoke sympathy.
7. Badal jaaye agar maali (Bahaarein Phir Bhi Aayengi, 1966): Kaifi Azmi’s socialism comes through with impact in the title song of Bahaarein Phir Bhi Aayengi. The singer addresses the poor and hopeless, telling them to shoulder the responsibility for their own dreams. The world may deride them, the world may look down on them, but it is up to them to keep their dreams alive. Because spring will come again; it always does, the cycle of the seasons is inevitable.
The metaphor here, of the relationship (or not) between a garden and the coming of spring, is an excellent one. What if the gardener should desert his garden, what if the winds should set the garden aflame—will it stop the coming of spring? No, because come what may, no matter what destruction the world may work, spring will come.
8. Tum poochhte ho ishq bala (Naqli Nawab, 1962): Love has been, classically, one of the major themes of Urdu poetry. In this song, a half-defiant, half-poignant ode to love, Azmi raises the ultimate toast to love. It is destructive, it lays waste—but by giving in to love, you can understand what it is to gain everything even after losing all. For love is immortal, love is eternal and powerful. Love knows no boundaries, love makes a human being human.
Interestingly, if you listen to the song on Youtube, the first verse does not contain one line—bande ko khuda karke dikhaata hai yehi ishq—which appears in some transcriptions of the lyrics. While I wonder why there seems to be this discrepancy, it also strikes me as an echo of a line that appears in Sahir Ludhianvi’s classic qawwali for Barsaat ki Raat, Yeh ishq ishq hai: Intehaa yeh hai ke bande ko khuda karta hai ishq. An intriguing similarity in expression by two stalwarts of Urdu poetry.
9. Hai kali-kali ke labh par (Lala Rukh, 1958): Another love song, and one that’s flirtatious all the way. The singer is no more than an accompaniment to a dancer, and so his song is full of the imagery of infatuation: there is, deliberately, none of the depth here that comes through in some of the more achingly beautiful love songs of Kaifi Azmi. This is pure serenade, a man singing in praise of a beautiful woman. The metaphors and similes he uses are charming, comparing her features to various forces of nature—her flashing eyes are lightning, her black hair are clouds—and telling her to slow down a bit, for his heart is threatening to give way. Light-hearted swooning, but not to be taken seriously.
10. Tumhaari zulf ke saaye mein (Naunihaal, 1967): And, to end, another love song, but this one a heartfelt one, not the light-hearted flirting of Hai kali-kali ke labh par. A very romantic (though far too short, as far as I’m concerned) serenade, Tumhaari zulf ke saaye mein is a wonderful paean to the woman this man loves. The song isn’t full of praise for the woman; it doesn’t say how beautiful she is, or how sensuous or anything—all it says is what a devastating effect she has on the heart of the man who loves her. If for nothing else, this song would be on this list for just one verse, the last one, where the singer congratulates his beloved for ruling on the realm which is his heart—hers is the victory, and ‘Rahi shikast toh woh apne naam kar loonga’ (‘As for the defeat, that I will accept as my own’). Wah!
Which Kaifi Azmi songs would you add to the list?