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Kaifinama: Sumantra Ghosal’s Kaifi Azmi documentary is an intimate exploration of a passionate, unique poet

Through a window you see a man dressed in white, sitting alone in a room at a wooden desk, cups of black coffee at the side, with a pen in hand, filling blank pages with violently, intensely emotional Urdu poetry.

This is Sayyid Akhtar Hussein Rizvi, better known as Kaifi Azmi, as seen in Sumantra Ghosal’s film Kaifinama: A Celebration of the Art and Times of Kaifi Azmi, easily described as an ode to this great writer and lyricist.

Ghosal, a seasoned biographical documentary maker, explains that his choice of subjects are people who are uniquely representative of the art or craft they are practising. “These are people who are completely rooted in their art and completely grounded in the way they have been brought up and yet done revolutionary things with their art,” he says. While his reason for making Kaifinama was simply that ‘Shabana asked me to’, he also explains his connection with Kaifi: “Most poets are content with words because that’s where they live. Kaifi lived both in words, and on the ground, and yes, that made him unique.”

 Kaifinama: Sumantra Ghosal’s Kaifi Azmi documentary is an intimate exploration of a passionate, unique poet

(L-R) Anil Dharker, Shabana Azmi and Sumantra Ghosal at the first Indian screening of Kaifinama, on 30 April 2019 at NCPA, Mumbai. Photo courtesy: Literature Live!

With every new project, Ghosal has a clear challenge which he tackles with curiousity. “The biggest challenge for any filmmaker, for me at least, in making any film is my ignorance. And your whole journey is one of trying to use that ignorance, because ignorance leads to curiousity, and curiousity leads to questions rather than statements. And I think the journey is from ignorance to some sort of understanding. And if I can go from ignorance to understanding and if I can take fellow viewers on that journey, at the end of it they have understood something, or something has been illuminated for them, as it was for me on my very long journey, then I think, that’s the challenge," he explains.

Aided by poetry readings and recitations, Kaifinama uses interviews that Ghosal had conducted almost twenty years ago, in 1998, in the hopes of one day being able to do a film about the Progressive Writers’ Movement. His interest in them stems from the way they encapsulate idealism, and from what happens to idealism within this dynamic. Explaining his preliminary approach to the process of making the film, Ghosal says: “I started with the idea of translating the poetry of Kaifi Azmi, because I thought that if I could immerse myself in the words then I would be dealing not just with text but I would be dealing with context, I would be dealing with subtext, through the words, and I felt that that would allow me to enter the world, so that was the first step.”

Besides the writers, the film also showcases interviews with Kaifi’s family, including wife Shaukat Kaifi, who talks about, among other things, how her family had instructed the local post office to tear up letters sent by him to her in an attempt to keep them apart; son Baba Azmi, who talks about the visual quality and vivid imagery of his father’s poetry; and daughter Shabana Azmi.

Shabana, also the project's producer, features in the film through personal interviews, where she talks about how, at his core, her father was a worker of the Communist Party, which Ghosal seems to have an intimate understanding of, who commends Kaifi for being a poet who combined words with action. “What strikes me about him is passion. I think there is a passion not just in the idea of love, which is where most poets are passionate, but he was passionate in the idea of socialism. He was passionate about wanting to bring about social change. And the fact that he acted on his words, which not very many poets do, was an extraordinary thing.”

Within this strand, the film focuses on the Kanpur Trade Union that Kaifi formed and the work he did with the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). Shabana also leads viewers through places of historic import for Kaifi, including Raj Bhavan, Red Flag Hall and Mijwan. Ghosal’s film integrates Kaifi’s poetry with this social work as seamlessly as the poet lived. “This is a man for whom poetry was both a means and an end. He worked very hard at his poetry and the words that he used, which is why they move people still. But he was not content to simply recite those words. He wanted those words to have a greater meaning and context,” he says.

That is why Ghosal focuses so starkly on Mijwan. “In the last 20 years since he is no longer with us, what he has done in Mijwan has become a model for what can be done with India itself. So the idea of change, the idea of equality, the idea of all of those things in a microcosm. So that has only grown. What he has left behind, you cannot describe it in words. You have to go there and see what has happened to that village”, says Ghosal, speaking of the sense of empowerment the women there feel today, which they will probably pass on to future generations.

Besides more interviews, the film is interweaved with insightful commentary explored through excerpts from a discussion Shabana had organised, an afternoon of remembrance for Kaifi, which included, among others, Javed Akhtar, who memorably compares Kaifi and his work to the medium of oil paintings rather than watercolour paintings, terming him a bhaari (heavy) writer.

Another topical instance is the discussions of Kaifi’s work in film; how this influx of the Progressives into Bollywood was a result of Communist Party leader PC Joshi’s realisation that culture is an important tool to foster harmony and encourage protest, achieved most effectively through Bollywood which is a medium to reach the masses.

Kaifinama also discusses context and reception around key moments of Kaifi’s artistic life, including the poems Ek Lamha, Makaan and Aurat, and work in films like the 1951 Buzdil and perhaps most iconic, 1970’s Heer Raanjha, a movie he has written entirely in verse, neatly alternating between different characters’ voices but keeping the rhythm.

Shabana Azmi and Sumantra Ghosal at the screening of Kaifinama at NCPA. Photo courtesy: NCPA.

Shabana Azmi and Sumantra Ghosal at the screening of Kaifinama at NCPA. Photo courtesy: Literature Live!

The only biographical detail starkly absent from the film is Kaifi’s death, and Ghosal explains: “I wanted my film to be about poetry. To be told through poems, to be told through the idea at least of poetry, as opposed to the idea of prosaic facts. So you don’t actually know when he died, and in the film, he doesn’t, because I think the film ends with the idea of poetry, it begins with the idea of poetry.”

Kaifinama’s first public screening in India took place on 30 April at Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), and at a discussion after the screening, Shabana explains the precise reason she approached Ghosal with the film. “What I wanted is that the filmmaker should discover the man as he goes along, through his poetry,” she said. She knew her father to be an overwhelming personality and found Ghosal a director who was up to the challenge.

Ghosal's approach to film-making is testimony to Shabana's judgement: “What I do as a filmmaker is try and find something that propels the story while retaining, if I can, a sense of wit, and a sense of empathy. So I try and not describe the person, which a lot of factual documentaries do, but I try and empathise with that entire life, enough to be able to bring it out in many more colours than black and white, and that is the real endeavour over the time that I spent trying to make a film. Most of it is made on the editing table, actually, because that is where you discover connections, that’s where you discover redundancies, that’s where you discover what is working, what is not, what is propelling something forward.”

There have been other documentaries about Kaifi, and every filmmaker is using essentially the same material. What is special about Ghosal’s approach, however, is his enchanting narrative structure. “I think what my film does, if people think that it’s successful, is that it puts that material into both an available and a propelling narrative. And that I think gets to people and makes it more emotional, or that’s what I hope.”

Kaifinama: A Celebration of the Art and Times of Kaifi Azmi is a celebration of Kaifi Azmi, and since 2019 is his birth centenary, Ghosal predicts the film will be screened on more occasions this year, with plans for a wider release afterwards.

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Updated Date: May 18, 2019 13:41:15 IST