Remembering Shaukat Kaifi, who brought integrity of purpose to roles and etched her name in theatre, film history
It was on stage that Shaukat Kaifi was a force of nature and a prime mover with influence, who had etched her name in history long before she stepped in front of a camera
It was on stage that Shaukat Kaifi was a force of nature and a prime mover with influence, who had etched her name in history long before she stepped in front of a camera.
Even when she played unsympathetic characters, such as the unscrupulous brothel madams Hindi films saddled her with, Shaukat brought an unmistakable integrity of purpose that humanised them to no small extent.
Her stature was not merely put on as is the wont of actors, but seemingly a true reflection of the lived experiences of a woman of the world.
Cinema, the most visible of professions, often gives us a skewed perspective of the careers of women who accomplish much more away from the proverbial spotlight, even if one only has to scratch the surface to unearth a lifetime’s worth of exploits. In her sporadic roles on celluloid, Shaukat Kaifi brought more than just a regal bearing and moral composure. Hers was a stature that wasn’t merely ‘put on’ as is the wont of actors, but seemingly a true reflection of the lived experiences of a woman of the world. Even when she played unsympathetic characters, such as the unscrupulous brothel madams Hindi films saddled her with, Shaukat brought an unmistakable integrity of purpose that humanised them to no small extent.
While her debut was in Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat in 1964, in which she played a soldier’s wife, many of her later film outings were walk-on parts that utilised little more than her sheer presence and deadpan gravitas. It was in parallel-cinema films like MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava (1974) and Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan (1981) and Anjuman (1986), that Shaukat was given more space to provide us glimpses of the histrionic prowess that theatre-goers in Mumbai had long been privy to. For, it was on stage that Shaukat was a force of nature and a prime mover with influence, who had etched her name in history long before she stepped in front of a camera.
Much of her journey is recounted (and preserved for posterity) in her compelling memoir, Yaad Ki Rahguzar, which was published in 2004, and later translated into English by Nasreen Rahman as Kaifi & I: A Memoir. It was a personal history filled with drama and circumstance, but in many ways, it was also an account of a nation in flux. Both she and her husband, the gentle poet Kaifi, were passionate about their activism of social change and nation-building. They were important figures among the many poets and writers of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, specially during its second wind post-independence, and also creatively prolific members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).
It was a movement in which an illustrious roster of Muslim women like Ismat Chughtai, Zohra Sehgal or Rashid Jahan were finding distinctive ways to negotiate Left-wing patriarchy and its peculiar brand of gender politics, according to Priyamvada Gopal’s foreword to Shaukat’s memoir. Born to upper-class Muslim privilege in Hyderabad, she was nonetheless a rebel who married Kaifi on her own terms. Smitten both by his shimmering idealism and fetching persona, Shaukat’s accounts of their courtship in her book can be described as unapologetic and giddy. As Gopal elaborates, “There was nothing passive or wilting about the young Shaukat as recalled by her older self; the young woman we meet is flirtatious, assertive, and charmingly aware of her own striking attributes.”
A flagship group she joined when the couple moved to Mumbai (then Bombay) was Prithvi Theatres, the touring company founded by Prithviraj Kapoor (who also served as an honorary president of IPTA), where she established herself as leading lady of the stage alongside the sisters Sehgal and Uzra Butt. During the early days, living as the wife of a ‘comrade in a commune’ was an exercise in frugality and compromise, which Shaukat still remembered with fondness. She recalled her first impressions of Kaifi’s living quarters thus, “The simplicity of this room touched my heart.” Later, almost a year after daughter Shabana was born, they moved to Red Flag Hall, a flat controlled by the Communist Party of India.
Her plays with IPTA include Bhisham Sahni’s Dhani Bankein (‘Green Bangles’) and Bhootgaadi. The latter was based on Arnold Ridley’s The Ghost Train, which Sahni adapted into Hindi, transforming what was an anti-communist play to an anti-communalist one. The opening performance took place at IPTA’s All-India Conference at Ahmedabad in 1947, and played out to a large audience of 1200 people. With Kapoor’s outfit, she performed in iconic plays like Deewar and Shakuntala. 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).
Shabana, one of the most formidable actors in the country, has often spoken about learning acting from her mother. When Shaukat’s play Pagli, with a new outfit, the Triveni Rang Manch, was entered into the Maharashtra State Drama Competition, she would spend her time at home completely immersed in the character of the eponymous mad-woman, “which kept everyone in the household on tenterhooks.” It was a lesson in focus and dedication that has served Shabana well, and Shaukat won Best Actress for her efforts. Her other plays include Aazar ka Khwab (a version of Pygmalion), Tanhai, and Africa Jawan Pareshan. It is quite evident that even with theatre being the most ephemeral of arts, it has contributed heavily to both ours and Shaukat’s own perceptions of her legacy, and perhaps to the innate authenticity of the life that she led.
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