Zamane ka dard hai qalam mein
Kabhi jeb ki khaatir likha nahin
(My quill carries the pain of the world/I never wrote for the sake of money; here 'jeb' is a metaphor for money/pelf)
The name of Kaifi Azmi always evokes a deep sense of veneration among the listeners and connoisseurs of Urdu poetry and vintage (Hindi) film songs. Before dwelling upon Kaifi’s formidable role as a poet-lyricist, it's imperative to understand the unwritten categories that have existed in Hindi film-music: Poet-lyricists/Lyricist-poets and plain lyricists.
Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shakeel Badayuni and Sahir Ludhianavi (not necessarily in the given order) belonged to the poet-lyricists slot. And among these four, Kaifi had a different class and level. He was the most unwilling of all poet-lyricists; unwilling in the sense that he considered his foray into film music as something fortuitous. If you notice, his oeuvre as a poet-lyricist hasn't been very prolific. But whatever Kaifi wrote, got etched in the crevices of heart, mind and soul.
Kaifi never cared for popularity. His creative accent was on profundity. That's the reason, whether it was, 'Baharo, mera jeevan bhi sanwaro' (Film: Aakhri Khat, Lata, based on raag Pahadi) or 'Tumhari zulf ke saaye mein shaam kar loonga' (Film: Naunihal, Rafi), ‘Ye nayan dare-dare’ (Film: Kohra, Hemant Kumar) or 'Har taraf ab yahi afsane hain' (Film: Hindustan ki qasam, Manna Dey), one discerns a rare quality of uniformity in class, substance, poetry, import and effect.
Writing a filmy number, yet retaining class, substance and profundity is something that's so rare. It's well-nigh impossible. Yet, listen to his immortal creation 'Chalte-Chalte yoon hi koi' (Film: Paakezah, 1972). No one has communicated the despair of a tawaif (courtesan) as eloquently as Kaifi Azmi does in the words, ‘Jo kahi gayi na mujhse who zamana kah raha hai, ke fasana bann gayi hai, meri baat talte talte’. It’s arguably the greatest mujra ever in Hindi cinema. Kaifi’s sense of empathy amazes you.
Penning a film song that can appeal to the masses and classes with the same intensity and impact needs a different kind of poetic temperament and creative adaptability, and Kaifi had this quality in abundance. He never relegated himself to writing typical film songs. Listen to his unforgettable, 'Meri aawaaz suno, pyaar ka raaz suno...' (Film: Naunihal, Rafi). You simply get goosebumps listening to this most poignant number. The embedded pathos of this song moves you to tears. No wonder, Port Louis University, Mauritius incorporated this gem of a song on the syllabus of Hindi at MA, Previous level. When he penned 'Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam...' (Kaaghaz ke phool), 'Kuchh dil ne kaha' (Film: Anupama), he simply listened to his poetic self and that's the reason, he could immortalise and embellish them with his words. An exponent and practitioner of French novelist Gustave Flaubert's proverbial mot-juste, Kaifi always used the most correct and apposite words in his lyrics. He had an uncanny ability to zero in on the most apt word that could drive home the point.
To encapsulate, Kaifi doesn't appear to be writing for the hoi-polloi, yet the masses lapped up his numbers and could relate to them wholeheartedly. Here lies his greatness and also his utility in a consumeristic Bollywood.