They are a nice couple, and it was Javed’s birthday yesterday and now Shabana is in the hospital for hopefully mild reasons, so it seems appropriate to write a quick background on them individually and together.
Usual Disclaimer: I don’t know these people, I have no special knowledge, but this is what it looks like to me from a far distance.
Javed and Shabani are artists and the children of artists and the grandchildren of artists. We think of “caste” in India related to stuff like farming, or landlords, or untouchable waste disposal workers. But it also affects artists. The simplest version of caste, where it is about a particular community who specialize in one particular aspect of life, raise their children in that aspect, and marry within that aspect. Javed’s father was a poet and occasional lyricist for films. His grandfather and great-uncle were also poets. And his great-grandfather was a poet. Before that, there is no official statement, but I assume back through time they were scholars and people of words.
Javed’s family came from the specific North Indian Urdu poetry tradition. Back in the early 1800s, his family were court poets for the Mughals. Javed never had formal training, but mere life in his household gave him the equivalent of years of study at the greatest schools in India. In fact, in terms of Urdu poetry, Javed’s household probably WAS the greatest school in India. Javed was born in Gwalior in North India, his family then moved Bhopal where his father was head of the Urdu and Persian languages department. Finally, in 1949, the family moved to Bombay to take part in the new growing Bombay film industry and for his father to attempt to make a living as a full time poet.
Hindi film in Bombay in 1949 was both heavily Urdu influenced, and heavily revolutionary. Independence had just happened and new India was still finding itself. The early filmmakers were all strongly for Independence and that same attitude of revolution continued into post-independence. Groups like “The People’s Theater” put on plays about social problems and were a gathering place for intellectuals and radicals of the day to stay up late into the night sharing thoughts. This is the world where Javed was raised.
Javed stayed back in the home village with his mother until 1953, when he was 8, and she died of cancer. He came to Bombay and entered his father’s world, saw films, read novels, watched plays, listened to the great artists of the day talking in their living room. And he probably first met Shabana at this time, in one of those large late night parties where people discussed what the future of India would look like and how it would be.
Shabana’s family were Shia, while Javed’s were Sunni. Not that it matters today, especially since both of them were raised primarily socialist/atheist, but it mattered back in the past when their families were both working Urdu poets in a society that broke partially along those lines. Shabana’s family was also not a traditional poetry family, at least not in the same way and for as many generations as Javed’s. While Javed’s father and grandfather and great grandfather were respected scholars who would never be expected to work beyond the mind, Shabana’s family were landowners. But landowners in a community where poetry gatherings were routine and that skill was expected. Shabana’s Kaifi father went to his first “Mushaira” at age 11 and recited a poem there that immediately captured attention. His family reluctantly agreed to support his studies in Urdu, but Kaifi quit university to become a full time Marxist and labor agitator. He moved to Bombay and joined the people’s movement, worked as a writer of revolutionary poems and in the textile mills where he tried to start a labor movement. And through the People’s theater, he met a young actress, another dedicated communist and artist, and married here. These were Shabana’s parents, lyricist/poet/writer Kaifi Azmi and actress Shaukat Kaifi.
Both Javed and Shabana decided to follow the paths of their parents, but in slightly different ways. Shabana knew she wanted to be an actress but, unlike her mother, she did not simply start working as an actress as soon as she could. Instead, she opted for training at the Indian Institute of Film and Television. Shabana was part of the second generation of students there, the 70s batch. She came out into a world where Hindi cinema was beginning in transition, the line between “art house” and “popular” was increasingly strong. To bridge that gap, the new genre of “parelal” cinema arose. It would release in mainstream theaters, it would not have state support necessarily, but it would tell the stories that the mainstream industry no longer did.
The funny thing is, Shabana the Queen of the Art House was married to Javed, the King of the Popular. Well, not then, but eventually. In the late 70s/early 80s Javed and Shabana moved in overlapping but different circles.
Javed graduated from school in Bhopal, near Lucknow (ancient hotbed of Urdu poetry), but unlike his father did not continue on to get an advanced degree and work in academia while he built his skills. He came to Bombay and, naturally, started looking for work in his father’s industry of Hindi film. It took him a few years to find success, but one day he and an aspiring actor he met on set decided to come together and try their hands as joint scriptwriters. Their first job, a script doctoring job on Haathi Mere Saathi, became a runaway hit and suddenly Javed’s life was made.
A year later, when Javed was 27, they wrote another hit film Seeta Aur Geeta, and on set Javed fell in love with a sharp tongued young comic actress Honey Irani. This was marrying outside of “caste” in a way. They were both film people, but Honey came from a Parsi family with no poetry tradition. While Javed’s family had love marriages going back generations, somehow it was always a poet who married a poet. For instance, his mother’s family were also ancient poets with his maternal uncle being a notable talent. His mother did not publish during her life, but her poems were found and translated and published after her death. And now Javed wanted to marry a woman with a quick wit but no poetry in her soul. And she was only 17. His best friend Salim was against it, but Javed was sure, and they married.
The 13 years of their marriage were the most successful of Javed’s life, and that is what cursed him. With infinite money, infinite power, infinite freedom, he lost track of himself. Javed was always an alcoholic, but now there was no check on his alcoholism, no reason not to drink all night every night. Well, besides his young wife and two young children, Zoya born within a year of marriage and Farhan 2 years later. Tragically, that was not enough to stop him.
Honey left him and took the children in the early 80s, exact year unclear. Javed has never blamed her for this, if anything the impression he gives is that he respects her for that decision. Honey made a joint household with her two sisters, fellow single mother of Farah and Sajid, Minaka, and their never married character actress oldest sister Daisy Irani. And it was after that, that Javed finally got clean. He is now open and clear in his position of a recovering alcoholic, and his responsibility for the mess of his personal life in those years.
Shabana’s life was not a mess. She graduated from IIFT and made an impact in her first film, Ankur, playing a lower caste village woman who, almost without dialogue, starts an affair with a visiting college student. Shabana’s career was primarily in these kinds of roles, by the late 70s and 80s she was known as the Queen of parallel cinema, her only challenger being Smita Patel (the papers loved to create a rivalry between them, and the two women did seem to be not the best of friends). She also did the occasional mainstream role, most notably in Amar Akbar Anthony. But those were always a poor fit, she had too much dignity and sense of self to work as the usual heroine.
At the time that Shabana and Javed first got together, it was a relationship no one supported. Although separated, Javed was not divorced. Shabana had a failed engagement in her past and was already in her 30s (the HORROR). Moreover Javed’s wife was no shrinking violet, Honey had stayed active and popular in the film industry, and ended up transitioning to writing herself, not the classical poetry of Javed but the fun filmi script ideas that made her money for herself and her children.
And yet, in a larger sense, Shabana and Javed were a perfect match. Both children of poets, both from the radical socialist Bombay theater tradition, they had far more in common and harmony as a couple than Javed ever had with teenage Honey, or Shabana could have had with her young fiance Bengamin Gilani, a nice appropriate actor. And so in 1984 (a year before his divorce from Honey became final), Javed and Shabana married.
Shabana is the most politically active of Hindi film celebrities, and has been from a young age. Javed, and their marriage, put no stumbling blocks before this life. She acts, she leads protests marches and gives speeches, she campaigns on behalf of candidates, and Javed is NOT there by her side. Which says the most, while other married female public figures in India have to constantly prove that their husband supports them and so on and so forth, Shabana and Javed have a relationship where it doesn’t matter if he is there or not, she is her own person and does what she wants to do.
Of course, Javed does support her. While Shabana is far more public in her activism, in his occasional interviews and statements Javed makes clear that they are in lockstep in beliefs. And he does sometimes show up next to her. It’s probably not uncommon for people in the film industry to be at this extreme edge of socialism and revolutionary thinking, after all that 1950s group of revolutionaries were the start of it all, but it is very uncommon for them to be so outspoken and fearless about it. Javed and Shabana found each other, two people for whom art is in service of some greater cause, but at the same time should be respected for itself as well. While Javed and his first wife grew apart (and presumably Shabana and her fiance), Javed and Shabana over the past 35 years have grown together.
Part of that is Javed’s children. I know most people assume Shabana is Farhan and Zoya’s mother. What a compliment that is to a stepmother! Shabana has been endlessly loving and supportive of Farhan and Zoya, and her mark can be seen clearly in their work. Zoya’s dedication to finding and using talented actors outside of the mainstream, Farhan’s social leadership in founding Men Against Rape and Discrimination, that’s Shabana. And, if you follow the “Zoya is definitely gay” theory, I also find it notable that Shabana took the risk of playing the first openly Lesbian role in a Hindi language film in Fire.
For the past 35 years, Shabana and Javed have been partners in all ways, the best kind of partners who give each other the strength to be better both together and separately. Shabana travels the world making films for everyone under the sun, most recently Jennifer Reeder an indie American director. And Javed stays home mostly, writing his poetry and lyrics and losing himself in his mind. They both go to the occasional award shows, host parties, are part of the life of the film industry and the international artistic community. It’s a nice life, almost a perfect life. Isn’t that special? Two people who found almost the perfect person for themselves.