You’ve both been artists, activists and nominated members of parliament in India. Could you comment on the synergies and tensions those roles have had for you?
Azmi: My father was an Urdu poet and my mother was an actress. I grew up in a family that believed that art should be used as an instrument for social change. My roles are not separate. There’s a worldview that I have, and an extension of my work is ensuring social justice and gender parity. They may seem like disparate things, but they’re part of the same thing. There hasn’t been a tension – it’s been like a mingling river.
How did the urge to make art come about?
Akhtar: I come from a family of writers—my mother, my father, her father and his father. Seven generations of known, established and anthologised writers. I was brought up among so many writers. I knew what good poetry was. If I hadn’t become a writer, that would have been very unusual. But it was very intimidating. I started writing very late, when I was 30 or 31, because I didn’t have the courage.
What gave you the courage?
Akhtar: Well, my father died, and there was a void in the family. And I met some young poets and poets of my age. Somewhere in the back of my mind, there had been the thought that elders write poetry, but when I met people my own age writing in a contemporary metaphor, I thought, “No I can write, in my own language and my own style.” My poetry is totally different from my father, and his poetry is totally different from his father. Somehow we’ve always found our own voice.
You’ve enjoyed public adoration as artists, and then a more complicated kind of public life as members of parliament – what similarities and differences have you found in the two kinds of public life?
Azmi: When you’re thrown into active political life, people think they have a right to walk into your house at seven in the morning and 12 at night. Because I was a member of the Upper House, it was easier for me, because I didn’t have a geographical constituency, but my work was with issues of women’s health and children’s rights. That work started much before I became an MP. There’s a disconnect between policymakers and those in the trenches, and I saw myself as a bridge, without the obligation of party politics.
Why is poetry still alive and well in India, when it is in decline in other parts of the world?
Akhtar: Poetry has an impact that prose doesn’t. The meter and beat – word turn into music – create an impact on human beings. And if there are emotions, too, poetry will remain important anywhere in India and elsewhere in the world.
But wouldn’t you say there has been a decline?
Akhtar: In the past, there was no radio, television, no telephone – whatever you were looking at was in your immediate environment. That attention has spread itself very thin and poetry is paying a cost. But the connoisseurs will remain. And poetry goes to people in non-traditional via pop music. Your idea of good poetry may differ from other people. But it reaches them one way or another even though we differ on the literary value.
Shabana, at the festival, you’ll be speaking about women in cinema. How would you describe the evolution in your career over the past few decades?
Azmi: My career has been about being at the right place at the right time. There has been a change in Indian cinema in the last decade and I’ve been a beneficiary. I’m doing comedy, playing characters with negative shades, generally having a ball. I embrace my age with grace and don’t fight it. Also, the happy change even in mainstream cinema is that female stars are no longer content to play just the glamorous star. They are demanding and getting substantial parts. So happy times are here.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists today?
Akhtar: I will only say one thing and I always do: Read as much poetry as possible, of different genres, periods and styles. Read all the good poets of the past. That will enhance your vision, enrich your vocabulary and develop your craft. All art – besides emotion and imagination – is craft. Nobody can teach you passion or feeling or fantasy, but yes, craft is something to be learned. Emotion tells you what to say, craft teaches you how to say it. There has to be a lot of intake before output.
Catch Akhtar and Azmi at the stately Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall on 26 and 28 April, where Akhtar will share his poems in Urdu, and Azmi will read translations in English.