Book: The Substance and the Shadow: An Autobiography
Author: Dilip Kumar
Publisher: Hay House
Price: Rs 699
In 1998, soon after he had received the Nishan-e-Imtiaz award from Pakistan, I managed to see Dilip Kumar in person for the first time.
There were demonstrations outside his house by the Shiv Sena, which was protesting the award. He was the soul of charm. I had gone to propose a book about his films. He was not ready to commit but he did talk about his early life in Peshawar, coming to Bombay, his sojourn away from his family to make a living in Pune, where he succeeded in amassing a small fortune of Rs 5,000 by saving his profits.
All that is recorded in this book, besides much more.
At the time, no one could imagine that the man, so open in private conversation about himself but so reticent in public, would ever write his autobiography. But now we have the authentic thing, and it is a treasure trove. It is Dilip Kumar’s voice, faithfully recorded by Udayatara Nayar, who has done a great job.
The first few chapters tell us of his childhood in Peshawar. He was a lonely child and fell back then, as ever since, on his inner resources. The large joint family with his grandmother, parents and uncles is depicted well in the book as is Peshawar of the 1920s and 1930s. Soon after, the family moved to Bombay.
Dilip Kumar tells us about his school and college days, his fondness for football and how his friend Raj Kapoor told him he could make it in films, as he (Kapoor) was going to. But Dilip Kumar showed no aptitude for acting. Chance took him to Bombay Talkies and Devika Rani. The rest is history. He was helped along by Ashok Kumar and Shashadhar Mukherjee, who were pillars of Bombay Talkies.
There is a lot here about how Dilip Kumar learnt to act. Nitin Bose tells him early on in his career that acting in films is about emoting, often without dialogue. He tells us he never followed “method” acting. But for each part, he went deep into the persona of the character he was playing, and tried to become that person.
Dilip Kumar has played urban and rural roles, tragedies and comedies. He also grew as an actor from role to role. Take three films in which he plays a villager : Mela (1948), Naya Daur (1957) and Ganga Jamuna (1961) and you see the depth and range of emotions growing, until the death scene in Ganga Jamuna, one of the best in Hindi cinema.
The tragic roles in his early career drove him to depression. He decided to consult a Harley Street specialist and was advised to switch to sunnier roles. So he took on positive roles such as Azaad (1955). He still had to do Devdas (1955) for Bimal Roy which has the classic tragic hero.
The autobiography also tells us about Saira Banu, a determined young woman, who wanted to marry him and succeeded. Saira Banu has been a key to his longevity. If he is still with us (and long may he be so) while his contemporaries have gone, it is thanks to the care and attention he has received from Saira Banu. There are many stars, but there is only one actor — Dilip Kumar.
Meghnad Desai is an MP, House of Lords