Once upon a time, a boy born in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Peshawar, and raised in Nashik, Maharashtra, ran away from home, and eventually found work at Bombay Talkies for his proficiency in Urdu. On the advice of owner, Devika Rani, he adopted what was seen to be a more acceptable name, and went on to become one of Bollywood’s biggest stars. He would act as Devdas, the eternal romantic, Salim, the rebellious prince, Ganga, the dacoit, and Shankar, the tongawallah, giving Bollywood a new, more intense language. He would hold on to his mother tongue, the dying Hindko dialect of Peshawar, while learning to speak fluently in Urdu, Hindi, Bhojpuri, English, Punjabi, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, Pashto, Farsi, and Tamil. On December 11, as Parliament redrew the boundaries of what defined an Indian, he turned 97.
Pressed to put his identity down on paper in the post-Citizenship (Amendment) Bill India, the man who drew on words and poetry to sustain his art, drawing inspiration from both sides of the border, would struggle. Should he list himself as a Muslim, the religion he was born into, or a Hindu, the religion whose tag he embraced so easily? Under “home”, should he list Peshawar’s “Qissa Khwani Bazaar (the market of the storytellers)”, which, to his regret, he couldn’t visit in 1997, when he had received Pakistan’s highest honour, due to uncontrollable crowds? But, how could it not be Mumbai, the city from whose stories he remains inseparable?
Whether he saw the proceedings in Parliament on Wednesday or not, where one side used Jinnah to defend the bill and the other side invoked Hitler to denounce it, he could have lent the debate the weight of nearly a century’s history — strewn with names of big kings who fell and small heroes who rose. To those who come bearing their questions, “Tragedy King” Yusuf Khan alias Dilip Kumar would have stories from closer home with happy endings: About Prithviraj Kapoor from Peshawar who also made Mumbai his; and about another Khan from Peshawar, in another time, who also became the Badshah of Bollywood.