Updated: July 20, 2021 5:40:50 pm
It was a Wednesday evening as we, a family of six, huddled together for our mid-week soirée in front of a 14-inch black-and-white Sonodyne television set, eagerly waiting for Chitrahar to begin on Doordarshan. After a couple of songs, as we heard the strumming of a guitar and birds chirping, my father, an aficionado of Hindi films, sermoned: “Today’s actors make a lot of effort for a song. They dance in three different locales just to hold your attention for a four-minute song. Now, here comes an actor who can complete the entire song just by plucking leaves from a twig. And believe me, you will never know ki gaana kab khatam ho gaya (when the song ended).”
That’s how Dilip Kumar was introduced to me through Salil Chowdhury’s melodious Dil Tadap Tadap Ke song from Bimal Roy’s classic Madhumati (1958).
For a kid growing up in the early ’90s, who was not hungover on Amitabh Bachchan’s stardom and was still struggling to embrace Aamir Khan as l’amour de la vie, discovering the charismatic actors of the black and white era was soirée de délice.
In a family where a mother, smitten by Rajesh Khanna, named her firstborn after him, and where Amitabh Bachchan was just Amitabh, and Rajendra Kumar “Jubilee” Kumar, Dilip Kumar was always Dilip Saab. Even when he, as a gaon ka chhora, frolicked and danced flirtatiously with a bunch of gaon ki goris in Nain Lad Jaiye Ki Manwa Ma Kasak Hoibey Kahi in Ganga Jamuna (1961), Dilip Kumar was always the “gentleman”.
Life imitating art, and art imitating life have never been mutually exclusive, and we never knew when the two lines blurred while watching Dilip Kumar. So it happened that my father, who wanted his children to learn the morals of life from cinema, always told us to “be like Dilip Saab” and “not Amitabh”. His demureness, his personality, his composure, and even his very ordinary-seeming hairstyle were all to be imbibed. While in teen-hood, when a streak of rebellion saw occasional outbursts in a family of four siblings, our father always had a Dilip Kumar scene for us to emulate, even in our revolts. It was the scene from the 1960 magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam. As Salim, played by Dilip Kumar, confronts his father Akbar the Great, played by the legendary Prithiviraj Kapoor, for the love of his life, he doesn’t move, his hands motionless, but his voice remains firm. It could have been a filmi scene, but Dilip Kumar and director K Asif elevated it to something of a textbook on familial maryada.
In Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955), Dilip Kumar made a feudal, arrogant and whining lover, a tragic hero, and acquired the title of “Tragedy King”. In a scene from the film where he hits his childhood love Paro, played by Suchitra Sen, after getting offended by her boldness and not-so lachaar (helpless) avatar, only Dilip Kumar could salvage the horrible side of Devdas’ jilted lover character with his deeply wounded voice and moist eyes as he bandaged Paro’s bloodied forehead with a piece of cloth torn from his silken kurta.
At the same time, as a tangewaala in BR Chopra’s socialist critique of Nehru’s industrialisation policy —Naya Daur (1957) — he charmed us as we watched him sing and dance with the beautiful Vyjayanthimala, in OP Nayyar’s mellifluous Ude Jab Jab Zulfein Teri. And many, like me, couldn’t resist emulating him even in the ’90s while spending winter break in my village aangaan, which had an uncanny resemblance to the setting of the song — the same mud houses, the same mud roof-tiles (khapra) and the same hanging kerosene lanterns.
And then there were many qissas — stories of Dilip Kumar’s offscreen life that we got to know during my father’s weekend gupshup over tea and chanachur, reading interviews of his contemporaries in magazines, or watching Rangoli on Doordarshan in which Sharmila Tagore, as a host, used to share beautiful anecdotes of yesteryear’s filmi duniya.
One such qissa was about Deedar, the 1951 mega-hit in which Dilip Kumar plays a blind man, who gains vision only to blind himself for love. The qissa was that he spent hours observing a blind beggar outside a Mahalaxmi theatre in then Bombay to perfect the antics of a blind man because he felt that actors till then portrayed a visually-impaired person with shut eyes, which, according to him, was not true in real life. He played the role with his eyes wide open and the audience understood that Shyamu could not see.
Then there was this qissa of him discovering new talents in the industry. While watching the climax of Devdas, Dilip Kumar was impressed by the shot of a flaring train engine furnace as Devdas takes a sip of whiskey. He asked Bimal Roy: Who did the video editing? Roy told him that a young guy called Hrishikesh Mukherjee had edited the film. Dilip Kumar met Hrishikesh — both were the same age — and encouraged him to make films. Hrishikesh told him that he has a story, but doesn’t know who would do it. One day, Hrishikesh invited Dilip Kumar to a vacant flat and showed him the empty walls. Dilip Kumar curiously asked: What are these marks on the walls? Hrishikesh replied: They are the imprints of every tenant who lived here. They leave but some of their nishanyaniyas are etched forever on these walls.
Hrishikesh then went on to narrate the story of Musafir to Dilip Kumar. The film with a host of big names, including Dilip Kumar, was released two years later (1957) and the film industry got a director who brought the ’70s middle-class life on the screen with films like Anand, Chupke Chupke, Guddi.
We were even told that Dilip Kumar never negotiated for money. There is a qissa of a producer asking him to do a film. He signed the contract. After some months, the producer invited Dilip Kumar for Eid lunch. After the luncheon, when he started to leave, the producer gave him an envelope as Eidi. While travelling back, Dilip Kumar curiously opened the envelope and found a cheque of Rs 10,000. He immediately rushed back to the producer’s house and asked him to take back the cheque as it was a huge amount for an Eidi. The producer told him apologetically: Yusuf Saab, sharminda toh aap humein kar rahein hai. Aapne ye nahin bataya tha ki aapko 30,000 rupaiye milte hain, ek film ke liye. Humein pata nahi tha, aur aapse 20,000 rupaiye ke contract sign karwa liya. Ye 10,000 rupaiye fees maan ke rakh lijiye (I’m the one who’s embarrassed. You didn’t tell me you are usually paid Rs 30,000 for a film. I didn’t know, so I made you sign a contract for Rs 20,000. Please accept this Rs 10,000 as part of your fee.)”
Such qissas were narrated like Panchatantra tales on Sunday afternoons, telling us how morally superior people of yesteryears were.
We never saw the two legends — Dilip Kumar and Guru Dutt — work together. The two came close to doing a film. It was Pyaasa, which Guru Dutt initially offered to Dilip Kumar, but he refused because doing tragic roles had affected him, and the story of Pyaasa was more akin to Devdas. Even in his 60s, when Dilip Kumar collaborated with young stars, whether Amitabh Bachchan in Shakti and Anil Kapoor in Mashaal, he stole the scene with his acting instead of the script. Who can forget the trauma of an ageing man, rendered homeless, shouting for help — “ae bhai ko hai” — on the empty streets of a drenched Mumbai night in Mashaal (1984).
We don’t know how he felt in recent years: A man born as Yusuf Khan in Peshawar of then India and feted as Dilip Kumar across the subcontinent. A man who healed the two partitioned nations with his movies to such an extent that it didn’t matter whether Dilip Kumar was Yusuf more and Dilip less, or Dilip more and Yusuf less. In a world of growing hate of all kinds, we can always cling to his one dialogue from Mughal-e-Azam: “Taqdeerein badal jaati hai, zamaana badal jaata hai, mulko ke taarikh badal jaati hai, sahenshah badal jaate hai. Magar is badalti hui duniya mein mohabbat jis insaan ka daaman thaam leti hai, wo insaan nahi badalta. (Fortunes can change, the world can change, the histories of nations can change, emperors can change. But in this changing world, a man who is touched by love doesn’t change.)”
Dilip Saab never changed, for he was held by love till the end — “Zindabad, Zindabad, Ae Mohabbat Zindabad!”.
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