I am told Dilip Kumar's autobiography has just been released in India. Here in Dhaka, I wait for a copy from the publishers, who have promised to send me one. Meanwhile, quite some years ago, there was Sanjit Narwekar's Dilip Kumar: The Last Emperor that I read with huge interest. Here is what I thought of the book:
Sanjit Narwekar makes it obvious that Dilip is for him, as he has been for millions of people in the Indian subcontinent since the 1940s, a superman in the film industry. The tragic roles he has played are even today cited as instances of purposeful acting. He has been put on the same pedestal by admirers as such western film men as Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole and so many others. Indeed, had it been his fortune to be born in Britain or America, he would have shared the spaces of the halls of fame those others have always inhabited. Dilip Kumar, in effect, remains a point of reference where any dialogue on Indian cinema is concerned. There are the unforgettable movies, such as Mughal-e-Azam, which are pointed to as proof of his skills. His reputation as a tragedian on screen has endured through the ages.
And, to be sure, there are the reasons why tragedy has been Dilip's forte. In movies like Madhumati, Aadmi, Daag, Devdas and a host of others, he has been the very epitome of the suffering young man unable to resist the tide of gathering misfortune around him. And yet the stereotyped is not what he has been content with. In Ram Aur Shyam, where he plays a double role, that of twins, his ability to induce laughter through a comic, carefree attitude to life has remained unequalled. And his acting in politically-oriented films like Leader have down the years upheld the high ideals of politics, particularly in the struggle of the common man against historical injustice. In all the movies that Dilip Kumar has been in, there has been a clear preponderance of the lover in his attitude to the society around him. He has loved his women on screen with the kind of quiet passion that is today a story of the past. In these times, the blatant demonstration of passion, with little of the subtle about it, is a truth Dilip Kumar and his generation would not look upon with equanimity. You only have to recall that intensely touching scene in Mughal-e-Azam where he caresses Madhubala's cheek with a feather. It is then, to the observant eye, the plainly orgasmic that comes over Madhubala's face.
Narwekar throws light on aspects of Dilip Kumar's personal life. That old tale of how he and Madhubala almost ended up getting married but did not, because the actress' father came in the way, is repeated here, together with the legal difficulties involving Madhubala's role in Naya Daur. It was Vyjanthimala who ended up playing the role. The Naya Daur tale went all the way to court where, in a moment of emotional spontaneity, Dilip Kumar declaimed in the packed room on his feelings for Madhubala. 'I love this woman and shall love her till my dying day.' But the love, as subsequent events showed, did not last. Relations between the two turned bitter, to a point where Madhubala's verbal message through a common friend to Dilip about her unending love for the thespian drew out a dismissive 'What love?' from Dilip. The actor would move on, at a point developing feelings for Vyjanthimala before marrying Saira Banu. He was forty four. She was twenty two. Madhubala married Kishore Kumar, but there was always the sense that she had not got over her feelings for Dilip. She would die in 1969. The hole in her heart, a condition from her childhood, would finally do her in.
For all his devotion to Saira Banu, there was at least one moment when Dilip Kumar strayed. In 1982, unbeknownst to her, indeed to anyone else, he secretly married Asma Begum. As news reports began revealing the details of the marriage, Dilip went into denial mode. As Saira Banu was to report, 'In fact, he took the Koran and swore (that he had not married Asma).' Nothing worked, though, and the actor quickly moved to dissolve the nuptial links with Asma Begum, of course on payment of the meher of Rs. 3,00,000. He pleaded with Saira for a second chance. 'Mujhse ghalti ho gayi. Kisse ghalti nahi hoti?' Saira Banu forgave him.
Dilip Kumar straddled an era that produced the likes of Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand and yet in his performances on screen he convinced people he was a far better, far more involved actor than his contemporaries. His sense of originality has been remarkable. For the song Madhuban Mein Radhika Naache Re, he would insist on learning to play the sitar for weeks because he did not want someone else's hands to be passed off as his during the shooting of the scene. In later years, younger actors would, consciously or otherwise, try to emulate him. Most considered it an honour to work with him. Raj Babbar had the chance. And the same was true of Amitabh Bachchan.
The actor Dilip Kumar, born as Muhammad Yusuf Khan on 11 December 1922 in Peshawar, remains a formidable presence in the long historical canvas of Indian cinema.
The writer is Executive Editor,
The Daily Star