In a tribute to Bollywood legend Dileep Kumar or Yusuf Khan in real life, Ratnottama Sengupta, one of India’s most iconic arts journalist, time-travels to the days when the ‘Fankar-e-Azam’ – the great actor – sprinted about on the sets of Bombay’s studios …spiced up with fragments from the autobiography of Sengupta’s father, famed screenwriter and litterateur, Nabendu Ghosh
“Actually the quality of a performer is also measured by the contrast that he can handle. To do something different, to be humorous, and intimidating, and also to make them feel sorry for you… that is the way people like you.” – Dilip Kumar
On 7thJuly, 2021, I was at a loss — in trying to think of an epithet for the thespian who had just passed away. So am I now, in deciding where I should start my recollections of the deathless legend. For, Dilip Kumar was already B-I-G when I started understanding the word ‘Cinema’.
I was born in 1955 — the year of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali in Bengal, Bimal Roy’s Devdas in Hindi films, and also of Azad. Years would go before I learnt that Apu-Durga’s Song of the Road had placed India on the celluloid map of the world. Before I understood that my father, Nabendu Ghosh, had a hand in immortalizing Devdas by writing its screenplay – often dubbed ‘direction on paper.’ And before I observed this curious coincidence: Azad had released the same year as Devdas, the ode to undying, self-destructive love. Curious, because it brought the Monarch of Tragedy with Tragedienne, Meena Kumari, in order to create a comedy! A fun outing where a rich man, Azad, rescues Shobha from bandits; and when she decides to marry him, her family discovers Azad is the bandit.
I became aware of this film only recently, while working on the song Apalam Chapalam – danced by Sayee and Subbulaxmi – for my underproduction documentary on Dance in Hindi Films. That number is a lesson for anyone studying dance. But aeon before I came to it, I would start dancing every time the Murphy radio in our Malad bungalow played Radha na boley na boley na boley re (Radha shan’t speak to Krishna). I would pick up the hairband lying in front of our mirror, put it on and start swaying in a circular motion. I must have been about two-and-half. There was no television, no silver screen, no Meena Kumari in my life, only a radio. And it cast a spell with this song from Azad, one of the few comedies of Dilip Kumar, with Kohinoor and Ram Aur Shyam.
Years down the star actor had talked about distributors objecting to his playing a comic role. “’But people are used to seeing you in tragic roles… so you will die in the end, right?’ they would insist. ‘But I wanted to alter the image. I did not want to be stuck in one groove. There is a risk in breaking a familiar mould, but if people can anticipate you, that is the end of your mystery! So you must do something different each time, a departure from your familiar personality. You must work a little harder and change the chemistry of the personality’.” This could be the Bible for any actor if he plans to defy time.
Dilip Kumar captivated me with a dance which – like Meena Kumari’s in Azad – was no classical number, only robust, folksy Nain lar jai hey toh manwa ma kasak hoibey kari (When our eyes meet, I feel a pang in my heart). This was in Gunga Jumna (1960), produced by Dilip Kumar and directed by his mentor Nitin Bose. The star gustily dancing with a bunch of guys in dhoti – he was so spontaneous, so natural! This at a time when women danced but men dancing was seen as effeminate. Yes, the traditional dance gurus were male, but the movie idol had to be macho, so no dancing! Dance gurus were revered in life but on screen they were lampooned as in Padosan (The Next-door Neighbour, 1968). But he was so confident, suave you cannot but be infected by his joi de vivre.
The other thing about Gunga Jumna was its dialect. The tongue he speaks — an admixture of Brajbhasha, Khaiboli, Awadhi, Bhojpuri — connects all our people in northern India. That may be why, when Amjad Khan was preparing to play Gabbar Singh, his lines garnished his dhobi’s (washerman’s) dialect with Gunga’s. Again, Lagaan (2001) returns to this tongue which Aamir Khan once more picks up as PK (2014), the alien who knows no earthly language of communication, from a street walker in a psychic manner, by simply holding her hand.
Dilip Kumar’s dialogue delivery was distinctly different from his other contemporaries, Raj Kapoor or Dev Anand. One had cultivated a generous dose of Charlie Chaplin in his mannerism; the other had to thank Gregory Peck for his angular tilt of head. Dilip Kumar’s controlled delivery, low and clear, probably stemmed from his admiration for Paul Muni. He whispered for the benefit of his lady love alone – how romantic! A person standing at an arm’s distance, and being addressed almost with reverence, at a time when so many of contemporaries had yet to cast off the theatrical manner of vociferous enunciation: this intensity charmed my mother’s generation of men and women and spilled over to actors of my preteen years – unabashedly they subscribed to the adage, ‘Imitation is the foremost form of adulation’.
When Joy, the worthy son of Bimal Roy, made his centenary tribute to his father, he had started by interviewing Nabendu Ghosh. In it, while talking about Devdas, the screenwriter says: “On the first day of shooting I saw Dilip Kumar loitering by himself, aloof, remote. So I asked him, ‘What’s the matter Yusuf Bhai? Every day you sit with us, talk to us, join us in our banter. Why are you so preoccupied today?’ He replied, ‘Woh teenon mere kandhe par baithey hain Nabendu Babu (those three are weighing me down like a burden on my shoulder).’ ‘Kaun teen (which three)?’ – I asked him. He replied, ‘Barua Saab, Saigal Saab, and Sarat Chandra.’” The first two legends had played Devdas (1935), Pramathesh Barua in Bengali and K L Saigal in Hindi, in New Theatre’s bilingual production, and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (the author of Devdas) of course is the most translated author in India: Devdas alone has seen a dozen versions in as many languages if not more. Nabendu continued: “So I asked him, ‘What do you think of Sarat Chandra as a writer?’ And he replied, ‘He had divinity in his pen.’”
What a pithy appreciation of a literary master. Hardly surprising that Dilip Kumar was a major presence on the stage when the Sarat Centenary Celebrations were held in Bombay. Others present included Nitin Bose and Biraj Bahu Kamini Kaushal along with Sunil Gangopadhyay, then a young Turk who pooh-poohed the literary giant. Baba, having scripted Parineeta(1953), Devdas, Biraj Bahu(1954), Majhli Didi(Middle Sister, 1968) and Swami (later filmed by Basu Chatterjee), as much as due to his standing in Bengali literature, had chaired the unforgettable celebration.
When Nabendu Ghosh was wondering about Yusuf Saab’s eloquent reticence, clearly the actor was in the process of pouring himself into the soul of the persona — or was he giving Devdas the stamp of Dilip Kumar? It was this total absorption that saw him transcend every known interpretation of the character and make his Devdas the abiding face of an indecisive, love-torn soul. In an interview Dilip Kumar had said, “If I have to be convincing as a 30-year-old, I must familiarize myself with what he has gone through in the preceding 29 years.”
However in another interview — this one, to renowned film critic, screenwriter and director, Khalid Mohamed — he had debunked method acting saying, “Yeh kis chidiya ka naam hai? What is this thing you call Method Acting?” Okay, so he did not learn – or unlearn – the acting technique of the Russian master Stanislavsky but he certainly believed in the ‘art of experiencing.’ He must have drawn on personal experiences or their memories to inform his characterization, the truth behind the persona who lived and loved in another space and time. This I can say from my visit to the sets of Sungharsh (Clash,1968) directed by H S Rawail.
I can’t remember why I had gone there but I remember visiting with my father. The crew was busy preparing lights for the shot. This was the last film where Dilip Kumar was seen with Vyjayantimala: their first was Devdas, and included Gunga Jumna, Madhumati, Naya Daur, Paigham. I noticed him running round the sets, dressed in a dhoti with a gamchha tied round his waist. “Why is the hero working himself out of breath?” I’d wondered to myself. I got the answer when they started the takes: the scene required him to run up, axe in hand, and breathlessly deliver a message. The film based on Mahasweta Devi’s novel, Layli Aasmaner Aina (The Mirror of Layli Aasman), revolved around a courtesan and a thugee, and almost half a century later Baba wrote Sei Sab Kritantera (Those Gods of Death) which won him the Bankim Puraskar, about the cult of bandits. But circling back to Dilip Kumar, I find it astounding that a quarter century after his screen debut, the legend was preparing for the shot by physically running around!
No wonder he was so natural. Yet this perceptive actor did not skyrocket into fame with Jwar Bhata (Ebb and Flow, 1944), directed by Amiya Chakravarty, nor did Pratima, directed by Jairaj with music by Arun Mukherjee, do any good to his career. It was with Nitin Bose’s Milan (The Union), based on Tagore’s Naukadubi (The Wreck) and released on a Friday preceding 15tH August 1947, that his listless performance gained sparkle. Along with Jugnu (Fireflies), which was the highest grosser of the year, Milan laid the ground for the long innings of the resolved player. Small wonder, when he produced Gunga Jumna, he singled out his mentor to be the director.
All the three films, Jwar Bhata. Pratima and Milan were produced by Bombay Talkies, then being run by Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar. The popular pair of Achhut Kanya (The Untouchable Girl, 1936) was responsible for most decisions in the milestone production company that gave breaks to other majors of Indian cinema like Dev Anand, Gyan Mukherjee, B R Chopra, Sadat Hasan Manto. Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani had given Mohamed Yusuf Khan, the son of a Pathan dry fruits trader from Peshawar, his screen name. “Why did Yusuf Khan become Dilip Kumar?” is a much asked question. To Khalid Mohamed the thespian had revealed, “The choice was between Jehangir and Dilip Kumar. The second seemed a better option because it sits easy on every tongue.” Many others have seen a different reason behind the change.
Ashok Kumar Ganguly was directed to lop off his family name at the instance of Franz Osten, the Bavarian director who partnered Himanshu Rai in the early years of Bombay Talkies, to make him more ‘Indian’ rather than a Bengali or a Brahmin. ‘Kumar’ – meaning, young prince – was, since then, included in their name by most actors — Uttam Kumar too. When Dilip Kumar debuted in mid-1940s, the national movement to free India from colonial harness was coming to a head — as was the crescendo for a separate political identity for the Muslim populace. In this scenario, many in the profession that depended on the support of maximum number of viewers, were opting for names that did not underscore their Islamic roots. Thus Mahjabeen Bano became Meena Kumari, Mumtaz Jehan Dehlavi became Madhubala, Nawab Bano was renamed Nimmi by Raj Kapoor, Nargis had started as Baby Rani, Hamid Ali Khan had assumed the name of Ajit. However, Dilip Kumar spawned many other clones. Thus, commenced the age of Pradeep Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Manoj Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar, Akshay Kumar. And many tried to clone his histrionic abilities too!
The year 1947 proved a turning point in the life of Dilip Kumar in so many ways. Mehboob Khan’s Andaz (Gesture,1949), his Aan (Pride) and Nitin Bose’s Deedar (A Glance), both released in1951, Amiya Chakravarty’s Daag (The Stain,1952), Bimal Roy’s Devdas, Yahudi (Jew), Madhumati, K.Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960) — all the films thereafter proved super hits. They also carried a message for the masses, be it against alcoholism, or war; in favour of fidelity in marriage, or unadulterated friendship. They turned the brooding hero into a popular idol. At a time, the country was rapidly industrializing, Naya Daur (New Age) focused on the conflict between modernity and tradition through a race between a tonga and a bus. Yahudi, through the love between the Jewess and the Roman prince, sent out a message of communal bonding.
Dilip Kumar, it is evident, kept pace with the transformation coming in the nation’s life. His own performance, his selection of roles all reflected this. That could be why Gunga Jumna by the family production house of Citizen Films, became a precursor in so many ways. I have already spoken about its dialect. Projecting dacoits in the central roles was another. Later decades saw dacoits being replaced by smugglers as villain, drag racketeers as the evil guys, terrorists as the despicable ones. But the dacoit theme kept recurring through Mujhe Jeene Do (Let Me Live, 1963), Mera Gaon Mera Desh (My Village My Land, 1971), Sholay (Flames, 1975), Pratiggya(The Oath, 1975(, Ganga Ki Saugandh ( Swear by the Ganga, 1978), Bandit Queen (1994), Pan Singh Tomar (2010). More so, the keynote of two brothers on either side of law was to see many reincarnations – most remarkably in Deewar (The Wall), which turned Amitabh Bachchan into the legend he is. Years later Dilip Kumar teamed with Amitabh Bachchan to play father and son aligned on opposing sides of law – again, with amazing success.
The legend teaming with a younger icon was not something new for Dilip Kumar, nor would it be the last. Keeping pace with his growing years he had shared screen space with Anil Kapoor in Mashal (The Torch, 1980s), and with Naseeruddin Shah in Karma. Prior to Deewar he had appeared in Paari (1970s), a Bengali film, where the then rising star Dharmendra played the lead. This film was remade as Anokha Milan with the same cast. Likewise, Tapan Sinha’s Sagina Mahato (Bengali) was remade as Sagina (Hindi) with his wife Saira Banu opposite him. This remains one of Dilip Kumar’s most significant performances — perhaps also his most ‘political’ incarnation on screen. Here he is a factory worker who becomes the first to stand up to the tyranny of the British bosses in the tea gardens on the Himalayan reaches of North Bengal. Once more he surprised us, his younger viewers, to whom he was nothing but a man named Sagina Mahato whose naivety was being cleverly exploited. I had seen both the Bengali and Hindi versions but I have no answer as to why the remake did not work a magic nationally. Dilip Kumar was, after all, a master of delivery in Hindi and Urdu, although his English too was flawless.
Dilip Kumar seems to have had a special equation with Bengal, which could have grown out of the fact that so many directors from Bengal dominated the Indian screen through 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s… in other words, the screen idol’s active years. I was won over by the charisma of the star in Madhumati, incarnated from a story by Ritwik Ghatak. He had penned the first draft of the immortal classic that continues to mesmerise viewers to this day, then he was summoned back to Kolkata to direct two of his own films, Bari Theke Paaliye (The Runaway) and Ajantrik( 1957). The final script was prepared by Bimal Roy, as was his practice, in conference with his team. As a part of this Nabendu Ghosh had worked on detailing the reincarnation film as Dilip Kumar himself revealed in the interview to Khalid Mohamed. I was simply enchanted by the actor’s screen presence. Here I was, growing up in the age of Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, remember? Yet I was compelled to surrender to the charm of this actor! The only other ‘Kumar’ who superseded his charm for me was Uttam Kumar – and both had started their screen journeys in 1940s – long before I was born! Madhumati itself was ‘born again’ – most successfully as Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om (2007) but the enduring charm of Dilip Kumar as an engineer arriving the upper reaches of Kumaon Hills and losing himself amidst tribals remains matchless.
Baba (Nabendu Ghosh) also scripted Yahudi where Bimal Roy directed Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari as the Roman prince and the Jewess who fall in love – endangering lives. In the Nehruvian era, it resonated with the values of secularism that the super actor himself enshrined. In his personal life, this saw Dilip Kumar align with the Congress. He donned the hat of the Sherif of Bombay (1980) and raised funds for causes, including for the physically challenged, through exhibition cricket matches. His commitment to the country’s constitutional framework saw him campaign in support of V P Singh — and later Manmohan Singh — as Prime Minister. Nominated to Rajya Sabha — the Upper House of Parliament — from 2000 to 2006, he served in Standing Committees that brought in amendments to Indian Medical Council Act 2006. He used his MP funds to restore Bandra Fort and improve the Bandra Promenade. These kept earning him laurels in India and beyond. The Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner was decorated as Padma Bhushan in (1991), Padma Vibhushan by the present Modi government in 2015, and — befittingly — accorded state honour at his funeral.
My most significant interaction with Dilip Kumar happened four decades after Yahudi – in 1999. Atal Behari Vajpayee was then the Prime Minister, and the Pakistan government was to confer their highest civilian award – Nishan-e-Imtiaz on the actor. In the wake of the Kargill infiltration and the ensuing war this was red rag to the right wingers. Shiv Sena had laid siege outside the thespian’s Pali Hill mansion, objecting to his receiving the award of merit as a betrayal of his own country. At that point Dilip Kumar, who continues to have a massive following across the subcontinent and beyond, had come to meet the Prime Minister. And I, then the Arts Editor of The Times of India, was given a special audience – perhaps also because I was the daughter of ‘Nobendu Babu’.
I clearly recall his words: “I was born in Peshawar, which by a twist of events is now in another land. A boundary line has turned it into a foreign country but I continue to be a produce of that land. I cannot deny that nor do I wish to. And I am not breaking any law of this land by accepting this Order of Excellence. If my country benefits in any way by my refusing this award, then I am willing to do so. If instead it strengthens bonding with a (warring) nation, why should I decline it?”
This is what he said to the Prime Minister too, resulting in Vajpayee ji issuing a statement to the effect that Dilip Kumar does not need to prove his patriotism to anybody. He will do just as his heart dictates. Whether he should accept the Nishan or decline it will be decided by his inner self. No one needs to tell him that.
In later years I have thought to myself: Suchitra Sen, another abiding icon who was paired with Dilip Kumar in Devdas, has been honoured by the Bangladesh government because she was born in Pabna, and we felt happy. Soumitra Chatterjee has been honoured by the French Legion de Honor – as was his mentor Satyajit Ray before him – and we felt honoured. The Government of India conferred the Padma on Sir Richard Attenborough for his directorial essay on Gandhi (1983) and we rejoiced. If all of these gladdened our hearts, why should we take exception to Nishan-e-Imtiaz? Why must we carry scars of the past in our mind and heart? Would it not be better to apply balm on wounds and reinforce peace?
Before I wrap up, I must time-travel back to 1991. That was the year the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) conferred an Honoris Causa on Nabendu Ghosh whose 25 year association (1966-1991) had seen the emergence of such famous alumni as Kumar Shahani, Jaya Bachchan, Subhash Ghai, Girish Kasaravalli, Aruna Raje, Syed Mirza, Ketan Mehta, Kundan Shah. “By honouring his association with FTII we are also honouring the milestones the screen writer has gifted to the world of cinephile,” Dilip Kumar had said as the Guest of Honour handing over the honorary doctorate. And in his address to the students, who had caused waves of unrest in FTII, he had said: “You have come here to learn the art of filmmaking. Instead, do you wish to teach your teachers? In our times we did not have any institute, we learnt from our directors. Bimal Roy himself was an institution. Nitin Bose, Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan – they have moulded masters who come to teach you here. You stand to gain if you learn from them. Never forget to benefit from those who have learnt by experience…”
The words stay with me, as do the performances of the timeless actor who stopped short of scoring a century.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
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