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Essay

New Perspectives on Cinema & Mental Health

Between 1990 and 2017 one in seven people in India suffered from mental illness ranging from depression and anxiety to severe conditions such as schizophrenia. However, the depiction of this in cinema has been poor and sensationalist contends Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri.

‘In a lot of films there is the underlying message that all the patient really needs is love and affection. There is a tendency in films to try and normalise mental illness by saying that patients don’t need treatment, they need love. The audience gets the two extremes and what we are not getting are portrayals of people with chronic illness.’ – Dr Cleo Van Velsen, psychiatrist

A poet loses his mental balance on seeing his beloved fall to her death. And what do his family members do? They approach a dancing girl in a brothel to marry him in a bid to get him cured. In a fit of madness, he even rapes her, and she becomes pregnant. But the typical ‘good Indian woman’ that she is, she perseveres in her effort. A few convoluted plot-turns later, the poet gets into a brawl with the villain, resulting in the latter falling to his death, much like his lover. Lo and behold! He is cured, though now he has no memory of the dancing girl.

A nurse in a mental hospital is asked to take care of a patient as part of an ‘experiment’ that its dictatorial army doctor president wants to conduct. The patient is cured but it affects the nurse’s emotional stability. Insensitive to her turmoil, the doctor, preening with the ‘success’ of his experiment, more or less browbeats her into another one with a new patient. With disastrous consequences. Not only is the science/medicine of it dodgy (romantic love to cure a person), it also has the doctor spouting a line like ‘there’s nothing like a woman’s love and care to heal an unstable mind’, while the inmates going around the institute are, in the words of writer and critic Madhulika Liddle, the quintessential Hindi-film, “singing-screeching-long-haired lunatics in films like Khilona, Pagla Kahin Ka, Anhonee, etc”.

These are two of Hindi cinema’s most celebrated films, both huge commercial and critical successes: Khilona and Khamoshi. And both equally and criminally unaware of what mental health entails. Over fifty years later, on the evidence of films like Atarangi Re, Hasee Toh Phasee, Judgemental Hai Kya, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Anjana Anjani, Tere Naam (in Hindi) and Hridpindo, Habgi Gabji and Bela Shuru (in Bengali), films continue to be as clueless about mental health conditions (MCHs) and how to deal with them.

As Vidushi Duggal, clinical psychologist and co-founder of Accept, says, “Mental health issues are grossly misrepresented in Hindi cinema. First, there is a tendency among filmmakers to select only the more overt (and hence the more ‘dramatic’) MHCs for portrayal, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder to name a few. Second, the lack of proper understanding and research, coupled with creative liberties aimed at sensational dramatisation, manifests as misinformed content.”

Her colleague and co-founder of Accept, Nikita Ramachandran, also a clinical psychologist, adds, “The depiction of mental health, despite advancement in literature, conversations and growing awareness remains largely uninformed. The core of this depiction is a viewing of mental health from the lens of chronicity and severity of illness. The scope of mental health has largely been limited to insidious mental health conditions such as depressive disorders, OCD, schizophrenia, with some focus on developmental disorders such as intellectual disability, autism or learning disorders. This depiction itself poses a problem, due to the association of mental health with illness/disease. The illness-lens fails to consider a fundamental truth – that mental health exists by virtue of being human.”

Leave alone such classic portrayals as A Streetcar Named Desire, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Hour of the Wolf, going back to the 1950s and ’60s, to more contemporary ones as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, A Beautiful Mind, Silver Linings Playbook, one would be hard-pressed to find one Hindi or Bengali film which addresses the theme with any verisimilitude till almost the new millennium.

There was the odd Mahesh Bhatt film like Arth and Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayi. One character that might escape attention when we talk of MHCs is the tenacious cop played by Boman Irani in Jijy Philip’s My Wife’s Murder, which has an interesting and understated subtext linking a food fetish with subtle melancholia.

Over the last couple of decades, films depicting mental illnesses have proliferated, sadly, with little responsibility and almost no understanding. While it is interesting that the films that managed to get some of it right were all made in the new millennium – reflecting a greater awareness about MHCs and greater acceptance in popular discourse – it is equally frustrating that some of the most pathetic films too have been made in the last two decades. As Vidushi Duggal says, “They depict an oversimplified and skewed portrayal of the MHCs in question, replete with stereotypical and insensitive portrayals that are magnified for dramatic effect.”

But this has been par for the course from, say, a Pagla Kahin Ka in 1970 and other films of the era which showed electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as the cure for all symptoms of ‘madness’, to Krazzy 4 in 2008, where four patients suffering from every disorder possible escape the institution they have been committed to. Their experiences and conditions are then played out for laughs in a manner that is not only insensitive but also offensive.

The Films That Got It Partly Right

Dear Zindagi: That this Gauri Shinde film has been feted in the India media despite its problematic therapist-client relationship says a lot about how starved we are of responsible content. It needs to be applauded for its very nuanced take on mental health (Alia Bhatt[1] is a revelation), with none of the cliches that we are used to. It is also one of the few films that has its protagonist seeking therapy and that depicts sessions with a psychiatrist. As Vidushi Duggal says, “I can think of no realistic psychiatrist in Indian cinema. SRK’s[2] character may come close to a halfway decent portrayal of a psychotherapist in practice, but it too has problematic elements.” One major problem pertains to the relationship between the client and therapist with the latter even taking the former out to the beach for ‘sessions’ and talking about his own failed marriage and relationship with his son. A strict no-no as far as therapy is concerned in real life. As Anupama Chopra pointed out, the film offers a “Vogue version of therapy – a lovely expansive Goa house, sessions during walks on the beach, cycling together and dialogue like har tooti hui cheez jodi ja sakti hai[3]. It’s manicured and pat.”

Taare Zameen Par: This much-lauded film gave us the very real world of a dyslexic child and his relationship with a teacher who recognises his problem and inspires him and people around him to come to terms with and understand the very real gifts the child possesses. Though the child’s trouble with simple arithmetic is more a trait of dyscalculia than dyslexia, it remains a rare Hindi film that has found mention in peer-reviewed academic journals like Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology and Indian Journal of Psychiatry. These journals have praised the film for its general accuracy in depicting dyslexia which “deserves to be vastly appreciated as an earnest endeavour to portray with sensitivity and empathetically diagnose a malady”, blending ‘modern professional knowledge’ with a ‘humane approach’ in working with a dyslexic child. However, it needs to be mentioned that dyslexia is a learning disability and not a mental illness. That the filmmakers club it with other mental illnesses shows how mental health is not correctly understood.

15 Park Avenue: The story of a woman, Mithi (Konkona Sen Sharma[4]), conjuring a utopia in her mind – an imaginary house, 15 Park Avenue, that gives the film its name, happy mother of five imaginary children, wife of an imaginary husband – and living with it, Aparna Sen’s [5]film, shattering and affecting in equal measure, addresses mental illness with a sensitivity and accuracy that almost all Indian films lack. The telling moment when Mithi’s sister (played by Shabana Azmi[6]) tells the psychiatrist (Dhritiman Chatterjee[7]), “What right do we have to take away the happiness she gets from her imaginary world?”, raises an issue that is rarely addressed, the subjectivity of reality: hallucinations can be just as compelling as ‘reality’. Just because someone’s perceptions of reality is at variance from ours, does it give us the right to term the former ‘abnormal’ or object to it?

Death in the Gunj: Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut is another rare film that addresses the unravelling of a fragile mind over a family holiday. Given that the film is set in 1979, an era when there was no conversation around the subject, there is no overt mention of mental health. Also, though Shutu (Vikrant Massey[8]) may be the one who comes across as prone to what could be called mental health issues, the film strips the veneer off the ‘loving family’ to show how we are complicit with our toxic masculinity and bullying in driving a frail mind off the rails.

Other films that got aspects of it right are Black, which despite going over the top in many crucial sequences offers a very nuanced understanding of Alzheimer’s, and Kartik Calling Kartik, one of the first Hindi films dealing with schizophrenia.

The Bad and the Ugly

Tere Naam: Leading the list would be this Salman Khan [9]starrer that featured a mentally unstable protagonist whose head is shaved, and who is tied in chains. The mental hospital sequence in the film is a gratuitous misrepresentation. In a gross failure of messaging, like Shah Rukh Khan’s Rahul in Darr, Radhe Mohan’s obsessiveness, in keeping with the tradition of ‘heroes’ stalking women in Hindi films, is presented as worthy of emulation. One aspect of Hindi films dealing with mental health issues that needs to be called out is the manner in which they position unrequited love/obsession as a trigger, often portraying that as a fashionable antihero statement. Which of course harks back to Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas, the original ‘antihero’ who could have done with psychiatric consultation.

Vidushi Duggal says, “While many films have gone on to give this impression, I would be wary of making that connection as it is yet another example of misinformed sensationalisation. Mental health issues are complex and have multiple causal factors – genetic, biological, psychological and social/environmental. Nikita Ramachandran adds: “The depiction of someone unravelling or descending into a breakdown or developing a mental health condition is an inaccurate portrayal, as well as an overgeneralisation that caters to the general theme of love, attempting to add an ‘interesting’ dimension or layer to this portrayal of love. Equally problematic is the manner in which mental health has been pathologised for a long time. Behaviour seen as deviant, classified as ‘abnormal’, characters depicted with mental health issues were villainized. The violent death has been an age-old trope of a satisfactory ‘The End’, where closure has been synonymous with death and a general depiction of ‘good over evil’.”

Bhool Bhulaiyaa: A psychological horror comedy (!) that ostensibly deals with dissociative identity disorder (DID), this colossal hit makes a series of missteps about mental disorders. Hypnosis as a cure for DID, ‘treatments’ rooted in superstition (including a psychological condition that is cured when the doctor slaps the patient), ‘psychiatrists’ who applaud themselves as godmen – it is an endless list of shocking distortions. Akshay Kumar [10] as a psychiatrist. Need one say more?

Atarangi Re: ‘I am a psychiatrist, and I know women.’ That’s a dialogue a doctor mouths and that’s the level of discourse around mental health this film stoops to. In another sequence the doctor clubs together people with bipolar, psychiatrist disorders and schizophrenia in a manner that’s downright offensive. In one sequence, the ‘imaginary’ character Sajjad, a magician, is supposed to make the Taj Mahal disappear and fails to do so only because the patient has popped a pill immediately before the ‘act’. Filmmaker Aanand L. Rai is a serial offender when it comes to woeful depiction of mental health issues, with the protagonists of Tanu Weds Manu Returns shown consulting a marriage counsellor in an asylum! The man describes his wife’s irrational behaviour as an example of bipolarity to which the doctor responds: “In that case, every woman is bipolar.”  

Anjana Anjani: Writing about the ‘hollow space in my heart’ that made her use the term ‘death thoughts’, Therese Borchard says in her blog, “The most difficult thing I will ever do in my lifetime is to not take my life.” That is everything that is wrong Anjana Anjani, where two adults battling life crises enter a pact to take their own lives. A hugely problematic representation that romanticises suicide, it makes a mockery of the breakdown that drives people to such despair. 

Hasee Toh Phasee: The protagonist here, described as ‘mental Meeta’ in the film’s promotional material, blinks her eyes incessantly, twitches her nose, is extremely jittery – all of which are shown as symptomatic of ‘madness’. She is constantly popping pills to control these sensations which lead to odd situations.

The Situation in Bengali Cinema

Such is the paucity of characters dealing with MHCs in Bengali cinema that a few filmmakers I reached out to, could not come up with a single film on the subject. One pointed out Aparna Sen’s Paromitar Ekdin for its realistic and heartfelt delineation of the character of Khuku, a girl with intellectual disability who is referred to as ‘schizophrenic’ by other characters in the film. Uttam Kumar’s[11]1955 film Hrad, based on a novel by Bimal Kar, is another instance of a film that places its protagonist in an asylum. He seems to have forgotten parts of his life and behaves in a manner that make people feel he is ‘mad’. There’s of course Deep Jwele Jaai, the Bengali original of Khamoshi

Three recent films stand out as examples of how clueless writers and filmmakers are when it comes to depiction of MHCs. Shieladityo Moulik’s Hridpindo is the story of a woman who, because of an accident and the brain surgery that follows, is left with her fourteen-year-old self, with no memory of her life after, including her husband. However, her pronounced lisp and the way she behaves, constantly demanding attention, leaves you wondering if she is a child of seven! Not to mention that a film dealing with a brain surgery is called Hridpindo.

Raj Chakraborty’s Habgi Gabji, the title a take-off on PUBG, addresses the very relevant theme of gaming and mobile addiction and its frightening consequences on young minds. Bolstered by a good turn by child actor Samantak Dyuti Maitra, the film, despite its noble intentions, suffers from the same problems that beset many other films of the genre. The child is taken to a psychiatrist. However, the session does not take place in a professional space but in the doctor’s drawing room. There is little emphasis on understanding, prevention and cure, with a large part of the meandering script devoted to the child’s violence and alienation. Which is disappointing given that the WHO has defined gaming disorder as a “pattern of behaviour characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities” and has flagged the escalation of gaming as a major health risk.

Bela Shuru, one of the biggest successes of 2022, is a high-intensity melodrama with a social message, typical of films by the filmmaker duo Nandita Roy and Shiboprasad Mukherjee. It addresses the onset of Alzheimer’s in the elderly but the symptoms that the wife displays – smearing her face with vermilion, among others – is more in tune with lunacy than the more insidious effects of Alzheimer’s. It is obvious that the filmmakers opt for the overdramatic and take creative liberties in the depiction of mental health issues, dumbing down the narrative, in the process bracketing different illnesses under the same umbrella and distorting the truth.

The lack of proper representation in Bengali cinema is also surprising given that its biggest icon, Satyajit Ray, introduced the world to many unheard-of mental health issues in his stories. Nakur Chandra Biswas in the Shonku books, for example, is a psychic who experiences flashes of the past and future. Barin Bhowmick-er Byaram is the story of a kleptomaniac who has been through therapy. The protagonist of Bipin Chowdhury-r Smritibhrom suffers from a curious case of memory loss, while Fritz explores the childhood trauma of its 37-year-old protagonist. In the Feluda story, Dr Munshi-r Diary, we have a patient who suffers from a persecution complex, an irrational fear or feeling that one is the object or target of collective hostility and persecution. What is fascinating is that Ray wrote about these conditions decades before they became part of the public discourse in India. However, none of these were adapted into cinema.

The Responsibility of Filmmakers and Writers

It is critical to note that cinema plays a significant role in shaping, creating and developing one’s understanding of reality. Films have of late started investing in an intimacy director/coordinator. Maybe it is time to have good psychiatric consultants too. Nikita Ramachandran says, “Mental health and emotional well-being are nuanced, and every story is different. It is challenging to depict the many layers, and also portray these in ways that will resonate or connect with the larger audience.” Vidushi Duggal is of the opinion that, “While acknowledging that an exhaustive depiction of all nuances of mental health is beyond the scope of a time-limited medium that is essentially designed for entertainment, as a community we need to remain cognizant of the potent and pervasive influence of cinema on creating awareness and developing/shaping attitudes. This calls for responsible filmmaking that involves adequate research on the mental health issues being portrayed.”

(Note: For Vidushi Duggal, who listened. Nikita Ramachandran, thank you for your inputs.)

A shorter version of this essay was published in Telegraph earlier

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems(published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).

[1] Indian film actress

[2] Indian film actor, Shah Rukh Khan

[3] Translates from Hindi as: “all broken things can be repaired”

[4] Actress and Director

[5] Actress and Director

[6] Actress

[7] Actor

[8] Actor

[9] Actor

[10] Indian film actor

[11] Actor (1926-1980)

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A Special Tribute

Dilip Kumar: Kohinoor-e-Hind

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.

1955 First release of Devdas . Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

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.

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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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