Rohana R. Wasala
‘DILIP KUMAR – The Substance and the Shadow’ (2014) published about three months ago by Hay House India is the autobiography of legendary Hindi cinema actor Dilip Kumar (born Yusuf Khan) who is approaching his 92nd birth day. The book entered the Amazon best seller list within two weeks of its publication. Award winning film journalist Udayatara Nayar, a close friend of Dilip Kumar and his wife actress Saira Banu, has put into book form the actor’s life story as related to her by him. It is an authentic account of his long journey in life from his unremarkable childhood as the fourth in a large family of twelve children (six boys and six girls) to dizzying heights of achievement and fame as a film actor.
As Udayatara says in her introduction to the book, the idea of writing the biography was conceived in 2004. One warm afternoon in Mumbai’s midsummer that year, she was helping Saira to arrange the books in the bookshelf in her bedroom. This bookshelf contained a good stock of books of fiction and works of poetry in English and Urdu. Dilip is known to be an avid reader. Picking up a book written by an author who claimed to have known him better than any one else, Dilip told Saira, “This is supposed to be my biography and it is full of distortions and misinformation”. Saira seized the opportunity to repeat her frequent suggestion to her husband that he write his own biography as “India’s first ever superstar and one of the world’s greatest actors”. “All right, I will narrate my story”, Dilip said in reply, “It has to be compiled by someone who is enlightened and ready to put in the hard work that goes into anything I do and it should be someone who knows us really well”. Then Saira said, pointing to Udayatara, “She is right here”. That’s how Ms Nayar was assigned the exacting task of compiling Dilip Kumar’s autobiography.
The assignment was a rare opportunity for Udayatara to realize a lifelong dream. Dilip Kumar is an extremely private person who is “not always comfortable talking about himself and his unequalled achievements”. It was an achievement for her to be invited to write his biography. She thinks it was a dream come true. Her introduction concludes with a retrospective reference to some encouraging words about her that “Dilip Sahab” spoke to S.S. Pillai, editor of the cinema magazine ‘Screen’, after she wrote a long analytical article about him early in her career as a film journalist. (I learnt from the Wikipedia, that S.S. Pillai was Udaya Tara’s paternal uncle, though she doesn’t mention this fact in the book.) Dilip had said to him: “Groom her, make her work hard and she will go places. She has the potential to become a biographer someday”. After nearly half a century of her association with the star couple, Udayatara believes that his words have proved prophetic.
The book comprises twenty-five chapters plus a separate section for ‘Reminiscences’ which accounts for about a quarter of the volume in length. There are forty-three ‘Reminiscences’ which are from a wide range of admirers including such idols of the film world as Amitabh Bacchan, Dharmendra, Amir Khan, Nimmi, Waheeda Rehman, Lata Mangeshkar, Vyjayanthimala and Sharmila Tagore, and Dilip’s nephews and nieces, and their children, and even from his longtime personal dhobi (washer -man) Pyarelal, who all express genuinely felt admiration of the iconic personality of Dilip.
Dilip dedicates the book to “Amma and Aghagi”. What strikes the reader in the opening chapters is his great love for and strong attachment to his mother, Ayesha Begum, and his awe and admiration of his father Mohammad Sarwar Khan who, apparently, with his impressive physique was a commanding presence in his childhood and youth. But he was a loving kindhearted man. He writes on p. 169: “I loved Amma deeply. She was the fountainhead of all the merits and virtues we – her children – possessed. She dealt with all the exigencies of life with a quiet poise and calmness of mind”. But it was the authoritarian matriarch, his paternal grandmother, he calls ‘Dadi’, who ruled the large household in his childhood. She doted on him, adored him, in spite of the fact that he was not a single grandson, but just one of six. Dilip was exceptionally good-looking as a child.
(On reading these first few pages, I found what looked like a certain obsessive preoccupation with his own looks, and began to suspect that he is as narcissistic as his friend Dev Anand obviously is in his self-written autobiography ‘Romancing with Life’. But reading on convinced me that I was mistaken in my conjecture. His attractive physical features are undeniably there, and it is a fact he humbly mentions; it is a gift of nature that was an asset in his profession. Apart from mere good looks, there definitely is enough ‘substance’ in Yusuf Khan that justifies the larger than life celluloid ‘shadow’ by which Dilip Kumar is known to the world.)
‘Dadi’ treated him as an extraordinary child because the night (11th of wintry December) that “Ayesha’s handsome son Yousuf arrived” it was freezing cold, but on the same night there was a huge fire in the Kissa Khwani Bazaar (in Peshawar), his birth place, that gutted the goldsmiths’ workshops. On top of this, one day a wandering fakir who came to their house seeking alms, fixed his eyes on the cherubic Yusuf and told the old woman that he was born for unparalleled achievements and great fame, and that he would be handsome even in his old age, and that he should be protected from the world’s evil eye; for this he recommended that he be disfigured with black soot! So the superstitious grandmother shaved Yusuf’s head and defaced him with soot as recommended by the fakir before he was sent to school. Yusuf had to endure being made fun of by his schoolmates. It took some time and great persuasion by other elders including his Amma to save the little Yusuf from this daily humiliation that was brought on him by his doting but domineering Dadi.
Dilip’s Amma was a beautiful woman according to him; she was fair, frail and petite. She was very kind and loving. She did all the cooking for the large family and looked after all their needs in spite of there being servants. But towards the end of her life she suffered from severe attacks of asthma.
Little Yusuf used to trail his mother all the time, sometimes unknown to her. There is the story of how, once while stalking his mother thus, he accidentally got shut up in a room alone with the corpse of a murdered neighbour.
From Peshawar in the North Western Frontier Province Mohammad Sarwar Khan moved to the hilly station of Deolali (180 km from Mumbai in Maharashtra) with his large young family in the mid 1930’s (This was pre-partition India) because the prospects for his business were better there. As the children were growing up Mohammad Sarwar was able to provide for the family with ease, but later life became difficult. It seems that of the boys only Yusuf proved to be of some help to the parents. Dilip had a good school education at Deolali and in Bombay. After leaving school, he found employment in an army canteen in Pune, where he earned some extra money through a sandwich business. It was by accident that he was spotted by Devika Rani, an actress and wife of Himanshu Rai, owner of the film company Bombay Talkies, who introduced him to the industry.
But his survival and success in the industry were not left to chance. Perfection, ceaseless hard work, and commitment to his profession have been characteristic of Dilip Kumar since the beginning. He is the most conscientious, most socially conscious, most professional cine artiste I have read about. Readers of ‘The Substance and the Shadow’, I am sure, will make a similar assessment of him as an entertainer par excellence who is acutely aware of a moral responsibility to the society. And he has been socially engaged all along, despite his having had to contend with a certain amount of prejudice, which is not unusual in a large country like India. By being equally celebrated in his native India and in the neighbouring country Pakistan, he is a symbol of Indo-Pak solidarity: he is the superstar that both countries jointly claim. The major portion of the book deals with the professional side of the actor’s life.
Dilip Kumar’s private life is much less glamorous than his professional life. Though he is the fourth child in the family, he had to assume the role of a single parent for his siblings after the death of his mother and father. He provided them with the means to obtain their education in India and abroad as they wanted. He married off the sisters. He himself put off his marriage because of his desire to see all his sisters settled before him. Many people raised their eye brows when he married Saira Banu in 1966 who was half his age (he was 44, and she only 22). But when we read the details of the story, it strikes us as natural as it is interesting.
It appears that they were born for each other. For many fans of Dilip and Saira, their marriage was something they never looked forward to. The celebrated Madhubala-Dilip romance was still fresh in their minds. When we read the special chapter on Madhubala (Chapter 13, p. 166-171), we understand why they had to break up; both lovers emerge as innocent victims of Madhubala’s despotic as well as mercenary father Ataullah’s scheming. It is clear that Saira looked at that past of Dilip’s life with understanding and kindness. Soon after their marriage in 1966, Dilip got a call from Madhubala for an urgent meeting with her at her home. By that time she was ill and bed-ridden. He told Saira about this. Saira at once insisted that he should go to see her because it had to be something that distressed her. So Dilip went to Madhubala’s house. It was some personal problem she wanted him to advise her on. He says she seemed satisfied with what he said in response. She looked frail and weak. She managed her “magnificent, impish smile” with an effort. Madhubala was happy to see Dilip. She said, “Our prince has got his princess, I am very happy!” (p.261).
Apart from Madhubala’s unquestioning submission to her father’s wishes all the time which “had an adverse impact on her professional reputation but also on her health needlessly”, he had observed a certain fickleness in her romantic alliances: “she certainly would have been drawn to other colleagues in the profession” (p.168). This is something confirmed by Nimmi in her ‘Reminiscences’ (p.413-416). Nimmi,( who is familiar to us Sri Lankans as playing the female lead in the Hindi film ‘Angulimala’ (1960) against Bharat Bhushan the hero), co-starred with Dilip and Madhubala in ‘Amar’ (1954). She says that their break-up was imminent by the end of shooting of ‘Amar’; her suspicion was that Dilip probably came to know about Premnath and Madhubala being more than just friendly co-stars.
Incidentally, Nimmi, in her reminiscences, talks about the premiere of Aan in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) which she attended with Dilip, presumably in 1952. They were co-stars in Aan (1952) which she says was India’s first Technicolor film. The Lankan premiere of the film was one of the biggest according to her. Massive crowds lined the streets from the airport to the hotel where they were accommodated. They were all Dilip Kumar fans; there was mass hysteria, Nimmi remembers. The crowds broke all cordons at the airport and even ignored security restrictions at the hotel to see him. Nimmi says she had never seen anything so maddening. (I have never heard or read about Dilip and Nimmi’s visit to Sri Lanka in 1952 anywhere else.)
There may not be such Dilip fans in Sri Lanka today. But this autobiography of his will prove a useful as well as enthralling read for all cinema enthusiasts including particularly young actors and ordinary cinema-goers. Dilip Kumar is an iconic figure that we too have a right to claim as belonging to us too and to be inspired by because of our historical, linguistic, religious and cultural ties with India.