“I’m a naughty boy chasing butterflies in the garden of life,” Dilip Kumar confided in all seriousness when he was 65, but as fit as a commando.
I was doing a piece for a news magazine and spent a whole day interspersed with food, music, poetry and other ingredients of the good life in the great man’s company. Call it a journalist’s perks if you like.
The Tragedy King, who died at 98 on July 7 after a prolonged illness, was bigger than Bollywood and certainly bigger than Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan combined. He enthralled an entire nation like no other actor in ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ (1960), ‘Devdas’ (1955), ‘Ram aur Shyam’ (1967), ‘Ganga Jamuna’ (1961), ‘Naya Daur’ (1957), ‘Andaaz’ (1949), ‘Aan’ (1952) and ‘Madhumati’ (1958), which are counted as classics among his 60 odd films in a career spanning six decades after his debut in 1944 with ‘Jwar Bhata’.
His trademark silence and pauses spoke more than the theatrics of his contemporaries. In 1976, he went on a sabbatical for five years but returned to cinema with ‘Kranti’ (1981), ‘Shakti’ (1982), ‘Karma’ (1986) and ‘Saudagar’ (1991). His last film was ‘Qila’ (1998) in which he played dual roles.
Satyajit Ray, no less, called him the “ultimate method actor” and Bachchan once sheepishly acknowledged him as the “greatest actor ever”. He bagged more awards than any other Bollywood star, including eight Filmfare awards, India’s version of the Oscars.
David Lean offered him the role of Sherif Ali in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ but he declined, giving Egyptian Omar Sharif the break of his life culminating in an Oscar nomination for the 1962 blockbuster.
Dilip Kumar was nominated to the upper house of India’s parliament, Rajya Sabha, in 2000 for six years. He was also honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 1991 and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1994 for lifelong contribution to Indian cinema.
Pakistan presented its highest civilian award, Nishan-e-Imtiaz, to him in 1998 for bringing closer nuclear neighbours who have fought three full-scale wars since their birth in 1947 after wresting freedom from Britain.
Peshawar-born Mohamad Yusuf Khan was plucked from a military canteen in Pune belonging to his family by Devika Rani, the hottest heroine of that period who also owned production house Bombay Talkies, and christened Dilip Kumar by novelist-turned-scriptwriter Bhagwati Charan Varma, The renaming was not to conceal his Muslim identity as many believe but in deference to the Hollywood tradition in those days of having screen names — much like Norma Jean became Marylin Monroe.
Kumar earned the sobriquet of Tragedy King because in hit after hit he featured in love triangles invariably losing the heroine in the end. Being a method actor he believed in internalising the roles for an authentic portrayal. But serial rejection by his love interests and dying on screen took its toll. He almost had a nervous breakdown. He got so depressed that he sought psychiatric help.
He flew to London for counseling where he was told to shun tragedies and accept only light-hearted roles to regain his mental health. Taking British advice seriously he acted in romantic comedies blazing a new trail.
In real life, Kumar in his prime was a big magnet for heroines of all ages and social butterflies who swooned over the ruggedly handsome Pathan. After steamy affairs with Kamini Kaushal and Madhubala, in 1966 he married actress Saira Banu who was then half his age — 22. As they were issueless, he briefly married Asma Rehman before annulling his second marriage to the delirious delight of Saira Banu — his lifelong doting companion who fell in love with him while watching him on the screen when she was a 12-year-old kid.
Despite becoming a legend in his lifetime, he was a very modest man. He never claimed to be a creative genius. He said he was merely a performer insisting that only the story writer [of the film] can lay any claim to creativity. In his opinion, directors were mildly creative. But actors were just entertainers portraying characters imagined and fleshed out by the author. Period.
But even such a marvelous down to earth man was targeted by the Hindu far right. In 1999, after India and Pakistan fought a brief war in Kargil, Shiv Sena pressured Kumar to return Nishan-e-Imtiaz to Pakistan. The thespian contacted then Bharatiya Janata Party prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, for advice.
Vajpayee told the superstar that he should decide for himself. And Kumar decided to keep Nishan-e-Imtiaz!
He publicly said: “This award was given to me for the humane activities to which I have dedicated myself. I have worked for the poor, I have worked for many years to bridge the cultural and communal gaps between India and Pakistan. Politics and religion have created these boundaries. I have striven to bring the two people together in whatever way I could. Tell me, what does any of this have to do with the Kargil conflict?”
The actor’s defiance left Vajpayee with no other option but to heap praise on him: “There is no doubt about film star Dilip Kumar’s patriotism and commitment to the nation.” The PM’s certificate put a lid on the controversy.
A few years ago, I was in Peshawar to participate in a conference organised by peaceniks under the banner of India, Pakistan People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy. Well after midnight, our hosts offered to show us Dilip Kumar’s ancestral house near Qissa Khawani Bazaar where he was born in 1922. No one lived in the crumbling house but its big wooden door caught our eye.
Today I can almost hear the loud wailing of his disembodied forefathers behind that door mourning the death of their most illustrious son in faraway Mumbai.
Kumar is survived by his wife Saira Banu and a legacy that few could ever match.
— S. N. M. Abdi, noted Indian journalist and commentator