DILIP KUMAR AT 101by Aparajita Krishna December 20 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 21 mins, 57 secs
Physically Dilip Kumar lived for 99 years (11th December 1922 to 7th July 2021). But like a loved and revered ancestor he is now part of India’s DNA, writes Aparajita Krishna
The Actor-Citizen! I had earlier mulled upon an article on Shah Rukh Khan, with a different take. Dunki is to be a game changer. But…one para on…for reason known and unknown, the young Dilip Kumar started emerging on my mind-screen. Ab kya karein? ‘Nain ladh jayiye toh manva ba kasak hoyebe kari…’ Jaroor jaroor Saheb. Aapke bemisaal kirdaron se nayen ladyi ke na keval aapke baad ke actoron ne kaafi hadd tak acting seekhi, par Hindustan aur sub-continent ke darshakon ne bhi. Aur aapke gaane aur gaane ka andaaz…woh ek vocabulary hai. You live beyond the temporal. Manva mein kasak hoyebe kari. For as long as I live beyond the 62 that I am, Dilip Kumar will emerge younger and more relevant.
Physically Dilip Kumar lived for 99 years (11th December 1922 to 7th July 2021). But like a loved and revered ancestor he is now part of India’s DNA. What makes him most relevant is the context of that India, the Hindi films that got made in his time and his most selective repertoire. No fault of Aamir Khan (who has chosen his roles selectively), or, SRK, or Ranbir Kapoor…the fault is more of the times. Dilip Kumar was largely the Nehruvian India ‘product’ (as an updated vocabulary would say). Just as Jawaharlal Nehru will be recalled, whichever political dispensation India gets, Dilip Kumar will be recalled as reference by whichever generation of actors/makers/audience India gets. He is the first draft for our actors after him. Amitabh Bachchan, the most popularly durable actor-star who followed, would I’m sure have value-added to this statement.
Even to reject Dilip Kumar in some of his roles one has to study him. Dilip Kumar post Shakti (1982) was a compromised, pale version of himself. But that may have more to do with the decline of mainstream Hindi film texts, direction etc. In his later films of the 1980s, 1990s, it appeared that just as generations of actors on-screen, stage and the mohallas of India, and perhaps the sub-continent, would in some way or the other imitate him, so had Dilip Kumar in parts started imitating himself.
Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s protagonist Devdas has become a metaphor for love and suffering. Indian cinema has visited it in versions. It can keep on having film-remakes, but Dilip Kumar as Devdas (1954), directed by Bimal Roy, will remain unparalleled. My birthplace, Muzaffarpur, in Bihar played a pivotal role in the making of this classic. So, I am digressing and sharing a related information. J N Sinha, Associate Professor of history at Rajdhani College, University of Delhi, had written in his article - THE MORTALS OF DEVDAS, published in Frontline, Jan 9th 2015, the real-life analogy and reference to the great novel.
Parvati, affectionately called Paro, was Dheeru in real life (though there are other contenders too). Sarat Chandra met her at school in Bhagalpur. She was the sister of a childhood friend and classmate. She was lively and boisterous, but impulsive and haughty. Often the two quarrelled, but only to reunite again and again. Dheeru’s parents eventually came up with a matrimonial proposal, which Sarat Chandra’s family declined. This was both heart-breaking and humiliating for the haughty Dheeru. She could never forget it.
Soon, Dheeru was married in Muzaffarpur, another town of Bihar. It was now Sarat Chandra who was devastated. He became almost insane for a while and lived like an ascetic. Ultimately, he decided to meet her once again. He came to Muzaffarpur in 1901 and wandered around until he met her one day. Drunk at the time, he caught hold of her. She resisted and reminded him that there was no place for him in her life after her marriage. She complained to her husband, whose musclemen thrashed Sarat Chandra badly and left him near a pond, presuming him to be dead. The next morning a dancing girl named Punty recognised him and took him home to a red-light area called Chaturbhuj Sthan in Muzaffarpur, and she nursed him until he recovered.
The incident sent Sarat Chandra into depression and absolute despair. However, as he was a master storyteller and sang well, he was welcomed in the local mehfils, where he met Mahadev Sahu, who belonged to the elite circles of Muzaffarpur. Sahu loved music and dance and often hosted dance parties. He became Sarat Chandra’s mentor and cajoled him to come out of the emotional morass and enjoy the pleasures of life. Sarat Chandra surrendered to the temptation.
Sarat Chandra had to return to Bhagalpur after his father’s death. He was an emotional wreck when a friend, Raju, took him to a courtesan called Kalidasi at Mansoorganj in the town. Sarat Chandra was so mesmerized by her beauty and artistry that he started living with her. She loved him, too (some people believe this happened in Muzaffarpur). Sarat Chandra started writing Devdas here and made her a character, Chandramukhi, in it. For him, she was an extension of Dheeru. Dilip Kumar in Devdas lived Sarat Chandra then.
I was born in the year of Gunga Jumna release (1961). Obviously, I would have not seen it as a just-born (my smiling emojis), but much later in the years. To-date one catches it on television, or, digitally.
My one personal interaction with the thespian was back in 1997, at the release of Kaifi Azmi’s audio-book of poems ‘Kaifiyat’ (A State Of Mind). It was brought out by Plus Music, the music wing of media-house Plus Channel (India) Limited, headed by Amit Khanna and Mahesh Bhatt. I was the executive producer of this work. Dilip Kumar had come to release the cassette/CDs along with Saira Banuji. This piece carries dear photos of that occasion. Bless the digital era. Now I laugh at the photo wherein I am caught talking (some nonsense) so confidently with Dilip Kumar, Saira Banu and Shabana Azmi as my audience.
I am sharing special tribute-quotes from special persons specially for this article.
ANJU MAHENDROO (Veteran actor, model)
Yusuf Bhai started his film career with Jwar Bhata (1944, of Bombay Talkies). My maternal grandfather Rai Bahadur Chunilal co-owned Bombay Talkies. That’s how Yusuf Bhai’s career started. Then a group comprising of my grandfather, Ashok Kumar, Sashadhar Mukherjee, Gyan Mukherjee started Filmistan Studio. Yusuf Bhai was with Filmistan. Those days actors were with studios. Yusuf Bhai was very friendly with my maternal uncle, Prakash Kohli, younger brother of my uncle Madan Mohan (music-director). He was a cinematographer from London School of Cinematography. He was murdered on a travelling train during an attack by the dacoits.
I played Yusuf Bhai’s younger sister in Sunghursh (1968), Yashoda Prasad. Fun. During the filming of songs, for lip-sync actors take the cue from two previous lines or so, but Yusuf Uncle would take a pre-roll, cue, of about ten lines to get into the mood of the song. He would go on asking for takes. I interacted with him professionally, but would also visit him at his home. He knew my whole family. Once I said to him, “Yusuf Bhai, you remember me?” He said “Thapad laganga Main. Tu Shanti di kudi hai.”
He had been very friendly with Prakash Uncle. I went for his 90th birthday party. He held my hand. He had dementia, but remembered my mother. “Bakwas kadegi toh thappad laganga.” Recall. This year on 11th December I called up Sairaji. We go 70 years or so back to Peshawar. He is the fountain of Indian acting. His romantic songs are breath-taking. Everybody would fall in love with him. I could see it around me.
OM PURI (Actor)
Om had shared with me in 2006 a conversation about Dilip Kumar. While Om was still a college student in Patiala in Punjab and Sanour, Dilip Kumar had already made a huge impact on the national screen. After watching Ram aur Shyam, Om would one day put on Dilip Kumar style high neck coat, swing a muffler around his neck, stylishly set his hair and walk into a local photo studio to pose in the quintessential Dilip Kumar style. Future would serve Om Puri two occasions to come face to face with Dilip Kumar. Both in confrontation: one on- screen and the other off-screen.
Om Puri: Yes, yes! During my growing up years I was greatly affected by Mr Dilip Kumar. I had seen most films of Dilip Kumar, Guru Dutt, Balraj Sahni. These people made an impact. Dilip Kumar did make more impact to be honest. I saw Mr Dilip Kumar in much more substantial roles - Dil Diya Dard Liya, Aadmi and Ram Aur Shyam. These films had very dramatic roles, particularly Ram aur Shyam, where he played two different characters: one a timid person and the other a dominating arrogant one. Gunga Jumna, Yes! Now (2006) I may find him stylized, melodramatic etc., but at that time he made an impact. It’s later when one went to the NSD and FTII that one started looking at his work more analytically and critically.
In 1984 would release the film, Duniya, directed by Ramesh Talwar. It was a big mainstream Hindi film written by Javed Akhtar. Despite the release of Ardh Satya already, Om figured in a bit role in Duniya. The film starred Dilip Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Saira Banu, Rishi Kapoor, Amrita Singh and others. Om would recall the shooting of the one scene he did with Dilip Kumar - the actor so overpowering as an influence in his youth.
Om: I had to do one scene with Dilip Kumar in Duniya. And though I was trained, I was a nobody. So, I was quite anxious. I was a clerk (Vasudev) and Dilip Kumar a senior officer in the company. I lied that I knew how to type. He, the employer, discovered that I didn’t know typing. So, he fired me. In that desperation my character wanted to explain to him that he had to lie for a reason - his personal problems, mother, domestic issues, sickness, phalana-dhimkana. And Dilip Kumar picked up a phone, or, wanted to call someone to dismiss me. So, before he reached out to the phone, as an actor I felt that I should grab his hand in the scene. It was a big moment for me! But I was hesitant. What would be the reaction of the director, or, Dilip Saheb’s? But I grabbed his hand. ‘Please Sir, this is my problem…’ To do that, to grab his hand as a character, I had to fight with myself. It was Not part of the script.
Aparajita: Did you do it in the rehearsals?
Om: I did. I did.
Aparajita: Was it okay by everybody?
Om: Yes, Ya Ya. (laughter). But it must be the same for a young actor even abroad. To do that to Laurence Olivier for example! A certain amount of hesitation is bound to be there. One is not able to distinguish between the character and the actor’s own personality. As a character, in some situations, I could be the employer and Mr Dilip Kumar could be my employee and I may have to fire him (laughter). Om went on to do an uproarious enactment for me. Om as Dilip Kumar’s employer: “Eh suno, idhar aao. Ye kya badtameezi hai? Ye kyun kaam nahi kiya hai?” (Eh! Look, come here. What is this nonsense? Why didn’t you attend to this work?”)
Om also shared an incident that happened in real life.
Om: I think it was at the Filmfare function at Juhu Centaur Hotel in 1985/86. Dilip Kumar gave a speech and talked about ethics in cinema, clean cinema, good cinema. I was sitting at the back. At one or two places I clapped and said “Here, here!” I soon realised that I was clapping alone. Inside me, I was feeling that these people themselves are a part of such a ghatiya (mediocre) industry and on top of that they make such lofty statements about nobility. I carried that thought with me to the party outside on the lawns. Mahesh Kumar and Party started their band. It was a third rate cultural program. I could not stand it, so I yelled, “(enacting) This is what is your idea of culture?”
Aparajita: What was the real anger about or directed at?
Om: Anger was against the film industry, the kind of cinema we are producing. Even now I consider it a very righteous anger. I did not abuse anybody. I just shouted “What kind of tamasha is this yaar? We are talking about ethics and aesthetics in cinema! This is the kind of cultural program? You could have had a classical singer, a ghazal singer, a Bharatanatyam performance, or, Yakshagana. What is this Mahesh Kumar and Party?” This was my anger. Which I justify until today.
KANWALJIT SINGH (Actor)
Dilip Kumar is in our genes. In all the actors of his own generation and mine. Whether some of us admit to it or not! Indirectly and unknowingly, he has influenced even the young actors through many senior actors of today who were highly in awe of the great man himself.
NINA ARORA (Author, journalist)
In remembrance and reverence for a superlative human being - a great raconteur whose thirst for knowledge never abated, whether for cinema, literature, poetry, sports, travel, cuisine, politics or technological innovation.
Once Sheriff of Bombay, he actively supported National Association for the Blind, India. He funded education for poor girls as far back as the 1950s and funded medical treatment for countless underprivileged through a Foundation set up by his wife Saira Bano. He spearheaded Jogger’s Park in Bandra to provide green space in an overcrowded asphalt jungle. His standing as an actor needs no introduction. He was, is and will remain the gold standard for every new generation of actors.
He is a National Treasure, who, in my opinion, will remain unmatched in the next 101 years too.
MANASI RACHH (Actor-Model)
I still remember that while growing-up my grandfather would tell me stories of how he thought Dilip Kumar was a legendary actor and I must watch Mughal-E-Azam. Finally, I must be in my teens, when Mughal-E-Azam was shown on television. I remember we all sat together and watched it. Prince Salim is still etched in my mind. For me Dilip Kumar personifies royalty and grace. When you asked me for my comments, I remembered his work and the legacy. I loved the way he used to communicate both in Hindi and English. So polished. I think what I would like to draw from him is his hold over the languages. If I could steal one thing from him, would love to do that!
Most significantly herein is an excerpt of an exceptionally finely worded tribute piece/essay by Dharmendra Nath Ojha (researcher, script writer) on the occasion of Dilip Kumar’s 101th birthday this year. Originally written in Hindi, it is in the public domain. It is an expert examination, research and summary assessment of Dilip Kumar’s cine-life, focussing a little on the familial background, the casting of Mother India, and most significantly on the making of Gunga Jumna. It is like a screenplay of Dilip Kumar’s this particular chapter from his life. I had to shorten the original in translation. My apologies.
A few years after the partition of the Indian subcontinent, Nasir Khan, Dilip Kumar’s younger brother, leaves for Peshawar. They have an ancestral kothi there. Nurturing the ambition of becoming the Ashok Kumar of the newly formed nation Pakistan’s film industry, he becomes a citizen of Pakistan. But just a few years later this dream starts to get shattered, and in dejection he returns to India. Here Dilip Kumar is shining like the sun on the sky of Hindi cinema. But Dilip Kumar himself is very sad and hurt. His most favourite filmmaker Mehboob Khan has refused to cast him in Mother India. In the original cast of Mother India, it is Dilip Kumar who was to perform the role of Birju, although Nargis, younger to him in years, is to play the mother. In many earlier films the audience has seen them both romance each other on screen. The makers and the team members are doubtful if the public would accept the pair as mother-son. But Dilip Kumar nurses not an iota of doubt.
Just to be a part of this film he is even ready to do the role that gets subsequently played by Rajkumar. Dilip Kumar is to do the double role of Nargis’s husband and son. To appear younger in the role of son Birju, he gets a special wig made from London. But for Mehboob Khan Mother India is a very ambitious film. He does not wanting to take any risk. And, so, he casts Sunil Dutt in the role of Birju. For Dilip Kumar to accept this is akin to sipping a dose of poison. He however wishes Mehboob Khan the very best and takes leave.
It is around this time that Nasir Khan leaves Pakistan and comes to Bombay. He requests Dilip Kumar to make a film himself. He, Nasir Khan, would shoulder the responsibility of acting and of complete production. Dilip Kumar too has been nursing a wounded ego after having been replaced in Mother India. Nasir Khan’s proposal makes him decide and pledge to make a film that would be on a scale that would challenge Mother India.
In his childhood Dilip Kumar had seen a film of Hollywood actor Weles Berry in which a father shoots down his son for breaking the law. This idea had been lurking somewhere inside him. He sits down to write the story and instead of the original father-son he writes the story of two brothers in which the younger brother shoots and kills his elder sibling for being an outlaw. This is how Gunga Jumna takes birth. Dilip Kumar himself starts to write the screenplay of Gunga Jumna. This also happens to be the time when the shooting of Naya Daur finishes, while the shooting of Madhumati and Mughal-E-Azam is continuing.
This is the first time Dilip Kumar is going to be producing a film. The film needs a strong and wise financier like the big-hearted Shapoorji Pallonji, the producer and financer of Mughal-E-Azam. Shapoorji agrees to finance. He calls Dilip Kumar to his office and puts before him two cheque books with his signature on both. He informs Dilip Kumar that the first cheque book is for the production cost of the film and Dilip Kumar is free to write down the amount he chooses. The second cheque book is for Dilip Kumar’s own personal fees. Dilip Kumar is touched by the Shapoorji gesture. It tugs his heartstrings. He feels assured that to make an ambitious film like Gunga Jumna he has a very strong producer’s support.
To helm the direction of the project, Dilip Kumar invites his favourite director Nitin Bose from Calcutta. As cinematographer for the film V. Babasaheb gets signed. For music, Dilip Kumar chooses his favourite, Naushad. And for the lyrics of the songs, it is Shakeel Badayuni. For the film’s dialogues, Wajahat Mirza, the most noted dialogue-writer, is brought on board.
In Gunga Jumna the village and the dacoits are very significant. In India, the native belt and locality of dacoits, has traditionally been Madhya Pradesh, or, Uttar Pradesh. A debate erupts regarding the language and dialect of the dialogues. Should the dialogues be in Khadi-Boli or in Awadhi-Bhojpuri? Mirza writes the dialogues in Khadi-Hindi. But to give the dialogues a flavour of the specific region, zone, Naushad and Wajahat Mirza suggest keeping the language as Poorbi. Dilip Kumar gives his stamp of approval. But the two veteran filmmakers of the times, K Asif and Mehboob Khan, object to this suggestion. They say, ‘Yusuf, do you want to commit suicide by keeping the language as Poorbi? You can well give the songs an Awadhi, or, Bhojpuri touch, but the dialogues of the film should be in Hindi. No one will understand the Awadhi, Bhojpuri dialogues.’
Now the language of the film becomes a big challenge for Dilip Kumar, even though Wajahat Mirza and Naushad are for Awadhi and Bhojpuri. It is in this present that Mother India gets released and is fast becoming a roaring success across Hindustan. Mother India has music by Naushad, lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni and dialogues by Wajahat Mirza. The post-production work of Mughal-e-Azam is going on and here, too, the music is by Naushad, lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni and dialogues by Wajahat Mirza. Gunga Jumna, which is in the making, again has this artistic-trio.
To decide upon the language/dialect for Gunga Jumna Dilip Kumar invites over some people residing in Matunga area of Bombay, who are Tamil, Telugu speaking. They are made to listen to the dialogues of Gunga Jumna that have an Awadhi-Bhojpuri flavour. They are then asked if the dialogues are comprehensible? The Tamil-Telugu folks inform that most surely so. In fact it is sounding even better than Hindi. Dilip Kumar wants to hear just this! He now disregards the suggestions and advice from all the master filmmakers of Hindi cinema and decides to retain the Awadhi-Bhojpuri language-dialect for Gunga Jamuna.
Dilip Kumar had first got acquainted with the Bhojpuri language at Deolali near Nasik. Back then, when he was doing some business in Deolali cantonment area, he would stay there often. In his bungalow lived a gardener from Bihar along with his wife. The couple would converse, joke around and even fight in Bhojpuri. Since that time Dilip Kumar had developed a kind of kinship with this language.
Now Dilip Kumar and Wajahat Mirza go on a journey to Eastern Uttar Pradesh. There they put up in a daak-bungalow and socialise with the local people, talk to them, and observe their language and mannerisms. Thereafter Dilip Kumar again sits with Wajahat Mirza and works on the Awadhi-Bhojpuri dialogues.
Dilip Kumar does the casting for the film himself. He decides for himself to play the role of Gunga and for Jumna his brother Nasir Khan. Vyjayanthimala is chosen for the role of Dhanno. For the villain’s role Nasir Khan, Nargis’s brother, is cast and Kanhaiyalal is signed for the role of Lala. Leela Chitnis is chosen for the role of the mother of Gunga and Jamuna.
The shooting of the film commences in a bungalow named Suraiya Mahal, situated in village Jwaar, close to Igatpuri, near Nasik. Apart from acting, Dilip Kumar has undertaken the role of the producer and ghost-directing alongside. Dilip Saheb is seeming to appear in a multi-task-master mold, although the entire production is being handled by his brother Nasir Khan.
The next day, the scene being filmed is of Vyjayanthimala as Dhanno washing clothes near a pond. It is here that the villain, played by Anwar Hussain, sets his eyes on her. He eyes her at a solitary spot, alone, in the jungle. He symbolically steps onto her clothes and chases her. In those days, Igatpuri was a forest-area. During the shooting the roars of lion and tiger can be heard. Just then a tiger appears from behind the bushes. Seeing the tiger right in front of them, the cast and crew are horrified and shocked. A frightened Vyjayanthimala gets out of the pond and starts running. Anwar Hussain runs behind her. But Dilip Kumar addresses this scene with courage. He instructs everyone to just keep standing at their respective spots. He had installed on duty the forest guards and the locals with arms. The armed guards chase away the tiger. The shooting resumes. Anwar Hussain steps onto Dhanno’s clothes and comes forward. This whole sequence is shown with background music. Finally, when Gunga appears onto the scene Dhanno shouts and tells him, “Kill him Gunga, kill him.” Dilip Kumar chases him away.
One of the humanistic lessons that the film advocates is the love between Gunga and Dhanno. An extraordinary love story between two ordinary persons. A portion of the song ‘Dhoondho dhoondho re saajna mora kaan ka bala’ is picturised at Kasara Ghat near Igatpuri. In this dangerous mountainous region cameraman Baba Saheb is shooting the song from atop a crane. He meets with an accident. But despite that he now sits on a wheelchair and beautifully completes the shooting of the song.
Film aficionados, citizens and especially the young Indians of today would add to their cine-political knowledge to know that back in 1961 when Gunga Jumna was complete and presented to the Indian Censor Board, the latter under the control of I&B Minister BV Keskar, took a strict call on what they thought to be violence and vulgarity. Film-lore has it that the film was slapped with 250 cuts. Dilip Kumar approached Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for help. The actor was allotted 15 minutes for discussion. In the course of the talk Nehru extended the meeting and listened to Dilip Kumar’s concerns. At last, Gunga Jumna was passed with no cuts and a ‘U’ rating. And BV Keskar was dropped from his post.
Cut to: In the last decade or so of his life the great thespian Dilip Kumar seemed to have faced physical challenges of health, speech and memory. What an irony! The visuals show him as if lost to the world and people around him. But I always felt that his sub-conscious mind would be internally living with so many great characters and songs within him.