Thought Box



by Kamlesh Pandey July 8 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 26 mins, 26 secs

Dilip Kumar burgles his way into the performance of every Indian actor of substance whether the actor likes it or not, writes Kamlesh Pandey

What makes Dilip Kumar so inescapable? Why do actors keep bumping into him even when they desperately attempt to avoid him? Especially when they desperately attempt to avoid him? I am still waiting for an actor who is not obliged to take a leaf from the ‘Book of Dilip Kumar’ every time he has to do a scene. From Rajendra Kumar to Manoj Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan, Dilip Kumar has successfully burgled into the performances of Indian actors in every generation, whether they admit it or not (most do, some grudgingly, some privately, some openly).

The matrix of stories told by Hindi films has more or less remained the same. There have been some bold variations on the same theme, but no major departures. Because we are a nation of great storytellers and the stories in Hindi films are a continuity of the mythology and folklore that nourish our roots. And every time we visit a Hindi film, we tend to visit our roots again and again to refresh and enrich ourselves and to find solace and identity in them. Hence, the same stories, the same relationships, the same conflicts, the same values, the same scenes.  

The irony is that in spite of the predictability, the audience expects to be surprised every time. And that has always been a challenge for every writer, filmmaker and actor. How to surprise the audience while offering the same meal day after day, film after film? This is where one begins to admire the talent of actors like Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan who still manage to entertain and enthrall while working within such confinement. Hollywood is not confined by such obligations. The challenge gets worse for other, less talented actors who have to face a benchmark like Dilip Kumar. They are left with no choice but to ape him and let him burgle his way into their performances. Actors like Naseeruddin Shah did make some courageous efforts to find a new route, but while his craft was admired, the Big Burglar remained unchallenged.

It has always amazed me, because funnily enough, one does not find any noticeable growth or development in his performances. From his earliest ‘Milan’ right through to his ‘Devdas’ in late 50’s, his genius appears to be consistent. He perfected his craft over the years so painstakingly and calibrated his performances with such precision that he could virtually orchestrate laughter and tears, applause and chuckles from his audience at his will and command. And yet make it all seem so effortless. The method was conspicuous by its absence. He invested his work with such honesty and love that his face mirrored it all. His mystic fusion of heart and mind with minimal body movement could do the work of a thousand spoken words with a flutter of his eyelids, a look, a vocal intonation, or a mere hint of a gesture. There was more love in his one look than in the entire works of Shakespeare. The two most valuable gifts that Dilip Kumar has given to Hindi cinema are his own unique grammar of silence and the fine art of dubbing.

Long before Marlon Brando made method acting fashionable, Dilip Kumar was practicing it without even realizing it was method acting. And for the first time in Hindi cinema, he demonstrated how correctly dubbing could enhance a performance a hundred fold. His silent, self-effacing minimalism stood out boldly against the backdrop of Raj Kapoor’s boisterous excesses and Dev Anand’s exaggerated stylishness.

‘Andaz’ showcased every trick, every subterfuge, every sleight of hand employed by Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor to steal scenes from each other, but after ‘Andaz’, Raj Kapoor preferred never to be paired with Dilip Kumar again in spite of being best of friends, the heartthrobs of Indian audiences too, and each commanding his own sizeable fan following. And after ‘Insaniyat’, Dev Anand, too, not only foreswore swashbuckling, moustache and dhoti-kurta roles forever but also preferred never to be paired with Dilip Kumar again.

But their healthy rivalry and race for the top slot continued. Dilip Kumar won the race for the best actor by refusing to run it and nonchalantly ambled along to the winning pole while enjoying the landscape and reading Sartre. Even his flops bore the unmistakable stamp of his individuality. He chose his pace, carefully crafted his persona, learned to say ‘no’ and allowed the mist around him to thicken. He chose to remain Dilip Kumar, gently breaking a million hearts while playing a heart-broken young man to perfection. With the result that he managed to sail through many flops, keeping his persona, his mystery and his stature intact. While film after film, from breezy ‘Naya Daur’ to swashbuckling ‘Azad’ and ‘Kohinoor’, and from epic ‘Mughal-E-Azam’ to frothy ‘Raam Aur Shyam’, all chose to showcase either his tragic or comic side; his ‘Gunga Jumna’ showcased a performance of such maturity and completeness, it remains unbeatable till today.

‘Gunga Jumna’ is hell of an inescapable film. The Big Burglar at his best. It has made me miss many of my script deadlines for ‘Saudagar’. For me, the dilemma has always been to decide what is more rewarding - watching a Dilip Kumar film or writing a Dilip Kumar film? I still do not have an answer, I only have a personal journey from being a passionate fan to a professional colleague who got hooked on Dilip Kumar in 7th Grade and finally found he was writing movies starring him.

In late 50’s and early 60’s, film magazines were not allowed in respectable homes to protect kids like me from the bad influence of the movies. The only opportunity to flip through a film magazine was at the hairdressing saloon. There used be a clamor between customers, especially youngsters like us, to get the film magazine first. Ultimately it used to get divided page by page among us. And on busy Sundays, I used to faithfully surrender my place in the queue to others to be able to spend more time with my share of the page. But then so did the others. So a simple haircut used to take all morning. The irony was that none of us actually wanted to have a hair cut - we were all Dilip Kumar fans and preferred to wear our hair long and tousled, much to our parents’ annoyance, and often, their slap.

But when I first saw ‘Insaniyat’ I thought the chimp acted better and I couldn’t understand why my older cousins and uncles were going gaga over this actor called Dilip Kumar and his acting. But it was not long before Dilip Kumar burgled his way into my heart and mind, in the way he had burgled his way into the hearts and minds of the entire nation. The films were ‘Daag’, ‘Deedar’, ‘Jogan’, ‘Amar’, ‘Andaz’, ‘Footpath’, ‘Devdas’, to name only a few.

By the time I got to High School and Intermediate, Dilip Kumar and his films on a regular basis, often making big holes in my meager pocket money, burgled into my matinees. But they were lit by the movies memories are made of - the black and white empire of shadows, the conspiracy between light, lens and celluloid to bewitch minds and steal hearts. The darkness of the cinema waiting for burglars, like Dilip Kumar, to break and enter - it was magic.

Dilip Kumar was not merely an actor or a star. His performance defined our personal worldview of love and longing, life and death, not just our hairstyle. Dilip Kumar made unrequited love and sacrifice fashionable for an entire generation. Heart broken healthy young men prayed to get TB - many hit the bottle. Tousled hair and brooding eyes became fashion statements. I escaped the fashion statement, but I couldn’t escape Dilip Kumar.

In late 1960’s and 70’s, when the Parallel Cinema movement was at its peak, Dilip Kumar was still wowing with ‘Gopi’, ‘Sagina’ and ‘Raam Aur Shyam’. In ‘73, the arrival of Amitabh Bachchan changed much in Indian cinema - a few things for the better, a few things for the worse.

Curiously, the thing that made Amitabh Bachchan a star also became the worst victim of his stardom - the script, producers and directors began to feel that you only need Amitabh Bachchan and half a dozen ‘items’ to make a successful film. The script was an evil necessity at best and a dispensable item at worst. Unfortunately, the same attitude continued through the 1980’s and 90’s resulting in 95% flops. The trend has only recently begun to change. But even in those days, the items, especially the comedy items, were rip-offs of Dilip Kumar scenes. Amitabh Bachchan revived them with his own enormous comic talent because his features, like Shah Rukh Khan’s, seem to be cast from the same mold as Dilip Kumar.

During the 1970’s and 80’s, most of the cinemas in the Grant Road area played Dilip Kumar’s old movies in the matinee shows and the theatres used to be full of 50/60-year-old Dilip Kumar fans in burqas, some chaperoned by their teenage granddaughters. I used to revisit the matinees of my own adolescence. In late 60’s and 70’s, when the Parallel Cinema movement was at its peak, Dilip Kumar was still wowing with ‘Gopi’, ‘Sagina’ and ‘Raam Aur Shyam’.

In 73, the arrival of Amitabh Bachchan changed much in Indian cinema, a few things for the better, a few things for the worse. And then Hindi films discovered me.

Subhash Ghai called me to write ‘Saudagar’, which had the only two actors I had ever been a fan of - Dilip Kumar and Raaj Kumar. I would have done that film for free, but I got paid for fulfilling a lifelong dream - to write for Dilip Kumar and Raaj Kumar.

It was a lazy afternoon in the lobby of Fariyas hotel in Lonavla where Subhash introduced me to Dilip Kumar. Dressed in his favorite spotless white, he hugged me as if I was an old friend. That was the beginning of my seduction by Dilip Kumar, the actor. Subhash made some small talk and excused himself to visit the health club, leaving us together to discuss the scenes we had planned for the first shooting schedule. But not before reminding me quietly that I was no more a fan of Dilip Kumar, but a professional colleague, and the writer of the script that Dilip Kumar was supposed to invest his acting in the service of. His warning had not prepared me for what was coming.

Dilip Saab (as he is addressed by the film industry) suggested we retire to my room and look at the scenes. My room, not his room!


Dilip Kumar and I enter. I offer him the only chair in the room and myself opt for the edge of the bed. But he prefers to stand and walk around while I narrate him the scene. He continues to look at the bare walls while I narrate. I am not sure if he is really listening or not. I am nervous as hell. I think I have written a lousy scene, not worth the attention of the greatest actor in the history of Indian cinema.

The scene is where Dada Bir (Dilip Kumar) receives a letter from his friend Mandhari (Anupam Kher) about his grandson Vasudev (Vivek Mushran) and is sharing it with his sister Badi Bi (Dina Pathak) and daughter-in-law (Dipti Naval). The letter is full of the achievements of Vasudev.

Suddenly, just when I am thinking of leaping out of the window and running all the way back to Mumbai, Dilip Kumar turns to me. He points to the bare walls and begins to describe the entire scenario - who is standing/sitting where and doing what, including what are the properties in a farmhouse. And then, he takes the scene from my hands and begins to speak his lines addressing all the absent characters and using the invisible properties. He uses the entire room for his pacing and builds an emotional high, which even I, as a writer, never realized the scene had. In a brief shining moment, sitting in a bare room in a hotel in Lonavla, I am transported to Dada Bir’s farmhouse in Himachal Pradesh and moved to tears at a grandfather’s pride in his grandson’s achievements he has been away from for 12 years. He makes me recall my own grandfather and how he must have felt when he heard that his good for nothing grandson got a job and a good one at that.

Dilip Kumar asks me what do I think of his interpretation. I am already overwhelmed by the honor of being the sole beneficiary of the performance of the greatest actor of Hindi cinema and trying to recover from it. The fact that he has asked me to rate his performance leaves me completely speechless. I mumble some inanities about the length of the scene and the need to shorten it a bit - paper being cheap, raw stock expensive. He laughs. The Big Burglar had struck again.


I tell Subhash what Dilip Saab did with the scene. He laughs and tells me I am still reacting like a fan. I must try and grow into a professional colleague.

And one week later…


The first day of the shooting: I sit with Dilip Kumar, going over the scene. It is exactly the same scene he had performed for my sole benefit in my hotel room in Lonavla. With the disarming humility and innocence, which must come so easily to an actor of Dilip Kumar’s caliber, he asks me if he should use an accent for his dialogues. Dilip Kumar asking me! I am blissfully oblivious what he is really trying to do. With the naivety of a passionate fan still far from being a professional colleague, I immediately agree. I know he has a wonderful ear for dialects. He has proved it so well in ‘Gunga Jumna’ and ‘Sagina’. He thanks me for agreeing to his suggestion and asks a little time to work on it.

I exit, thrilled that the greatest actor in the history of Indian cinema asked me for my opinion on his suggestion. I feel cocky. I am on top of the world. Without realizing that I am being actually seduced and caught in the web of the magic called Dilip Kumar.


I dutifully inform Subhash that Dilip Saab has suggested that he should use an accent for his dialogues and I have promptly agreed. Subhash bursts into a huge laughter and then confides in me what a ‘naughty boy’ Dilip Saab is. Being only three-film old, I do not understand. Subhash tells me I will understand it when I meet Raaj Kumar with the scenes.



The first shooting schedule with Raaj Kumar: I discuss the scenes with Raaj Kumar. He loves the dialogues but seems to be more bothered about his clothes. I tell him that what he is wearing is perfect (though personally I consider it a little outlandish). He talks about his favorite writers and asks me where I had been all these years. I am flattered. We discuss a little bit about some obscure Russian novelists. Raaj Kumar is a great fan of Dostoyevsky. So am I. We instantly click.

And then he quietly asks what ‘Laalay’ was going to do (‘Laalay’ being Raaj Kumar’s nickname for Dilip Kumar - Dilip Kumar’s nickname for Raaj Kumar was ‘Shehzaade’). I tell him Dilip Saab is using an accent.

Raaj Kumar is about to light up his pipe. He stops and looks at me, perhaps trying to figure out the level of my involvement in this conspiracy. He can sense my innocence and suggests that he should also use an accent because in the film both are friends from childhood. Now I realize what Subhash meant. I am in big trouble.

I try to convince Raaj Kumar that in the film, he is an educated industrialist and an aristocrat who has spent most of life in America and is returning after 12 years. It will not be appropriate for him to use an accent. Mercifully, he agrees. I am relieved. But I can also hear the wheels turning his mind. He must be thinking how to hold his own in his confrontation scenes with Dilip Kumar who has smartly stolen a march on him by taking the advantage of an accent. Remembering Dilip Kumar from ‘Gunga Jumna’ and being well aware what he is capable of doing with an accent, I now understand why Subhash called Dilip Saab a ‘naughty boy’. I am worried for Raaj Kumar and decide that I need to make his lines stronger to balance their performances.



Dilip Saab arrives for his first shot and begins to deliver his lines. He has apparently concocted a beguiling mix of Hariyanavi and Avadhi tempered with a hint of Pashto, a frontier dialect from his birthplace now in West Pakistan. It works. Subhash is thrilled and worried both at the same time. He is thinking of Raaj Kumar and how he would have to balance both thespians.


Subhash Ghai had scored a virtual casting coupe by bringing Dilip Kumar and Raaj Kumar together after 28 years. The first time, they were paired together in ‘Paigham’ as brothers and many felt Raaj Kumar stole the thunder from the reigning king Dilip Kumar. In the intervening 28 years, Raaj Kumar too had built a mystique, a persona, a huge fan following and a legendary status that, many felt, equaled Dilip Kumar’s. The industry gossip was that ‘Saudagar’ would never be made. Not only because it would be impossible to manage both thespians together, but also because Raaj Kumar had been diagnosed with cancer. But Subhash dared to ignore all industry gossip and warning and Dilip Kumar and Raaj Kumar both went out of their way to assure him of their full cooperation. Raaj Kumar, in fact, showed Subhash Ghai his medical report that he was now all right after his treatment.

But what perhaps mattered most to both Dilip Kumar and Raaj Kumar is the fact that in Hindi movies, ageing stars do not get offered these kind of leading roles everyday (I remember Amitabh Bachchan saying in an interview that ‘Saudagar’ has proved there is still hope for older actors in Hindi films), and that this might be their last chance to work together. While each was cautious about his role and performance, each also had tremendous respect for the other.


Dilip Kumar, the irrepressible raconteur, is regaling us with his stories - many of them from his ‘Mugh-E-Azam’ days. There is one about the tiff between Kamal Amarohi and Wazahat Mirza, two of the four-writer team. Both were also masters of the language. Both were celebrated film writers. While Kamal Amarohi brought elegance and literary flair of classic Urdu into Hindi movies, Wazahat Mirza was credited with classics like ‘Mother India’ and ‘Gunga Jumna’. Dilip Kumar brings his art and craft to this idle evening entertainment with the same precision and painstaking detail that he had brought to the ‘Saudagar’ scene for me in a hotel room in Lonavla and later during the actual shooting of the scene. He is always on camera.

Anyway, as the story goes, Wazahat Mirza never lost a chance to pull Kamal Amarohi’s leg, of course, in his own elegant, literary way. For ‘Mughal-E- Azam’, K.Asif used to make all the four writers write all the scenes and then picked the best parts from each one to make the final scene. While Kamal Amarohi preferred a more flowery and ornamental approach, Wazahat Mirza was always precise and pithy. Hence more of his scenes found their way to the final than Kamal Amarohi’s.

During one of many such sessions, Wazahat Mirza commented on one of the phrases used by Kamal Amarohi and certified it ‘na-mauzun’(inelegant). Kamal Amarohi blew his top, of course, in his own literary way. He politely addressed Wazahat Mirza and told him, ‘Wazahat Miyan, aap yahaan se 210 number bus pakadiye aur Bandra station utariye. Wahan se Western Railway ki local pakadiye aur Grant Road utariye. Grant Road se aap 123 number ki bus pakad kar Nul Bazar utariye. Aur Nul Bazar mein jahan sil-batte bikte hain uss dookan mein jaiye. Aur wahan se aap ek wazanee sil khareed kar yahaan laiye aur mere sar par maariye. Aap sil ko mere sar par maar kar zarra-zarra kar denge tab bhi main ye maanane ko taiyar nahin hoon ki ye jumla na-mauzun hai.’ (Wazahat Miyan, you catch bus 210 from here and get to Bandra station. From Bandra station, catch a Western Railway local and get down at Grant Road. From Grant Road station catch bus number 123 and get down at Nul Bazar. You will find many shops that sell stone mills and grinders. Buy a heavy stone grinder from there and break it into small particles on my head and still I will refuse to accept that my expression is inelegant).

Subhash and I are in splits. Dilip Kumar mimics K.Asif, Wazahat Mirza and Kamal Amrohi to such perfection that the scene deserves to be ranked among his best comedy scenes ever. And he is not even before the camera! Suddenly, almost on cue and in the best tradition of dramatic entries in Hindi films, Raaj Kumar enters. And Dilip Kumar changes his persona in an instant. He gets up and warmly embraces Raaj Kumar. Both backslap each other between shouts of ‘Laalays’ and ‘Shehzaades’ as if two long lost buddies are meeting. And they actually are. 28 years is a long time.


The entire unit is out. I am closeted in my room, reworking the next day’s scenes. The phone rings. It is Dilip Saab. He invites me to join him for lunch. It is not a very difficult choice for me whether to work on a Dilip Kumar scene or have lunch with him. I instantly choose lunch with Dilip Kumar even if it means inviting Subhash’s dirty looks for not finishing the required scenes. It is not everyday that one gets invited by the greatest Indian actor to have lunch with him.


In Manali, Dilip Kumar always has three menus to choose from - one from his personal cook who accompanies him everywhere, the second from the hotel Chef (Dilip Kumar loves Chefs and knows how to get THE best from them), and the third a local Chef from Manali town for Himachali dishes.

Dilip Saab is as passionate a connoisseur of food as he is of everything beautiful (specially beautiful hands) and a raconteur par excellence. He loves the sound of words. He makes love to words, rolling them on his tongue like a rare wine, exploring their hidden flavors and subtle nuances of meaning, choosing them as carefully as a jeweler chooses a diamond before he finally places it on a piece of exquisite jewelry. And right now, once again, I am the sole beneficiary.

I am feeding on his words as much as on the wondrous gourmet delights. It is hard to decide what tastes better - his words or his menus. We talk about writing and writers. His favorite are Persian poets, specially Sheikh Saadi and Omar Khayyam. I remind him that there was once a rumor about him playing Omar Khaiyaam in an international film. He dismisses it as a mere rumor, though he would have loved to play the great Sufi poet.

I ask him about another project ‘Chankya Aur Chandragupta’, starring him as Chankya, Amitabh Bachchan as Chandragupta and Dharmendra as Seleucus Nikator, for which he went to London for an extensive make-up test. It was going to feature a bald Dilip Kumar! The film never took off. But I do remember his photographs in a film magazine in full make-up and costume of Chankya with a shoulder length mane and high, shaven forehead. It would have been an epic if it had been made. But Dilip Kumar dismisses it as being too ambitious. A film of this stature deserved a far more talented director and resourceful producer than currently available at that time.

I ask him if it was true that he was offered the role played by Omar Sharif in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and he refused. He admits it was true. And he refused it because it would have been below his and his country’s dignity to play a minor role in an international film. I remind him that Omar Sharif went on to become a major Hollywood star. I discover that Dilip Kumar is not moved by such considerations. He is not the one to be tempted by money or international recognition. For example, he would not wear a sari and dance to a vulgar song like other actors even if he is offered 50 crores. While every actor and sportsman today has allowed himself or herself to be seduced by the color of money offered by companies for being their brand ambassador, Dilip Kumar has consistently stayed away from it all. Even when he has done any promotion, it has always been for a public cause and whenever he has received a payment for a promotion, the money has always been donated to his favorite charity - the Institute for the Blind.

And then we begin to talk about ‘Saudagar’. He suggests we retire to my room and discuss it over some elegant tea. My room again, not his room!



I am listening to Dilip Kumar narrating the story of ‘Saudagar’ to me. I am also taping it for posterity. Not for ‘Saudagar’ according to Dilip Kumar’, but for the sheer magic of his voice, the pitch, the timber, the inflection, the resonance, the subtle twists and turns of his rhythm rising and falling like the river flowing outside the hotel room. I am reminded of Richard Burton’s voice in the film ‘Under Milkwood’ and how the words of poet Dylan Thomas dipped in Burton’s wine-warmed intoxicating voice begin to give you a hangover. I am in a place where all gifted actors like Dilip Kumar choose to take us. Paul Muni, Garry Cooper, Henry Fonda, Bogart, Olivier, Brando, Al Pachino, Jack Nicholson, and of course, Amitabh Bachchan when he recites ‘Madhushala’.

The last golden light on the Himalayan peaks is fading away. The blue shadows loom large across the hills. Suddenly, he decides to call it a day and warns me that he might call me in the middle of the night and wake me and Subhash up to discuss his ideas for the scene.


Dilip Kumar lives up to his warning. We discuss his interpretation of the scene and promise to keep it in our mind.


The entire unit is waiting for Dilip Kumar to turn up. It is a crucial scene where a drunk Dilip Kumar challenges Raaj Kumar who is watching him from his balcony high up in the hills.

Dilip Kumar always had his reservation about this scene. From ‘Daag’ to ‘Devdas’ and ‘Sagina’, he has perfected the drunk in Hindi cinema. Hasn’t he done it enough, he wonders! It would be just one more drunken scene, he feels. We insist and assure him that this scene will get the loudest applause in the theatre. He is still skeptical. He doesn’t refuse point blank, but he doesn’t turn up for the shot either for one reason or another. I ask Subhash what’s the problem. It is a good scene, after all.

Subhash enlightens me that Dilip Saab is right. This scene is not as simple as it appears. It needs just the right degree of exaggeration to make it work. If it is more, it will be overacting. If it is less, it won’t be enjoyable. And who should know it better than an actor of Dilip Saab’s experience and caliber? A 65-year old Dilip Kumar’s reflexes and controls over his body language may not be as complete as a 32-year old Dilip Kumar’s. Craft does not age, bodies do. I understand.

I am sent to his room to reassure him that if the scene does not work, we will cut it out.


I enter and offer to take a bet for Rs.100 if the scene doesn’t get the loudest applause in the theatre. He smiles. He is not unused to applauses. I remind myself that I am sitting in front of an actor who had mastered the craft of orchestrating chuckles and applauses in his films when I was in seventh Grade.

We go over the scene line by line. He rehearses it a couple of times and asks me to signal him from behind the camera if he is getting too loud or not loud enough.

I am flattered once again. We leave.


Dilip Kumar is performing the drunken scene. He gives so many variations, one better than the other, I wonder how Subhash is going choose the best take. I voice my concern to Subhash. He tells me he would know. That’s what qualifies him to be a director. I realize I will never be a director, not if I have to work with actors like Dilip Kumar.

The first show of ‘Saudagar’, the drunken scene by Dilip Kumar gets the loudest applause in the film.


I call Dilip Saab and tell him he has lost the bet. The Big Burglar still owes me Rs.100.

PS: For fans and colleagues like me drunk on Dilip Kumar, he is a hangover that will continue to intoxicate us as long as we live, write movies or watch them.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.