The king of tragedy

Posted on July 29, 2014


Thoughts on a lopsided autobiography of Dilip Kumar, which sheds light on the actor’s early life and career, but skimps on what we really want to know.

A few pages into Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow, an autobiography “narrated to Udayatara Nayar,” Dilip Kumar admits that he does not know how he came to be known as a method actor. “The epithet was used for me much before it was used for Brando,” he says. “The truth is that I am an actor who evolved a method, which stood me in good stead. I learned the importance of studying the script and characters deeply and building upon my own gut observations and sensations about my own and other characters. It was always meaningful for me to study even those characters who would be close to me or opposed to me.” Later, he reveals how the director Nitin Bose, during the making of Milan, taught him how to prepare for his part. “He made me write four to five pages expressing my feelings as the character of a man travelling to Varanasi to immerse his mother’s ashes in the Ganga.”

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Dilip Kumar approaches his autobiography the same way, from the outside in, and with similar meticulousness. His builds his story brick by brick, the way he built his characters, carefully choosing what he wants to show us, carefully concealing the rest. (Not for nothing is the book titled The Substance and the Shadow.) He is most forthcoming in the early portions, set in Peshawar, where he was born as Yousuf Khan – the anecdotes are suffused with a Rushdie-like exuberance. About his grandmother, he says, “For some reason, she always wrapped around herself a large shawl, which was almost the size of a single bed sheet. When I chose to hide from [my father] Aghaji or Amma after getting into some mischief, I invariably found refuge in the folds of her shawl, which she would open for me like a magic tent…” In the mid-1930s, the family boarded the Frontier Mail to join Aghaji in Bombay. “When the train stopped at stations, there were men carrying casks of tea and water in pots calling out: ‘Hindu chai, Hindu paani, Muslim chai, Muslim paani.’ ” There’s even a “dog man,” who shot down strays and harvested their tails for his collection.

Dilip Kumar is 91 years old, and he speaks of these events as if they occurred yesterday. After an altercation with his father, he left for Poona with just forty rupees in his pocket, and a job tip deposited him at a restaurant owned by an Anglo-Indian couple. He remembers the lady as “plump and matronly,” and “she smiled hesitatingly through the dimples in her freckled cheeks.” That’s some memory, if, after seventy-odd years, you still remember the freckles. Here’s another instance of almost screenplay-like scene-setting. “I poured out my heart to [my brother], talking to him while sitting on a bench in a park nearby as the sun went down inch by inch on the horizon in a blaze of orange and gold, while the birds flew hurriedly into the branches of trees…”

The chapters where he discusses his craft are filled with similar texture and detail – he doesn’t let us in completely, but at least we get to see an actor who treated his work with seriousness and respect. A chance visit to Bombay Talkies studio resulted in an encounter with Devika Rani. She asked him if he would become an actor. He agreed. She gave him his screen name. And Ashok Kumar, who was already a star, gave him tips. “You just do what you would do in the situation if you were really in it. If you act it will be acting and it will look very silly.” Dilip Kumar gave his first shot for Jwar Bhata, when he was barely 21. He quickly realised that the screenplay was the backbone of a film, and he began to watch films regularly. He’d see the same film twice, in consecutive shows, because something that caught his attention in the first viewing could be reviewed closely in the second. This involvement becomes all the more impressive when we realise how new cinema was to him, to his family. He was a fruit merchant’s son, and the only film he’d seen in his life was a war documentary. Later, when Aghaji saw Mela, he came home and told his son, “Look if you really want to marry that girl, I can talk to her parents.”

Dilip Kumar found that he needed to strengthen his instincts because “the duality between the real and unreal cannot be sorted out by the mind, which is more concerned with truth and logic… The mind will always tell you this is nonsense: this woman you are addressing as ‘maa’ is not your mother… It is only instinct that will help you to absorb what you have to absorb from the script and drive you to render a performance coated with realism and conviction despite the knowledge of it all being fiction and drama.” Sometimes, he dug deep. “It was the pain I endured as the alienated child in school that surfaced from my subconscious when I was playing the early tragic roles in my career.” More specifically, to play the scene in Mashaal where he has to take his wife to the hospital, he drew on memories of his father yelling for someone to fetch a doctor when his mother was gasping for breath after an attack of asthma. He became the “tragedy king” – and at some point, he began to suffer from depression. A British psychiatrist told him that he was carrying his roles home. It was time to change tracks. Dilip Kumar chose to remake the MGR-starring Tamil swashbuckler Malaikallan. The result, Azaad, was a huge hit. He talks plainly about his doubts. “I knew that comedy required a broad base and an exceptional sense of timing, which was a carefully honed skill more than a gift or flair. Initially, my fear was whether I possessed that skill.”

So far, so good. But our relationship with stars is through their films, which become our reference point when we talk about them, think about them, when we buy books about them. After dwelling languorously on his early life and career, in language that’s as stately and understated as the performances that made him famous, Dilip Kumar, strangely, gives short shrift to his films. This is unfortunate because few people know, better than the actor, how a film really got made. And Dilip Kumar slowly became more than just an actor for hire. He began to consider the film in its entirety, “as a product.” He would suggest technicians and co-stars. (He was responsible for roping Premnath into Aan.) He involved himself in the writing process, and in the case of Aadmi, he even helped out with the editing and the cinematography. He could have taken us through his films, given us an idea of how movies were made in that era. He describes a world of detailed scripts, tasteful and knowledgeable directors – how did we get from there to the decades where scripts were written on the sets? But all we get are snippets from an impressive body of work: Kohinoor, Devdas, Naya Daur, Mughal-e-azam, Ram Aur Shyam, Gunga Jumna, and later, Shakti, Kranti and Saudagar. We get a pitiful handful of anecdotes about working with the likes of Vyjayanthimala, SS Vasan and Bimal Roy, and if we get a little more about Gunga Jumna than the other films, it’s probably because he calls it “essentially my baby,” despite the director’s chair being occupied by Nitin Bose. To prepare for Gunga’s death scene, he ran around the studio’s premises to the point of collapse. (Many years later, Dustin Hoffman would do something similar for Marathon Man.)

Scattered through these career highlights are reminiscences about his family, about whose members he speaks very frankly. After he became a big star, he bought a bungalow on Pali Hill, which came to house his siblings. He says, “I felt completely out of synch with my brothers and sisters who were becoming increasingly concerned only with their comforts and luxuries, which they did not hesitate to ask me to provide.” We get a few pages about his foray into politics – first, helping Krishna Menon’s campaign in the 1962 election for the North Bombay Lok Sabha seat, and later, becoming a somewhat absent sheriff of Bombay. (The Amul hoarding of the time clapped a Stetson on the Amul girl, who said: “Sorry, Pardner, the Sheriff’s out shootin’.”)

While talking about the women in his life, however, Dilip Kumar retreats completely into the shadows. About Kamini Kaushal, he simply says that he was drawn to her more intellectually than emotionally. About Madhubala, revelations about whom will be the reason many readers buy this book, we get these limp lines. “I must admit that I was attracted to her both as a fine co-star and as a person who had some of the attributes I hoped to find in a woman…” And, “matters began to sour between us, thanks to her father’s attempt to make our proposed marriage a business venture.” (Her father expected to cash in on this pairing in a series of home productions.) And the infamous episode of his second marriage to Asma he tackles with a lawyer’s love for obfuscation. “A connivance was being mischievously perpetrated and a situation being cleverly created by vested interests to draw a commitment from me.” Wife Saira Banu, understandably, gets talked about the most. (She returns the favour with this description about her husband in her foreword: “His is the unspoilt, innocent, untainted smile of a babe in arms – his eyes have the purity and honesty of crystal-clear running water in a brook.”) He speaks fondly of their early life together, which they began at Madras, “the most erudite and culturally wealthy city of India.” There’s even a hint of mischief, in a telegram that’s reprinted here; “Missing lawfully wedded wife got only a discarded hairpin and abandoned piece of sunlight soap for company situation lightly disturbing.”

In these discussions about women, the personal side of the star reveals itself. He says he was relieved when he parted from Madhubala because “in marriage it is important for a woman to be ready to give more than receive.” Speaking of his longstanding marriage with Banu, he says, “In later years… this one quality to happily fall in line with what I said was the essence of the success of our marriage.” And Lata Mangeshkar – in the second part of the book, titled Reminiscences, where friends, colleagues and family, well, reminisce about Dilip Kumar – recalls how her rakhi brother frowned when he learnt that she was about to begin her 1974 Royal Albert Hall concert with Inhi logon ne, from Pakeezah. “The lyric alluded to something he did not want to hear from his sister.” Consequently, one can only imagine how so genteel and conservative a man went about narrating to his scribe – female, no less – the incident that involved his pubic hair. Dilip Kumar had a huge complex about his hirsuteness. Once when he was working at an army canteen, he was shocked to see the British officers undress and bathe in front of each other. One day, a sozzled “Tommy” forced him to strip and take a shower. “It was a bit of a shock and a huge embarrassment because I was extremely conscious of my hairy body, especially the hair on my hands, which would fall limp on one side when water fell over them and so would all the hair on the rest of my body. Hence, I never liked the idea of exposing my body. It is for this very reason that I have had a preference for long-sleeved shirts.” In the book’s latter part, Waheeda Rehman discloses that Dilip Kumar did not do a film with Satyajit Ray because it required him to appear bare-bodied.

This section, then, is a curiosity. Why, we wonder, the need for a separate set of notes on an actor’s life and career? Rather, why couldn’t Udayatara Nayar have combined both sections and written a biography? We learn, in passing, that Dilip Kumar turned down David Lean’s offer of a part in Lawrence of Arabia. Why didn’t Nayar press her subject for more on this topic? Did she have any hand in shaping this book, or was she just someone who took dictation? Salim Khan tells us that Dilip Kumar regretted not doing only three films: Baiju Bawra, Pyaasa, and Zanjeer. But what are Dilip Kumars’ thoughts on these films? The Substance and the Shadow doesn’t come across like the work of a scrupulous journalist, but more like that of an indulgent family friend. The first section, narrated by Dilip Kumar, doesn’t even end properly. There’s an incident that involves Lata Mangeshkar – and the autobiography is over.

But we must be thankful that the second section exists. A good part of it is just hagiography, friends and family saying how great Dilip Kumar is. There are pages that resemble a high-school yearbook: “LOVE YOU YOUSUF UNCLE ALWAYS…” But elsewhere, we get the kind of information that Dilip Kumar doesn’t provide. We get anecdotes from V Babasaheb, the cinematographer of Gunga Jumna. Yash Chopra tells us about his experience during the making of Naya Daur, which his brother BR Chopra directed – and we see the extent to which Dilip Kumar worked on the scripts of his films. We get insights into the actor’s personal life too – for instance, he cannot sleep alone in a room, or with the lights switched off. (On reading this, it’s amusing to think back on an earlier passage where Dilip Kumar narrates how, in a hotel room, the comedian Mukri crept under his quilt. “I was naturally very irritated as I am a normal Pathan with normal instincts.”)

And it’s Rishi Kapoor who gives a sense of what a laughing stock Dilip Kumar became after the Asma episode. He recalls being on the sets of Duniya, and just as Dilip Kumar was about to deliver his lines, Ashok Kumar shouted out to him, “I believe you have remarried. A man can hardly handle one wife and you will handle two of them.” (It’s funnier in Hindi.) It is this section, then, that adds a bracing vigour to the Dilip Kumar story, sometimes enhancing his recollections with anecdotal evidence. Early on, Dilip Kumar goes to great lengths to detail his friendship with Raj Kapoor, and says, “I have gone into all this detailing with a purpose. It is meant to inform those readers, who may have been misled into imagining that Raj Kapoor and I only professed friendship while a deep professional rivalry brewed between us, that ours was not merely a friendship of two individuals in the same profession but a bonding that grew from well-placed trust and respect.” This sounds suspiciously like a disclaimer, as if the man is protesting too much. But Rishi Kapoor proves that this was indeed true. When he was unable to give a shot in Prem Rog the way his father (who directed the film) wanted, the latter yelled, “Mujhe Yousuf chahiye.” (“I want you to act like Yousuf.”) Raj Kapoor acknowledged his professional rival in front of the entire unit. Finally, the shadows recede to reveal some substance.

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