Awful rumours have being doing the rounds about the health of Dilip Kumar, who turns 90 on December 11. But when you visit him, you see that time has not been very harsh on the veteran actor, a man who is almost an institution in the Hindi film industry. He is much the same as he ever has been: suave, charmingly youthful and courteous, a true gentleman.
It doesn’t make sense to even try to introduce Dilip Kumar. He’s a lodestar for actors and a lesson in cinema for movie viewers across generations. But if at all something must be said about him, it’s this: that he has a beautifully alert mind, well nourished and refreshed every day by poetry, music and books, all of which he religiously devours.
It took several days to put this interview together. But we finally met the veteran actor and his lovely wife, Saira Banu, at their Pali Hill bungalow, where the duo have created a lovely haven that looks nothing like the outside world. No wonder they step out only if there is a public obligation to fulfill.
As we start the interview, we wish the legendary actor a very happy birthday, on our behalf and also on yours.
There have been increasing rumours about the deterioration of your health.
It is now amusing for us when a rumour about my health makes its rounds and we get anxious phone calls. I answer them myself and I thank the Almighty for giving me such affectionate friends and relatives. By God’s grace, I have been well except for an occasional touch of cold or fever. I try not to miss my walk at Joggers’ Park — four or five rounds at my own pace, holding my beautiful wife’s hand. I enjoy a drive at night through the many streets that criss-cross Bandra and are quiet and traffic free. On a clear day, it is a delight to have my breakfast in the garden with the sun’s rays falling on the pot of piping hot tea and the omlette that’s made to my taste. It is a real blessing to have the luxury of a lush garden in a space-starved city like Mumbai. We owe it to Saira’s mother, Naseemji, who thought of and landscaped the garden when she had the bungalow designed in the ’60s.
What’s the birthday plan?
We are not planning a celebration this year. Last year, it was a pleasure to be with friends, who made the evening unforgettable and so special. It was a surprise planned by Saira and her niece, Shaheen. I got wind of it only the day before, when I saw the men lighting up the garden and moving the furniture in the foyer. This year, it is going to be a family get-together which happens often all through the year, when my sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews visit me. I am fortunate to have a wife who finds happiness in uniting me with my family as often as she can. My sisters Akhtar and Farida are at present in the United States and Canada. It is Saira who ensures that I talk to them often and assuage Akhtar when she is feeling low due to her ill health. My brothers and my sisters who are in Mumbai are invited over frequently by Saira to spend time with me.
How does a superstar’s life look at 90?
I was never pleased by my stardom. I have always said that there shouldn’t be a term like ‘star’ for an actor. It is a marketing term, coined by the marketing men. It is the work that I chose to accept that mattered to me and preoccupied me. I always lived a normal life and never got carried away into another world of another personality, who sought pampering and constant attention. When you do that, you acquire a false, unapproachable personality. When you have been yourself, your life doesn’t change at all. I am as happy and content as I have always been.
What is that one thing you wish to live for today?
I wish to live for the happiness of my wife. I knew and know even more strongly now that she loves me as no one, other than my mother, has. I wish to live for her love and devotion. It is so lovely to wake up and see the preparations she has done to make each day worth living for. In fact, our common wish now is to care for, and make, each other happy. You have to be truly lucky to be in my place.
Does life feel incomplete without your own children?
It would have been great if we had our own kids. But we have no regrets. We are both submissive to the will of God. As for incompleteness, I must tell you that neither Saira nor I can complain of a lack of contentment. It is enough for us that we have our families to share our happiness and our small dismays with. Mine is a large family, with so many nieces and nephews and their families of growing kids speaking the language of today, which is as bewildering as it is befitting the times they are living in. Saira’s is a small family comprising her brother Sultan and his kids and grandchildren. We feel we are lucky to be there for them when they need us.
In that case, who will carry forward Dilip Kumar’s legacy?
I already see so many actors eager to carry forward what I established in my time. When a bright young actor comes up to me and says, ‘Sir, I wish to follow your work and walk the path you paved for us with your foresight,’ I am filled with a sense of awe and gratitude to the Almighty for having taken me through the paces of finding my way in a profession I had no preparation to be in.
Sairaji is about 20 years younger than you. She fell madly in love with you in your younger days. Tell us about your love story.
When I married Saira she was young, even younger than my sisters. I wondered how she would cope with establishing the right vibes with my brothers and sisters, especially since she belonged to a small family. We siblings were a dozen. But she not only respected and loved them as a devoted sister-in-law, but also keeps me close to all of them.
Amitabh Bachchan considers you his idol...
I think it is very modest and sweet of Amitabh to say that. I had him playing my son in Shakti (1982), the lone film in which we worked together. I found him completely dedicated and as eager as I was to achieve the flawlessness one strives to accomplish in rendering even the less challenging scenes. He was attentive, not just to the director’s vision, but equally to my interpretation too. I could sense his absorption of the potency of the scene and it pleased me immensely that I was sharing the experience of rehearsing scenes that demanded so much intensity with an actor who had an equal commitment to give the scenes that glow of excellence.
How different are today’s actors from those of your time?
I wouldn’t say that we did better work or made better films. Yes, we worked on tough terrain. Whether it was Raj (Kapoor) or I or Ashok Bhaiyya (Ashok Kumar), we had to test our own abilities and evolve our own methods of bringing the characters to life, and at the same time understand the economics of filmmaking and the technical and artistic components of film production. Today there are institutes that instruct and prepare actors, directors and technicians for serious careers in cinema. Everything is simplified and controlled, projects are planned and marketed, subjects are selected after research and there are teams working on each aspect of an actor’s preparation for a role. So, in a sense, the actor has become a full-fledged professional supported by a number of professionals, who create a congenial environment for him or her to deliver the performances.
Quite recently, Aamir (Khan) was here for a casual visit and he told me he was following my example of involvement in all the aspects of the execution of a fine script during the production. He admitted that he understood that the involvement may be misconstrued as interference, but it was necessary if an actor cared genuinely for the perfection of the product in its entirety and not just for the appreciation of his work in the product.
Is there anybody from this generation who you think comes close to Dilip Kumar, the actor?
They are all immensely talented actors. But I have noticed exceptional talent in some of the actors today and a wise desire to be noticed internationally. Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, Ranbir Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan are a few whose work I have watched and liked in films specially screened for me and Saira. I have also liked Rani Mukerji and Aishwarya Rai in some films I have seen.
Do you recognise any actress from today’s time?
I was introduced to Priyanka Chopra and Katrina Kaif by Saira last year at my birthday party. They were very charming and Saira appeared to be fond of them.
Who were the most wonderful heroines of your time?
Nalini Jaywant was a born actress. She was so spontaneous and alive before the camera that her co-stars had to be very alert. Meena Kumari was excellent and so were Vyjayantimala and Madhubala. They combined very well with me as artistes.
Tell us about the books that are being written on you by Sairaji and Uday Tara Nair.
It is an autobiography. To put it simply, it is Yusuf Khan’s pen portrait of the Dilip Kumar few people have met and understood.
Do you welcome the visits of your colleagues?
Of course. A few months ago when Dharmendra dropped in, we asked him to join us and pay a visit to Pran’s house. It was a lovely evening enlivened by happy and lively memories that we shared unreservedly. Vyjayanti dropped in last year. Saira is all admiration for her and they are good friends. Very recently, Kamal Hassan visited us too and made us so happy. Amitabh was with us last week.