The Substance and the Shadow by Udaya Tara Nayar
Though Dilip Kumar’s autobiography has the informality of a diary rather than a serious memoir, it is still precious.
The Substance and the Shadow
Udaya Tara Nayar
Hay House India
Rs. 600 PP 450
Even an indifferently written book on Dilip Kumar would have been welcome — he is such a colossus and has been such a great influence on generations of actors that his life and work demanded to be documented. To sort out the truly significant from a mountain-high heap of achievements, to decide which anecdote to include and which to reject, must have been very tough for Dilip Kumar’s wife Saira Banu and journalist Udaya Tara Nayar, who put it all together.
But writing an account of a life so rich, and a career so blessed, perhaps needs a detachment that neither of them have. The words come out in a gush. Those who are clued into the working of Bollywood would know a lot of what is recorded in the book, from fanzines and the grapevine. And they would wonder more about what was left out. Also, would it have been better to have the whole story told in greater detail over two or even three volumes, rather than cramming too much into one? The cineaste would like to read more about the making of the star’s films; trivia junkies would like to check the true or false of what they have gathered from various sources.
When the world of movie fans treats Dilip Kumar with such reverence, is it possible to write a truly honest autobiography? Can anyone be ruthless enough to ignore the impact of spilled confidences on those who might want to keep their part of the shared experience secret? Dev Anand’s autobiography (Romancing With Life), that was published a few years ago, was unsatisfactory because the tone bordered on the boastful, and it skirted around episodes in his life that had already created controversy in the media. Dilip Kumar’s book has the same failings. When there was undoubtedly more to tell, a large chunk of it has ‘Reminiscences’ from dozens of people, who obviously have the kindest things to say. Saira Banu’s foreword is adoring, as was only to be expected, and there are peculiar revelations like Dilip Kumar’s imitation of Helen’s cabaret Monica, O My Darling, or his fixing a broken rack in a fridge with a clothes hanger.
Dillip Kumar in and as Devdas in the classic film from 1955. He’s pictured here with Motilal who played Chunni Babu. The first Devdas was played by Pramathesh Barua but it is Dilip Kumar’s portrayal as a tortured romantic hero that has been the model for adapatations of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s novel. (HT photo)
His account of the early years of his life is narrated vividly. It creates charming word pictures of his childhood in Peshawar. There is a lot about his craft and his ‘method acting’. It was said about him that he practically directed his films. Waheeda Rehman even lets that out, when she says, “It was a mystery to me why Dilip Kumar did not give his name as director in the film credits when all the hard work behind the camera was being done by him, motivating both the technicians and artistes to give their best.”
It is also known that his many tragic roles that earned him the label King of Tragedy messed with his mind. He was advised by a British psychiatrist to do some lighter roles, that resulted in the swashbuckling adventure, Azaad. There are some more details of films like Kohinoor, Devdas, Naya Daur, Mughal-e-azam, Ram Aur Shyam, Gunga Jumna (“essentially my baby”) and the later films like Shakti, Kranti and Saudagar. But these just serve to whet the appetite for more.
Dilip Kumar’s sense of humour comes through in the book (the hilarious episode of actor Mukri creeping into his bed), as much as his emotional attachments (he was shattered to hear of Raj Kapoor’s death.) He is quite open about the problems with members of his family (the legal hassles with his brothers are in the news): “I felt completely out of sync with my brothers and sisters who were becoming increasingly concerned only with their comforts... which they did not hesitate to ask me to provide.”
A still from Mughal-e-Azam featuring Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. (HT Photo)
The great romances of his life — Kamini Kaushal, Madhubala, the Asma (second marriage) scandal — are dismissed without much ado. Saira Banu deservedly gets fulsome words of admiration; the marriage lasted so long and is considered among the happiest in Bollywood, and it could not have been easy to live with a legendary star, though she describes him as having an “unaffected simplicity and the complete absence of ego” (which is a little difficult to believe). The book is readable, but it has the informality of a diary rather than a serious memoir. Still, it is a precious addition to the Bollywood bookshelf — at least it all comes from the star himself and the words are not recycled.
(Deepa Gahlot, Head Programming, Theatre & Film, National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai)