The Taste with Vir | Dilip Kumar: The Last Icon
- In this week's The Taste, Vir Sanghvi writes, "Dilip Kumar defined a vanishing India where stars fought with dignity for an inclusive nation."
For most of us, the passing of Dilip Kumar is a tragic event, the end of an era. We know that he was one of the greatest actors – in international terms, even -- of the 20th century.
But what we may forget is that Dilip Kumar was much more than an actor. In many ways, he was an embodiment of the hopes and aspirations of a post-Independence generation that dreamt of an India that overcame the divisions of religion and progressed to take its place as one of the great nations of the world.
In the 1950s, when the term nation-building was in vogue, and Dilip Kumar was already a big star, Jawaharlal Nehru enlisted him for the task of helping build up morale in the young nation. He fronted several social welfare programmes, starred in patriotic short films and appeared at events designed to promote national integration or to raise funds for the armed forces. He did all this for free; it never occurred to him to ask for money when it came to patriotic causes.
There was, of course, always an elephant in the room. In the years immediately following Partition, Dilip Kumar was the most popular Muslim in India. He was as popular as all of today’s Khans put together and far more respected. Nehru used him to demonstrate that though Pakistan was a Muslim homeland, India was a secular country where Muslims could rise to the very top and be loved by all Indians regardless of their religion.
Dilip Kumar was happy to help but always slightly awkward when people mentioned his religion. How did it matter that he was a Muslim? Why couldn’t he just be treated as another Indian, he would ask?
But, of course, it did matter. He was born Yusuf Khan and all his friends called him Yusuf. He changed his name, it was widely believed, to appeal across the religious divide. He always denied that interpretation. Many names had been considered, he said, and he almost chose the name Jehangir, but Dilip Kumar just sounded better.
But it is hard to deny that throughout his career, his Muslimness never ceased to matter. I first met him when I was a small boy and the censors were demanding scores of cuts in his film Ganga Jamuna. My father was his lawyer and he was shocked to find that one of the cuts demanded was that the last words of the character played by Dilip Kumar should be cut. The words were “Hey Ram” and the censors said they could not accept him saying those words on screen.
My father pushed the point and the censors finally came back with a weak explanation. Well, they said, the character was a dacoit. How could he use the same last words as Gandhiji? Finally, and with bad grace, the censors conceded the point.
For all this, Dilip Kumar never took the easy way out. I have been searching my memory but I cannot come up with a single Muslim he played on screen with the exception of Salim in Mughal-e-Azam. He was an Indian, he said, and he would not be tied to any particular religion or community.
But that was not how everybody else saw it. In the early sixties, the Calcutta police arrested a young man who they said was a Pakistani agent. They recovered a diary from him which included the names of many Muslims, including Dilip Kumar. A team arrived in Mumbai, raided the house of these Muslims on the grounds that they might all be spies. Even Dilip Kumar was not spared. They came to check if there was a secret transmitter in his house that he used to communicate with his Pakistani handlers! For a time, it even seemed possible that he would be arrested.
It is worth remembering that all of this happened when Nehru was prime minister. Even then, there was no dearth of prejudice. Decades later, the Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Nirupam launched an attack on Dilip Kumar’s so-called divided loyalties and said to me in an interview that Dilip Kumar’s expenses were met by Pakistan. Nirupam’s reward was to be granted admission to the Congress, where he became Rahul Gandhi’s favourite.
So no single party has a monopoly on communal prejudice.
The last time I interviewed Dilip Kumar was for HT Brunch when Mughal-e-Azam was re-released a decade or so ago. His health was already failing but he was eager to talk. As always, he did not dwell on the bad times and the prejudice. He had earned the love of Indians across all communities, he said. Why talk about his bad times?
He had, almost throughout his life, a curiously detached view of his career. He often acted as though Dilip Kumar the star was a different person from him. I met him in the early 1980s on the sets of Kranti, one of the films that launched his comeback as a sort-of-character actor. I asked him why he took the role. (The film was horrible). He said, “Well, I thought about it. And if it is the beginning of a new chapter for Dilip Kumar, then it has to be the kind of cinema that works today.”
In his heyday, he was famously choosy, making just one film a year and (it was said) taking control of the movie from the director and the scriptwriter. This meant that he made some very good movies. But there were also many stinkers.
Often his reasons for turning down films seem flawed in retrospect. The British director David Lean pushed him to play Sharif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia. Dilip Kumar turned down the film arguing that he would not be convincing as an Arab. The part went to Omar Sharif who became a star.
When I asked him if he regretted that decision, he was philosophical. “How do you know the film would have been a hit if I had taken the role?” he smiled. “I would have been so unconvincing that I could have sunk the film!”
He outlived all of his contemporaries but even at the end, when he was old and frail, lovingly cared for by his wife Saira Banu (“ever since I was a school girl”, she once told me, “my ambition was to marry Dilip Kumar”), he never gave up on the things he believed in.
He still talked about patriotism, about the future of India and about communal harmony. By then ‘nation-building’ had become a punch line and ‘secularism’ had fallen from favour.
But not for Dilip Kumar. Till his last breath, he believed.
For more stories by Vir Sanghvi read here