I can never watch a Dilip Kumar film or think about Dilip Kumar without also thinking about my father, writes GAIROONISA PALEKER.
DILIP Kumar, who was the cinematic avatar of Yousuf Khan, died on July 7, 2021, at the age of 98. He was arguably the brightest, most talented actor of Bombay cinema. My heading for this reflection is an unashamed borrowing of Ziauddin Sardar’s essay ‘Dilip Kumar made me do it’, in the volume on Indian cinema edited by Ashish Nandy (1999). I came across this essay almost two decades ago and it set the tone for my own appreciation of Dilip Kumar and Bombay cinema’s golden years spanning the decades 1950s to the 1960s.
Dilip Kumar was many things for many people. For me, he always was and will always remain my entry point to my understanding of my father. I can never watch a Dilip Kumar film or think about Dilip Kumar without also thinking about my father. Dilip Kumar was my father’s favourite Bollywood actor; Mughal-e-Azam his favourite Dilip Kumar film. Because of this, this reflective piece on Dilip Kumar is as much a meditation on my father as it is a consideration of what Dilip Kumar meant to me.
Dilip Kumar only made an impression on me much later in life, when I had the intellectual maturity to appreciate his work. But when that impression was made, it was inextricably intertwined with my understanding and memories of my father as a person separate from his fatherhood. My father, born in 1930, came of age as a teenager during the forties, when Dilip Kumar was starting his career. It therefore does not beggar belief to imagine the deep impact the actor would have made on an impressionable teenager.
My father’s appreciation of Dilip Kumar was a piecemeal revelation to me some years after he died, in 2006. Memories of my father, especially in his later, retirement years, are liberally peppered with vivid images of him lying on his bed watching a film or television. Two Dilip Kumar films that were favourite staples for both my parents were Mughal-e-Azam (K Asif, 1960) and Kranti (Manoj Kumar, 1981). Other, less frequent staples were Azaad (SMS Naidu, 1955), Karma (Subhash Ghai, 1986) and Shakti (Ramesh Sippy, 1982).
In all these films, Dilip Kumar’s characters are deeply humanist and committed to justice, whether this is revolutionary and political justice (Kranti) or social and criminal justice, in Azaad, Karma and Shakti. Dilip Kumar was no less committed to social justice in his own life as his many contributions of time, labour, support and endorsements to various projects and endeavours attest.
Countless viewings of many YouTube clips of different Dilip Kumar films, interviews and mushaira readings (poetry recitals) as well as others’ appreciation of Dilip Kumar confirm his erudition, his love of Urdu poetry, his deep learning and his humanism. In a less well-known film, Dharam Adhikari (Rao & Rao, 1986), Dilip Kumar plays the role of a village judge. The multiple scenes of his rulings, and in particular his delivery of these rulings, are again an object lesson, not just in the poetics of Hindi this time but also in a humanism inflected by rationality rather than zealous dogma.
Despite his versatility as an actor, he was stuck with the reductive and offensive label of ‘tragedy king’, not that he did not do tragedy well, as in Devdas (Bimal Roy, 1955) or Aadmi (A Bhimsingh, 1968). But to continue to refer to him as the ‘tragedy king’ reduces his genius as an actor. This genius lay in his ability to fully inhabit the skin of his characters.
In his autobiography, Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow (2014), he outlines a work ethic and philosophy that can best be described as immersive and all-consuming. He immersed himself in his characters and in the projects, taking on one film a year rather than signing up for multiple films.
What comes through in his autobiography is less the desire for stardom and more the commitment to a filmic product that lived up to his expectations of himself. He set the bar high for himself, and stardom came, regardless. Perhaps most significantly, he did not buy into his own stardom. As the title suggests, there was the substance and then the shadow. In the foreword, written by his wife Saira Banu, she elucidates this distinction that he made, in which Yousuf Khan was the substance while Dilip Kumar remained the shadow. It is, however, this shadow that entranced a global audience, including my father, and through him, me.
For my father, Mughal-e-Azam towered above all other Dilip Kumar films. My retrospective understanding of this film’s importance to my father is again inextricably tied to the family legend of my parents’ marriage: strong parental opposition clashing with a headstrong man’s love for the woman of his choice rather than the woman wished by his parents.
In my mother’s telling of this story, she is the naïve village girl and my father a foreign-resident Indian man some ten years older than her, with a mother who wanted him to marry someone else. In my mother’s telling, my father’s wish to marry her eventually triumphed. I have no doubt at all that whatever the bare-bones story my mother told us, we, her children, have undoubtedly embellished it somewhat. Which all brings me to Mughal-e-Azam and Salim (Dilip Kumar) and Anarkali (Madhubala) as the doomed lovers, on- and off-screen.
In later years, after my father’s death, whenever I watch this cult classic, I wonder how much of himself my father saw in Dilip Kumar, his character, Salim, and Salim’s conflict with his father, Akbar. Was the clash of wills between Salim and Akbar over his right to love Anarkali a reflection of the clash of wills between my father and his parents over his insistence on marrying my mother? Whether my father saw this reflection of himself or not, I have over the years come to attribute this understanding to him. What else can I do when I did not have the sensibility to ask him while he was alive?
A cardinal sin for a historian is to impute psychic meaning and motivation onto historical subjects. But I am also a daughter mindful of a loving and nurturing father whose unfailing moral compass has become my own, the older I have grown. There is a bottomless well of debt, love and gratitude owed to my father which, no doubt, colours him in all shades of virtue in my memories of him. But there is also, I like to think, an objective appreciation of the unflinching and unwavering ethical code my father tried to live by and teach his children which makes it plausible to imagine that my father’s admiration of Dilip Kumar went beyond his screen avatars to the human being himself.
Ziauddin Sardar’s chapter ‘Dilip Kumar made me do it’ offers a brilliant distillation of the multiple meanings Dilip Kumar embodied. For Sardar, Mughal-e-Azam was one of the ‘five main texts’ of his youth and Dilip Kumar was a ‘guide and pathfinder’. Mughal-e-Azam offered Sardar an immersive experience in which the ‘critical linguistic and visual appreciation of the ghazal’ was paramount. He calls it an ‘object lesson in the meaning of poetry’. This poetry is evident not just in the songs but in the very dialogues, the scenes and transitions which allow a meditation and reflection on metaphysics, philosophy, the meaning of life and love.
As a frequent viewer of Mughal-e-Azam, I share Sardar’s appreciation of the cinematic poetry of the film, which borrows liberally from, and in tribute to, early 20th century Russian cinematic traditions, particularly those of Sergei Eisenstein. Dilip Kumar’s register, voice modulation, mode of delivery and apparent delight in the poetics of Urdu enhance the film, and cinematic experience, immeasurably. Dilip Kumar is Mughal-e-Azam, the greatest of the Mughal emperors, though historically, Emperor Akbar bears that title. K Asif plays brilliantly with the idea of the greatest Mughal.
In reflecting on my father’s appreciation of Mughal-e-Azam, and Dilip Kumar in all his cinematic avatars, I often wonder how much of his admiration for the film and the man, Dilip Kumar, was also due to the ‘object lesson in the meaning of poetry’ tied to what it means to be human. With only a rudimentary formal education, my father was a champion of education. He fought my first battle for education, and the second and subsequent battles. It is not with rose-tinted glasses that I claim he made me what I am. It is also without exaggeration that I claim Dilip Kumar gave me glimpses of my father, the human being.
Gairoonisa Paleker is a lecturer in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies at the University of Pretoria.