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How Dilip Kumar became an ode to a vanishing India

Vir Sanghvi/Delhi
Filed on July 7, 2021
Photo: AFP

The star's passing is much more poignant because of the unwavering faith he had in nation-building, despite being labelled (bizarre as it may sound) a Pakistani spy

The passing of an actor is always a tragedy. It’s a tragedy to his/her fans and it’s a tragedy to the nation he/she belongs to. In the case of Dilip Kumar, I think, it’s much more poignant because he was a towering figure.

He was the top star from the 1950s onwards and even later — even though his health collapsed.

He remained a figure people idolised and looked up to. Now, I accept all of that. But I also feel that the passing of Dilip Kumar symbolises the end of an era — in more ways than one…

A nation’s loss

Dilip Kumar symbolised a vanishing India. To remember how he is important to India — not just to the country’s film industry — you have to remember what it was like in the post-Independence period.

The talk was all about nation-building. India was a very disparate country and many people thought it would not be able to hold it together; and certainly many in the West thought there would be no democracy.

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Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru used celebrities and popular culture icons to convince people that India was a great country and made them believe it was a united nation, and not to be put off by anything that the West said.

He used many movie stars. He used Raj Kapoor. He used Dev Anand. But no one was used more than Dilip Kumar himself. And he gave in happily.

He raised funds for defence forces and would appear at rallies for national integration. He would make short films on national integration. He never asked for a penny. He did not do it because it would bring him popularity. He did it because he believed in the idea of India.

What’s in a name?

It was interesting that he was called Dilip Kumar — because his name is Yusuf Khan, and not Dilip Kumar. And every time I interviewed him, I asked him about it. He would always get slightly annoyed. Because if he was so big on national integration and secularism, how could he take a Hindu name? His answer was, “I never really took a Hindu name — those days all the stars would change their names.”

Devika Rani and other big stars of that era suggested names to him. The one that everybody liked was Jahangir. He was very nearly called Jahangir. But he, for some reason, liked the name Dilip Kumar. So he went with Dilip Kumar.

Was he there putting a good gloss on it? Was it that he had to take a Hindu name? Well, everybody involved in that decision is now dead, so I guess we will never really know. All I’d say is that it was never as simple as a Muslim taking a Hindu name — it was a bit more complicated than that.

Being an easy ‘target’

Dilip Kumar was a friend of Pandit Nehru’s, he was the greatest star of his time, and he was close to everybody who mattered. Yet, he still faced problems in India.

I knew him from the time I was a young child because my father, Ramesh Sanghvi, appeared as a lawyer for him. They actually didn’t have to appear in court but had anxious negotiations with the Censor Board, which asked for scores of cuts in a film called Ganga Jamuna (1961).

They wanted all kinds of scenes cut for absurd reasons. One scene had dacoits robbing a train and the Censor Board wanted the scene cut on the grounds that the scene may give dacoits ideas. It didn’t make any sense, so was this just business rivalry? Was this somebody who didn’t like him? Or was there a little bit more to it?

Dilip Kumar has said various things to me over the years. Sometimes, he admitted he thought there was an element of truth in the description; sometimes he thought there were stupid people in the Censor Board. So, we would never know. But there is something that we do know, something that happened in the early 60s.

He was accused of, bizarre as it sounds, being a Pakistani spy on the basis of the flimsiest of evidence: Calcutta Police claimed a spy had been caught and found a (telephone) number of Dilip Kumar’s in the spy’s address book or something absurd like that. But it was enough for them (the Calcutta Police) to come to Bombay to search his house and look for a transmitter with which he secretly communicated — apparently with his Pakistani handlers.

But what was he going to tell them? He had no access to military secrets. What would he tell them? How was Mehboob Khan’s mood and what Vyjayanthimala was wearing that day? I mean, the whole thing was absurd. But it struck me then that he was very dignified and brave about it.

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Sometimes, when you were in a minority, you were often made susceptible to attacks of this nature by people who were of a communal bent of mind. It didn’t matter that he was a friend of Pandit Nehru, who was the Prime Minister. Even so, he went through the ordeal with dignity.

All through his career, he put a premium on dignity.

Lawrence of Arabia: A missed opportunity

We know he accepted only one film a year and he thought long and hard about it. While he was well-paid and was the highest-paid star in the 1960s’ Hindi film industry, what people didn’t realise is that he had a huge retinue.

There were several family members, all of whom he supported. And often the money he made, though it was a fabulous amount, wasn’t really enough to keep them in the lifestyle to which they were accustomed.

I know of cases when his family begged him to do more films. But he would just refuse and would say that, no, I am not right for that role. I would give you the most famous example: the chance to play the second lead in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.

The hero was Peter O’Toole. And David Lean had correctly said that whoever played the second lead would become the real star. But Dilip Kumar turned it down. He said, “I’m an Indian from Peshawar and from Bombay and I really don’t understand the ethos of Arabia. I don’t think I’ll be convincing as an Arab.”

They tried hard to persuade him, but he refused. We know famously that David Lean was disappointed at not getting Dilip Kumar and then turned to Omar Sharif. And Omar Sharif went on to become a big star after essaying that role. But Dilip Kumar still wouldn’t admit it was a mistake.

I personally feel it was a mistake. But he knew his limitations. He knew his strengths. He knew what kind of role he wanted to play.

The second innings

Later, sometime in the late 70s, when he realised that it was time to shift to become a character actor, he starred in Kranti (1981) for Manoj Kumar and then he acted in various films with actors like Sanjay Dutt and directors like Subhash Ghai. All of them were big hits — he usually played a patriarch-like figure along with a young star who played his son or grandson.

Why did he do it? He enjoyed it to some extent. He also needed the money. There is no getting around that. He created a second career for himself, something that, I think, only Amitabh Bachchan has now managed to do. Nobody else ever tried that before.

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And, of course, there is that famous movie, Shakti (1982), which he did with Amitabh, made by Ramesh Sippy. Shakti was the big one. It was also some kind of a toss-up as to who would be better in the film. Opinions are divided.

My personal view is that Amitabh more than held his own. But a lot of people felt that Dilip Kumar showed how it should be done. I don’t know. I still think it’s one of his greatest performances.

The end of an era

But till the end, when he was no longer acting, he was still the same old Dilip Kumar. He still talked about Indian unity. He still talked about India and quality cinema. He still talked about dignity in public life. He still talked about secularism. He still talked about nation-building.

I was always astonished by the faith that this man had in India. The faith he had in Indian democracy and in the essential goodwill of the Indian people. No matter what had happened to him, that faith never wavered. He was in many ways a true icon.

He was not just a symbol to the film industry, but a symbol of an independent India.

He epitomised the hopes and aspirations of a generation — and, sadly, now he’s become a symbol of an India that is vanishing.

(Vir Sanghvi is an Indian journalist and TV anchor.)