Forays into analysis give resonance to Dilip Kumar’s recollections that are occasionally derailed by Saira Banu’s looming shadow, I wrote in this review of the legendary actor’s autobiography, The Substance and the Shadow.


The three legends of Indian cinema: Amitabh Bachan, Shahrukh Khan and Dilip Kumar

‘Yousuf Khan is scared of Dilip Kumar. Only Allah knows who Dilip Kumar is and what all he can do.’

Dilip Kumar will always be the touchstone by which Indian actors will be judged. His recently published book – The Substance and the Shadow – An Autobiography – gives much insight into his life and career. Known as the tragic hero of Indian cinema, Dilip ruled the hearts of millions. His expression and screen persona inspired dozens of actors in the subcontinent. Pakistan too has a claim on him.

Yousuf, the real name of Dilip Kumar was born in 1922 in Peshawar. There has to be something unique about the city – now in tatters and under the grip of extremist ideologies – which produced so many legends including Raj Kapoor. Even Shahrukh Khan’s family has a Peshawar connection. In the mid 1930s the family migrated to Bombay and settled at Deolali where Yousuf studied in Barnes School and Khalsa College. Like other boys of his age, Yousuf played soccer and read the works of European authors and Urdu writers. We are told that his father wanted Yousuf to one day earn the title of Order of the British Empire. But he surpassed that expectation and proved his mettle in the film world and earned countless laurels.


Saira Banu

In his legendary career, Dilip Kumar acted in sixty-two films and received Filmfare awards eight times, Padma Bhushan (India’s prestigious civilian honor), Dadasaheb Phalke Award, Nishan-e-Imtiaz (Pakistan) and countless other awards. But more importantly it was the relationship that he enjoyed with his audience that became a benchmark of popularity.

We were inducted into the Dilip-world of magic, emotion and high drama

I remember growing up in a family that was mesmeriesed by him. My parents, aunts and friends of the family would talk endlessly about Dilip Kumar. With the advent of Video Cassette Recorders (VCR) in the 1980s, the Dilip decades as I call them, entered our household. With lots of tragic sequences and songs we were inducted into the Dilip-world of magic, emotion and high drama. I have to confess that few actors bring the universalism of human emotion to the screen as Dilip does.

A film that I remember well is Jogan – recommended by writer Dr Enver Sajjad who was my father’s friend and a mentor (for life if I may add). The film bombed at the Box Office but it presents the range of Kumar’s acting skills. An atheist falling in love with Jogan (the one who had given up her worldly desires) made for most profound viewing. The power of love and sexual desire was conveyed passionately by both Dilip and Nargis. But it is a Dilip Kumar film for its vividness and the ability to bring forth the contradictions of human nature. I only wish there was more detail in his autobiography about Jogan.


Dilip, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor

Dilip did not accept roles in Satyajit Ray’s Abhijan and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia

His autobiography tells us that at the age of 21, the young Yousuf was introduced to another legendary character Devika Rani of Bombay Talkies who gave him the screen name ‘Dilip Kumar’. His first acting venture was the film Jwar Bhata. This was the beginning of a career that actually flourished in the 1940s. For instance, during the decade (1944-1954) Dilip Kumar performed in twenty-three films most of which were either successful at the box office or critically acclaimed. The book also tells us that Dilip did not accept roles in Satyajit Ray’s Abhijan and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. And this does indicate the discretion that he always applied in selecting the films he would sign up for.

Much has been said about the ‘method acting’ that has been ascribed to Dilip Kumar. While it is partially true it simplifies the range of roles he played. As a tragic hero, Dilip Kumar’s role as Devdas in Bimal Roy’s classic would always be remembered for the intensity and depth he brought to the character. Several other versions and most recently the one starring Shahrukh Khan have kept the rather warped symbolism alive but no one has been able to outshine Dilip Kumar.

Quite rightly, in his book Dilip Kumar rejects the ‘method’ acting label. But it is also a fact that some of his ‘great’ films entailed a tragic role. Some of the memorable films in this genre include Shaheed, Daag, Mela, Andaz, Deedar and Jugnu. One fascinating snippet from the book is about how his repeated playacting had an impact on his emotional health. Dilip Kumar received help from a British psychiatrist Dr W.D. Nichols to handle “living the character beyond the working hours”. The forays into analysis therefore give a resonance to his autobiography that is often missing from film-wallahs memoirs.


Saira Banu

There is of course references to his childhood but not as much as a Pakistani reader would desire. He recalls his early life in Peshawar but there is a hint of alienation, a distance from his peers when he writes about the incidents from his childhood. Writing about the reaction by his school fellows on being marked with black soot as a protection from the ‘evil-eye’, Dilip Kumar complains of being pained. And then like a skillful psychoanalyst concludes that he later used that state of mind in depicting the ‘mental agony’ of the tragic characters he played in films.

So his analyst, Dr. Nichols, told him to switch over to comedy because being tragic on screen all the time was impacting his personality. To his credit Dilip Kumar proved his mettle in the 1955 film Azaad which was once again a memorable performance.

The book is written in a mellow and somewhat dispassionate tone, a characteristic of Dilip Kumar’s personality (as one has read about it), but it is clear that there is extraordinary influence on him of his wife Saira Banu who has a central place in the book of his life. Dilip married Saira Banu on 11 October in 1966 and at the wedding only close friends were invited. According to the book, Raj Kapoor walked into Dilip’s house on his knees because he had vowed that’s what he would do if ever Dilip married.


Vijaynthimala and Dilip

The story of Dilip’s second marriage with Asma is missing from the book and the reader is left unsatisfied

Saira Banu in the introduction talks about her husband’s “fastidiousness”. The book evidently has been written under close watch of Saira Banu. This is why the story of Dilip’s second marriage to Asma is missing from the book and the reader is left unsatisfied not knowing the first hand account of an otherwise well known event.

But we do find out the story of Dilip’s domineering elder sister Sakina Aapa, who was not too pleased with his marriage to Saira Banu. Subsequently, Dilip Kumar moved next door to Saira Banu’s bungalow, where her mother Naseem Banu and brother Sultan Khan also lived. Dilip’s relationship with his siblings was far from smooth.

The book is also unhelpful about Dilip Kumar’s relationship with Madhubala, the sensational beauty of Indian cinema who died young. It is ironic that Dilip Kumar’s account of a sensual scene from the classic Mughal-E-Azam where the two almost kissed with a feather parting their lips was shot when they were not talking to each other.


Madhubala and Dileep

Dilip Kumar’s first love was the famed actor Kamini Kaushal

Dilip Kumar’s first love was the famed actor and his co-star in many films, Kamini Kaushal. Later, Madhubala helped fill the ‘void that was crying out to be filled’.  However, this relationship ended in a tragedy not unlike his films. Dilip did not marry Madhubala since her father viewed every engagement of the filmstar as a business venture. But this must have impacted him as many other witnesses of that age have spoken about the chemistry and intense love between the two.

In March 1998 Dilip Kumar visited Pakistan to receive Nishan-e-Imtiaz

In March 1998 Dilip Kumar visited Pakistan to receive Nishan-e-Imtiaz. This was a sign of his immense popularity and stature in Pakistan. During this visit he also inaugurated Imran Khan’s Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust Hospital for cancer patients and also undertook a visit to another respectable charity – the Fatimid Foundation.


The book has a section entitled ‘Reminiscences’ that includes articles written by 43 persons who know Dilip Kumar well. There are great insights here but these pieces and the book as a whole could have been more sharply edited. It is the photographs that make the book more captivating.

The accomplished film journalist Udayatara Nayar, who is also a friend of Saira Banu has done a great job of putting this book together. But it is Dilip Kumar’s reflective tone and tender voice that makes it a book worth reading. In a way it also sums up the history of Indian cinema for at least a few decades of the twentieth century.