ONE sees a few good reasons to miss Dilip Kumar every Aug 5, starting this week. It was on this day that his most popular movie Mughal-i-Azam was released in 1960 depicting a halcyonic blend of Hindu and Muslim cultures during Emperor Akbar’s rule (1556-1605). It’s an essential beauty of Akbar’s rule that regressively tutored Hindus and Muslims bear equal malice for his fabled secular worldview. The film’s story was largely mythological — like Camelot — but Mughal-i-Azam was crucially told from a Nehruvian lens that romanced the coming together of popular lore with the secular sensibilities of a newly independent multicultural democracy.
And it was on Aug 5 that the antithesis of the Nehruvian romance with a new India was played out, in two instalments — a romance that Dilip Kumar embraced with devotion till his death last month at 97. Kashmir was mercilessly robbed of its cultural pride and political rights on this day in 2019. Countless Kashmiris were jailed. Dilip Kumar was their hero. They were his beloved fans.
Aug 5 the following year witnessed a majoritarian assertion that had worried Nehru. A grand ritual was staged in Ayodhya to build a temple to Ram on the rubble of a mosque destroyed in 1992. Lord Ram, once described reverentially as ‘Imam-i-Hind’ by the poet Iqbal, now apparently needed the protection of his Hindu followers from demonised Muslims.
Luckily for him, Dilip Kumar was too ill to watch the assault on his dreams. He was 95 when troops were dispatched to Srinagar and a year older when the prime minister of a secular state led the religious ritual to announce the triumph of a majoritarian state in India.
How did the actor weave his Nehruvian doubts and hopes into his cinema?
So how did the actor weave his Nehruvian doubts and hopes into his cinema? Let’s visit Naya Daur (the new era) released in 1957. On the verge of being driven from their homes by a mean businessman, the hapless village folk are lured into taking an impossible chance. They have to show that their tonga can be as good an option as the businessman’s bus to ply the pilgrims to the village temple. The loser would leave the village. The villagers have their doubts but Shankar the tonga driver played by Dilip Kumar takes up the challenge. It’s his only chance to save the village from destruction. He sets about building a road to the temple that would drastically cut the time for his horse-carriage to reach the victory line. The businessman, suddenly worried by the show of unexpected unity among the villagers who join the construction work, resorts to desperate measures to subvert their plan. If he fails, the looming victory for the horse-carriage would lead to his exit from the village. Shankar’s tonga wins the race, but the large-hearted villagers agree to the capitalist staying on but on their own humane terms.
At one level, the theme strikes one as a Luddite statement against mechanisation, which it is not. Had that been so, the capitalist would be booted out of the village instantly. The issues woven into the story by writer Akhtar Mirza and told cinematically by B.R. Chopra, the boldest director to ever observe Indian society with a critical lens, are presciently chronicled.
It was a story decades ahead of its time, given what was to become of India. The businessman gets a conniving Brahmin to plant the idol of a deity on the path of the proposed next stretch of the road. (Recall here the idol surreptitiously placed in the Babri Masjid in 1949.) This act of planting the deity was deleted from the movie recently shown on an Indian channel, perhaps because it cut too close to the bone. Be that as it may, the gullible villagers discover the ‘devi’ and, led by a Muslim ironsmith, prevent Shankar from ignoring the religious omen to carry on with his construction. The alternative route requires a tricky bridge to be built which passes through the land of a rival village head. The rival village chief decides to join forces against the ‘outsider businessman’ and the road gets built. Naya Daur was telling today’s story. Ask the protesting farmers.
Dilip Kumar in an explicit devotion for his idol and his ‘socialism’, wrote the story of Leader, which was released on March 27 1964, exactly two months before Nehru passed away. Strangely or perhaps not so strangely, the movie has disappeared from the market. Dilip Kumar as a young editor of a tabloid accurately predicts the assassination of Acharyaji, Nehru’s candidate in an election. His killers belong to a business cabal. The lines spoken by their head could form an entire chapter in the Vohra Committee report set up by the Narasimha Rao government to investigate the nexus between criminals, businessmen and politicians. “We won’t win the election, Mr Ghatak,” the don assures his terrified candidate. “We will buy the election with our money… And, you will return the favour by cancelling the investigations going on into our business deals.” That was 57 years ago.
Born a Muslim, Dilip Kumar only once played a Muslim character, as Prince Salim. His favourite director Bimal Roy never had a Muslim character in his films either other than Kabuliwala from a Tagore story. This never compromised their liberal sensibilities. How nearly all the Hindu characters Dilip Kumar played spoke impeccable Urdu, studiously rejecting the familiar communal ascription to a living language. Actor Tom Alter asked him the secret of his good acting. “Sher-o-sukhan,” replied the thespian. Love of poetry and literature, a tall ask for most actors then and now.
He saw no contradiction in accepting Pakistan’s highest civilian award, befriending adulating admirers there, and loving India. After all, in Ganga Jamuna, the only movie he produced, he wove lines closest to his heart. “Tan man ki bhent dekar, Bharat ki laaj rakhna.” Guard India’s honour with your body and soul.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2021