IT was the thespian’s birthday on Saturday, the first since his demise in July from age-related ailments. The fact that he valiantly fought the fight for India’s cultural soul, for its progressive democracy nudges one to miss the Nehruvian messaging the actor-cum-public intellectual strove to insert in his endearingly unpretentious movies.
It was a shy Muslim boy, born in 1922 as Yusuf Khan, who grew into the towering movie icon from Peshawar with the adopted Hindu screen name of Dilip Kumar. Indian audiences adored him unconditionally, but a lunatic fringe — never at ease with the secular motifs of Indian culture — was always less charitable. In their characteristically small-hearted way, they accused him of taking a screen name as a ploy to trick Hindus.
Cinema has its own exigencies, however. How else would an avowed teetotaller and probably a pious Muslim bus conductor called Badruddin Qazi turn up as a great comedian with a screen name that popularised a spirit called Johnnie Walker! Also, in the jumble of adopted ethnicities, a Jewish heroine born as Florence Ezekiel was handed a patently Persian/Muslim name — Nadira.
So, it wasn’t black and white or Hindu and Muslim, and at least Dilip Kumar didn’t see it that way. For him, changing his name was an impishly handy banter that, regardless of its other purposes, helped mask the hero’s creative pursuits from his orthodox family, chiefly his disciplinarian father, who, much like Mahatma Gandhi, disapproved of films, not to mention the thought of their progenies showing up in one.
So, it wasn’t black and white or Hindu and Muslim, and at least Dilip Kumar didn’t see it that way.
The detractors didn’t spare Nehru. Why would they be lenient with his ardent devotee? The sullen barbs hurled at Dilip Kumar were also aimed at his intellectual lodestar. For the right-wing, they were both anti-national though one was more vulnerable than the other.
Of the scores of movies he played the lead in, Dilip Kumar only once depicted a Muslim character. Even here the Prince Salim of the 1960 magnum opus Mughal-i-Azam was messaging the needs of a new India. In the pseudo-historical drama the prince was born of an eclectic union between a Muslim ruler and his Hindu queen who practised her religion with élan and shared its observances with her husband, the emperor of Hindustan. It was thus that the royal family, in a fabled scene, sat entranced by a memorable musical overture to the birth of Lord Krishna.
I first met Dilip Kumar in Lucknow in the 1960s having only heard his name mentioned with awe in the family chatter. He was a cricket enthusiast and had come to inaugurate a season of Sheesh Mahal Summer Cricket Tournament hosted under the aegis of erstwhile nawabs. The short version contest would be a forerunner by decades to Kerry Packer and IPL etc. Leading players like Vijay Manjrekar, Mushtaq Ali, M.L. Jaisimha, Abbas Ali Baig, Subhash Gupte, Farukh Engineer among others were regulars at the annual cricketing feast in Lucknow. Dilip Kumar blended nicely with them and it was a learning curve to hear him expertly review the innings he had just watched with rapt attention.
I would meet the actor a few times in Delhi and Mumbai over the years only to be entranced by his deep awareness of the political currents. On one occasion at his friend’s house in Mumbai over a Konkani meal prepared by the late actor Mukri’s wife, we discussed his decision to accept Pakistan’s highest civilian award. He said peace was too important a subject to be left to the politicians. He felt his political beliefs were being increasingly tested with the rise of the right-wing. He was also aware, however, that even Nehru didn’t have an easy time with Hindutva.
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In fact, it was Nehru’s pronouncedly reactionary information minister B.V. Keskar who first targeted the film industry. Keskar wrecked the musical culture too, keeping unmarried women out of the studios. He banned the harmonium as a foreign instrument, thus targeting the secular art of Rabindra Sangeet. Keskar backed more than 200 cuts in the acclaimed film Dilip Kumar produced — Ganga Jamuna. It was Nehru’s intervention that ensured the movie was released more or less intact. But the damage inflicted would make the current assault on the liberal and normally progressive film industry pale in comparison.
“I remember the humiliation I faced when I returned from Delhi,” Dilip Kumar told his biographer Bunny Reuben. “My house was raided and transmitters installed — not only in my house but even in the homes of my friends Bimal Roy and Mehboob Khan.”
Keskar, who was dropped from Nehru’s cabinet, bore a grudge against Ganga Jamuna over its frontal assault on the caste system. As the priest refused to marry the hero to his sweetheart saying his caste was higher than the heroine’s, Dilip Kumar used a telling phrase to describe the hypocrisy. He slammed priesthood as “Bhagwan ke mahamantri”, the middlemen of religion. The essential tragedy of his Devdas too was underpinned by the caste tussle between Brahmins.
A Nehruvian, Dilip Kumar was not just a votary of progressive secularism alone. He had a well-defined critique of caste and religious bigotry, of course, but he spoke strongly also for Nehru’s Fabian socialism. Paigham and Naya Daur come to mind. In Leader, the one movie whose story he wrote, his main villains were Mumbai’s business coterie whose leader wouldn’t hesitate to assassinate the socialist politician they collectively loathed. The villain tells his secret meeting: “We are not here to win the elections. We are going to buy them.” Prescient? Or was it plainly descriptive of the times? The movie in which Dilip Kumar played the role of a journalist was released just before Nehru’s death.
Veteran actor Sharmila Tagore said in her obituary that Dilip Kumar was “a legend and an icon and a reminder of happier times in the industry”. But Dilip Kumar knew his fight was already on.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2021