A Legend by Any Definition

By Dr Mohammad Taqi
Born in Peshawar on December 11, 1922 Mohammad
Yousuf Khan marked his 90th birthday on December 11, 2012. To millions of his
fans around the world, he is known as Dilip Kumar— the Last Emperor of Indian
cinema as his biographer Sanjit Narwekar had put it. To us, the Peshawarites —
or Pishoris as we like to call ourselves — he remains one of the four prodigious
sons we gifted to the Bombay film industry — Prithviraj Kapoor, Ranbirraj "Raj"
Kapoor aka RK Saab and Zakariya Khan ‘Jayant’, being the other three.

While my own heart remains firmly in the RK camp, I
must concede that just like many parents are torn in their love for their
children, the Pishoris too were split into two camps between Dilip Kumar and RK
Saab. Talking to the old-timers in the walled city of Peshawar, where both the
greats were born, it seems like the schism had to with the art rather than
religion or ethnic origins of these giants. Like the moviegoers all over India
divided into two camps over the question that RK Saab’s biographer Bunny Reuben
raised in his very first article as a film-journalist — Who is the better actor in
Andaz: Dilip or Raj?
— Pishoris too took sides after this 1948
Mehboob Khan film. Though it hurts my pride as an RK fan it does seem that Dilip
Kumar became the darling of the plurality if not the majority of Peshawarites.
His hairstyle, sartorial preferences and mannerisms influenced at least two
generations of common men and his mention still brings out a sparkle in the eyes
of the grandmothers who saw his movies in his— and their— prime.
I have met octogenarians in Peshawar who till this day
believe that in the Andaz scene where the RK character Rajan whacks
Dilip Kumar’s character
(incidentally named Dilip), RK did actually hit
Yousuf Khan with the tennis racket! There was no point arguing as they — the
Dilipiay or Dilipists as one Pishori RK aficionado would call the Dilip Kumar
fans — were convinced. And perhaps Dilip Kumar does not know but in Peshawar his
screen name is pronounced ‘Daleep’ with a thick Hindko accent. In fact, the
phonetic spelling has made it to the invitation sent out by the veteran writer
Younas Qayasi on behalf of the Cultural Heritage Council of the
Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa to celebrate ‘Daleep’ Kumar’s 90th birthday in Peshawar.
Dilip Kumar was born to Lala Ghulam Sarwar Khan and
Ayesha Begum in the Peshawar Mohallah Khudadad. The house is a five-minute walk
away from Prithviraj-ji’s house where RK Saab was born. It is said that this
family of fruit merchants moved to Bombay seeking medical care under the surgeon
Dr. V. L. Parmar for Dilip Kumar’s elder brother Ayub Khan injured in a
horse-riding accident. The family’s business and personal travails ultimately
led Yousaf Khan to step in to help his father. One such travel took him to
Nainital where the movies production house Bombay Talkies owner, Devika Rani,
accompanied by the master director Amiya Chakraborty, ran into the handsome
Yousaf and, as Sanjit Narwekar says, “instinctively” asked him to come see her
in Bombay. Ultimately, prodded by his mentor Dr. Masani, who also was friends
with Devika Rani, Yousuf Khan — unlike his brother Nasir Khan, he had no desire
or ambition to become a film actor — went to see her. Narwekar chronicles that
the meeting lasted a mere four questions:
“Have you acted in films?”
“Would you
like to act in films?”
“Do you smoke?”
“Do you speak
Though ambivalent about the young man’s answers Devika
Rani and her team screen-tested and then offered him a three-year contract at
Rs.500 per month. Devika Rani considered Yousuf Khan too bland a name and
commissioned the writer Pandit Narendra Sharma to rechristen him. Jehangir,
Vasudev and Dilip Kumar, were the three choices placed before Devika Rani and
Yousuf Khan. Yousuf Khan, prompted by Devika Rani, chose Dilip Kumar over his
preferred Jehangir. Contrary to the assumption that the screen name was adopted
to hide his Muslim origins, it was very much a business decision by Devika Rani
who sought to replace the great Ashok Kumar, who too sought to leave Bombay
Talkies. Four questions ultimately gave rise to a career spanning over five
decades and 57 movies.
The range of characters performed by Dilip Kumar from
being the benchmark deep-in-the-cups melancholic in
to the ebullient Jai of Aan and
from the revolutionary in
Sagina Mahato
or Nehruvian socialist in
to the underworld don in
, displayed a breadth mastered by few other actors. The
on-screen chemistry with his leading ladies produced sophisticated sensuousness,
the pinnacle of which was on display with Madhubala in the
Mughal-e-Azam love scene acted out to the semi-classical Prem Jogan Ban ke by
Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan
. While Muhammad Rafi did most numbers as Dilip
Kumar’s playback voice including the awesome madhbun mein radhika nache
for which Dilip Kumar learnt to play the sarod for a year, Talat
Mahmud’s voice brought out the ultimate romantic in him as in Tarana or Sangdil and was
his perfect match. Dilip Kumar even sang for himself in Musafir . Whether
it was Mukesh’s four super-hit playbacks for him in Andaz or movies
like Amar or Mughal-e-Azam in
which he had no songs, Dilip Kumar conducted himself with a calibrated poise
that is perhaps his artistic legacy. According to Lord Meghnad Desai, Dilip
Kumar took the cinematographer/director Nitin Bose’s tip that “in a talkie, it
is the silences that are the most dramatic”. No doubt then that unlike others,
Dilip Kumar’s measured pauses and reticence is as much his signature as his
crisp dialogue delivery.
It is not for me, who only saw Dilip Kumar closely on
his first visit to Peshawar and on a screen 32 times smaller than his original
work, to comment on this ‘colossus of the Indian cinema’. But I would be remiss
not to reiterate the great Amitabh Bachchan’s words
that “whenever the history of the Indian cinema is written there will always
have a ‘before Dilip Kumar and after Dilip Kumar’ almost like a yardstick”. He
has been called a thespian, the Tragedy King, and of course a humanist par
excellence. But as Lord Meghnad Desai notes in matchless work Nehru’s Hero:
Dilip Kumar in the Life of India
, Dilip Kumar reflected the best of his
country at the best of its times … he is a legend by any definition.
All I have to say to Dilip Kumar who till this day speaks chaste Pishori
is: Lalay, salgirah mubarakh howay nain … many happy returns
of the day.
(Dr Mohammad Taqi can be reached at [email protected] and
tweets @mazdaki)