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The Time I Met Legend Dilip Kumar, the Powerhouse of Indian Acting

As Dilip Kumar breathed his last on 7 July at the age of 98, he leaves behind a host of movies and roles that can only be described as a ‘style book’ for future Bollywood actors.

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Ae waqt aaj tu tham ja…” is how I felt when I saw my idol dressed in white trousers, a shirt and sandals, walking down the stairs of his palatial Pali Hill bungalow in Bandra, Mumbai. He walked towards where we were sitting in the front room, where I was interviewing his wife Saira Banu.

When in her sing-song voice Saira Banu announced, “Saheb aa gaye”, I just about controlled myself from jumping up from the sofa chair.
In that moment, I imagined myself as Madhubala in the scene from the film Tarana (1951) where Dilip Kumar emerges from a side room and bumps into her, and on realising that she is head over heels in love with him, gently pats her on the head with that mesmerising soft smile!

I could not control my adulation, as he smiled gently with stretched hands to greet me and came to sit next to me on the sofa. Imagine sitting next to the legendary Dilip Kumar (Mohammad Yusuf Khan).

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Throughout his life, thousands of women must have had the same bemused expression that I had at that moment way back in the mid-1990s. It was difficult to gather my wits to speak to him as a journalist and more difficult to take down his comments as Dilip Kumar’s impeccable English would have given a tough competition to MP Shashi Tharoor’s English vocabulary. Moreover, his mastery over the language could be gauged by his selection of words to make his point. They were not difficult words nor unheard of but apt words to express what he wanted to say. His correct pronunciation and the correct way to stress on the syllables, showed that the reason this legend was a master of dialogue deliveries.

It was this penchant for getting the exact nuances of each word that have made his dialogues famous even for today’s youth, who may not be as familiar with the work of this thespian. Today’s youth may have heard Shah Rukh Khan deliver the famous dialogue in the film Devdas (2002), “Kaun kambhakt hai jo bardaasht karane ke liye peeta hai…”. But they may have missed the same dialogue delivered by the first superstar of Hindi films, Dilip Saheb in Devdas (1955).

I fell in love with his dialogue delivery while watching the film Leader (1964) on DVD. In a court scene to counter his defence against Vyjayanthimala, the lead actor opposite him, Dilip Kumar says, “Is mehengayi mein sar phodne ke liye sangmarmar ke tukada nahin milata, mein inhe Taj Mahal kaise bana ke doon?” Of course, the credit has to go to the writer but one can’t deny his perfect delivery of the dialogues.

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And what can be said about his way of acting, which has become the style book for many Indian actors. Actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan and others were believed to have emulated the legend. I remember the scene in the film Mashaal (1984) when his on-screen wife, Waheeda Rehman, is almost dying on the streets of Mumbai and Dilip Kumar is trying to get a lift from the vehicles passing by to help him take his wife to the hospital. The desperation and the beseeching ways he pleads with the passers-by is an emotional performance to say the least.

The same agony one felt watching while he took the dying Vyjanthimala, his on-screen wife in the film Ganga Jamuna (1961), in his arms saying, “Nahin Dhanno nahi, aaj agar tumhe kuch ho jaye to main is duniya ko aag laga dunga.” A dramatic dialogue but it was the pathos and anguish on his face while holding her that made the audience completely empathise with his character, even though he played the role of a dacoit.

The powerhouse of acting was bestowed with innumerable awards — Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan, Dada Saheb Phalke award, 8 Filmfare awards for best acting, Lifetime achievement award and many others.

Dilip Kumar came to be known as ‘Tragedy King as most of his earlier films like Mela (1948), Andaz (1949), Devdas (1955) and many others portrayed tragic stories. He started acting in pre- independence era in 1944 with the film Jwar Bhata (1944), and acted until 1988. However, he shifted to comic roles quite seamlessly in films like Paigham (1959), Kohinoor (1960), Leader (1964), Ram aur Shyam (1967) and innumerable others. We still laugh when we remember his scenes teasing Meena Kumari in Kohinoor and Azaad (1955), and Vyjanthimala in films like Leader, Naya Daur (1957) or heckling the newbie Mumtaz in Ram aur Shyam. His depicted a gentle humour — no garishness or loudness in his comic roles. His subtle dialogues, that soft, amused smile and the mirth in his eyes were enough to portray the comic scene.

Even when I had called him up to talk about Durga Khote, with whom he had acted in a few films, including Mughal-E-Azam (1960), after her demise,  he softly said, People called her Dimps! She had lovely dimples.

Dilip Saheb always spoke softly and was famous for his pauses.

The best part of this conversation was that when after a week he had met my then-editor R K Karanjia, Blitz, he recalled talking to me by name. My happiness knew no bounds.

But the legend and the style book for Indian film actors is no more. I am at a loss for words to express my grief, but on hearing the demise of Dilip Kumar, Vishal Dadlani, the music composer and singer, put it so aptly — Lafzon ki haisiyat kahan, jo aapko bayan kare (Mere words can’t describe you).

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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