A tale of his own

A tale of his own

Bombay. 1942. World War II is raging. Jobs are difficult to come by. A young man, also looking for work, is at Churchgate Railway Station, on his way to meet somebody “in connection with supplying wooden beds to army cantonments”.

He spots psychologist Dr Masani, a family friend. He tells the doctor that he is looking for a job, but since he cannot find any, he is on his way to meet someone in the hope of doing some business. Dr Masani asks him to come with him to Malad, where he is going to meet the owners of Bombay Talkies.

“They may have a job for you.” He is introduced to Devika Rani, star and owner of the studio, who keeps her gaze fixed on him as if she has a thought running in her mind about him. “She turned to me and, with a beautiful smile, asked me the question that was to change the course of my life completely and unexpectedly. She asked me if I would become an actor...”

The young man, born Yousuf Khan, became the iconic Dilip Kumar.

In his autobiography, The Substance and The Shadow, he talks of how a well-to-do fruit merchant’s son went on to occupy such a prominent place in the Hindi film industry, and redefined what acting is with his understated style.

The entire book is the result of numerous conversations with Udaya Tara Nayar, who has transcribed them into this 456-page book. In her introduction, Nayar explains how the book is a result of Dilip Kumar’s unhappiness with another book about him. “This is full of distortions and misinformation,” he had told his wife Saira Banu in the presence of the author. Seizing the chance, his wife convinced him to record this version.

It was Devika Rani who suggested his screen name before his debut in Jwar Bhata, directed by Amiya Chakravorthy. She had offered him a monthly salary of Rs 1,250 at their first meeting, a princely sum in those days. (Raj Kapoor, who was also working in the same studio, drew a salary of Rs 170 a month.)

She told Dr Masani that she thought Yousuf had great promise as an actor, and had offered such a big salary to overcome any reluctance on his part. Dilip Kumar’s first film was eventually released in 1944.

He says that when he saw himself on screen, he asked himself if that was the way he was going to perform “if the studio wishes to continue my services... and the response was: ‘No.’ I realised that this was a difficult job… I would have to find my own way of doing it.”  Ashok Kumar, known for his extremely ‘natural’ acting,  was already working in the same studio. He gave him his first tip on how an artiste should display emotions in front of the camera.

“It’s very simple. You just do what you would do in the situation if you were really in it. If you act, it will be acting and will look very silly.” Yousuf would eventually find his own method of acting, with a strong connect to the true emotions that the scenes demanded. For instance, when he was required to be gasping for breath and totally exhausted, like for the climax scene in Devdas, he kept running around the studio until he was completely breathless, before he gave the shot.

In fact, he became so involved with the characters he was portraying that he sought help from an English psychiatrist in London, who advised him to switch to comedy to get out of his ‘tragedy king’ persona that followed him in real life. He did that with Ram Aur Shyam. He also ushered in the style of underplaying, setting examples that scores of others learnt from.

This, and other tales, are told with attention to the tiniest details, speaking volumes of his powers of observation and remarkable memory. He is a master raconteur, and the opening of the book is like the beginning of a film, when he describes his birthplace, Peshawar, nestled near towering mountains, and his family house in the heart of the city. It was situated in the Kissa Khwani Bazaar, “...so named because wandering traders stopped there either to tell their own stories or listen to stories told by local inhabitants…”

Fascinating images flicker past when you read passages like this. And imagine the young boy Yousuf absorbing all these tales...

There are interesting chapters on films and personalities, including Madhubala, with whom he had a close relationship. Saira Banu finds a special place in the book. The way he initially resisted being cast alongside her, and then ended up marrying her are like scenes from a typical Hindi film.

His deep friendships with Raj Kapoor (who had studied with him in the same college), Pran, and many others are recounted here with warmth. A section towards the end has people reminiscing about Dilip Kumar, and includes actors, directors and others closely associated with him over the years. It adds another dimension to the book.

I personally have discovered so many facets of this fascinating man, who is much more than just an actor. I am certainly going to watch many more of his films after reading this book.

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