BANGALORE: Was it Shakeel Badayuni who wrote, "Sukoon-e-dil ke liye kuch to ehtemaam karoon.. zara nazar jo miley phir unhein salaam karoon, mujhe to hosh nahin aap mashwara dijiye, kahan se chedoon fasana kahan tamaam karoon?"
But these words about the urgency to gaze at a beloved face and to greet it, the need to start a story so big that the soul can no longer hold it and the knowledge that even if you start it, it will be hard to know just where to end it and how...sum up Dilip Kumar-The Substance And The Shadow (An autobiography put together by the legend's family friend Udayatara Nayar).
The first reaction to the way the book looks and feels in the hands is that it should have been an aesthetic celebration and not just a literary one but then minor quibbles aside, the story of Yusuf Khan, a Peshwari youth who somehow was hand-picked by destiny to change the face of Hindi cinema has not come a day too soon.
Johnny Depp, once said about Marlon Brando, "Before Brando, actors acted, after Brando, they behaved.' Dilip Kumar or Saheb as he is loving called by the film fraternity, though just 57 films old, also redefined the craft of performance in Hindi cinema.
Before him, as Shabana Azmi astutely observes in the book, actors 'displayed' a broad representation of emotions with their physicality. It was Dilip Kumar, the young boy who once wanted to be India's best soccer player and sat shyly in a tonga while his Khalsa College buddy Raj Kapoor flirted with two Parsee girls, who would teach the Indian audience the language of silence. The meaning of sub-text. Of a gaze more articulate than a sheaf of dialogues.
The book revisits this magical alchemy of instinct and study in him. And its source. As a young child, Yusuf was tonsured and disfigured with ash because his grandmother feared that his unearthly light would attract the evil eye. Yusuf knew the pain of being the odd one out and as the laughing stock in school, he learnt to internalise his pain. At home, he learnt to observe the human stories of his relatives. All of this went into his preparation for the tragic roles he played in his career. Especially, when he brought to us the damaged Devdas who reeks not just of alcohol but of soul wounds.
As a young boy in Mumbai, he learnt resourcefulness from his father, a fruit merchant, who set up a business and learnt to speak various languages to flow with the composite culture in a metro. He also taught him the skill to 'become' every character he ever attempted as an actor.
From the rustic Ganga in Ganga Jamuna, the rebellious tonga driver in Naya Daur, the introverted, silent lover in Andaz, the madcap Shyam in Ram Aur Shyam, the rakish bully of Aan, the definitive prince of Mughal-E-Azam who could convey with one raised eye-brow his rebellion to his father and yet could bring the house down literally when he roared, "aur mera dil bhi koi aapka Hindustan nahin jis par aap hukumat kar sakein." The gentle perfectionism of his mother taught him to take ownership of everything he did, be it learning to play the sitar instead of just faking it in Kohinoor or actually running with a train rather than using a double for a key shot in Sagina.
But even more than this body of work that no book can ever sum up satisfactorily, what needed to be said and this book does say is that Dilip Kumar was and is and always will be the summation of India's "plural heritage" (as Mahesh Bhatt puts it). When the cameras are switched off, he draws parallels between the Quran, the Bible and Bhagwat Geeta and can recite passages in sanskrit and urdu with the felicity of a pandit and a pir.
He is Ganga who dies with the sigh of 'hey ram' on his lips in Ganga Jamuna. He is Gopi who sang, "Sukh ke sab saathi, dukh mein na koi' to Lord Rama with eyes that shed tears of bhakti. He is everything that India in its purest essence is. Secular and a part of every possible diversity of thought, language, faith.
The book talks also about his love life where inadvertently his human frailties crop up. The complex push and pull of emotion between him and Madhubala who drew him to her but could not keep his heart forever because he wanted a wife who could give more than she took, who would keep his life and his clothes in order and end the days of rushing to shoots with hurriedly consumed snacks of bread and subzi.
He found such a woman too. A remarkably unselfish and beautiful Saira Banu who from the time she was 12, prayed to be his wife. As Madhubala was to say poignantly sometime before her death, "Hamare shehzade ko apni shehzadi mil gayi."
Saira's account of him reveals that Dilip saab's shadow may be the film persona but the substance for her is the man who fixes broken refrigerators, who dances like Helen and Gopi Krishna just so she can laugh uncontrollably and who can get up in the middle of the night to get her a glass of water.
His account of her too reveals why this four decade long marriage has survived everything including the loss of a baby, illnesses, family politics, even a scandalous indiscretion. She has followed him uncomplainingly through the peaks of his career to the peace and quiet that is its own reward.
The memoir also recalls the bonhomie between the biggest stars of that time, the kite flying, the life long bonds that have outlasted film careers.
Today cinematic success is measured by 100 crore weekends but the book reminds us of an actor who did just one film at a time, feverishly gave himself to a part till he had nothing more to give, brought spontaneous method to his performances and set a benchmark so high that every actor right from Manoj Kumar to Amitabh Bachchan to Shahrukh Khan to Aamir Khan looks at his performances to grow and enrich himself.
Nothing sums up who Dilip Kumar is better than the anecdote where Yusuf, his siblings and his parents leave Peshawar in a train for India and on the way are offered, "Hindu chai" and "Muslim Chai" and they sip both.
Dilip Kumar did the same, in more ways than one through his conduct not just as a cinematic icon but as a cultural icon. That and the fact that in a commerce driven industry, he never sold himself out.
Or as Shabana Azmi puts it, "He has never succumbed to anything crass in the name of popular appeal. He entertained without having to resort to crudity." A lesson, like she says, we would do well to learn.