As Dilip Kumar turns 90 today, the original superstar of Hindi cinema answered some questions through email to Business Line on stardom, his most challenging role, and years with wife Saira Banu.
Rajesh Khanna has been hailed as the superstar, but weren’t you the original superstar?
I have not believed in stardom, much less the superstardom you are talking about. Someone told me that outside my house gates fans were first seen gathering in large numbers to get a glimpse of me. Yes, following the success of my films the number of curious men and women, boys and girls outside my bungalow increased. Is that an indication that you are a star? Even at this age when Saira and I take a walk at the Joggers when the park is about to close its gates, there are curious people who stop us in our path and make fond enquiries and talk to us about our work, the films they liked, how beautiful Saira looked in the saris and dresses her mother Naseemji designed. Is that stardom?
I understood very early on in my career that the attention and eagerness to see you in flesh and blood are the result of the response you evoked through your work. Initially it scared me but it did not take long for me to realise that they are reacting to the man who is there on the screen and if I allowed myself to be carried away I would acquire a false personality and that personality could be pompous and obnoxious with false, inflated thoughts about success. So I learned to digest it and preoccupy myself with my work more than with the results of my work. I have consistently maintained that there should be no term for an actor. No such label as a star because that is a label coined by the marketing man, the media and the public relations man.
You are known as a “gentleman actor”. Do you think it was easier to be “civilised” in earlier days, because there was not too much of the media? Or is it an earlier generation thing?
It is not as if there was no gossip media in our times. It was for us as individuals to ensure that we did not do anything silly or unbecoming. It also had a lot to do with one’s upbringing and the values inculcated from childhood. The credit for my being a gentleman should go to my father, a thorough gentleman, and my mother who was a simple, God-fearing woman who treated all human beings with respect and compassion.
Your favouritemost films?
It is difficult to name my favourite films. The people who moulded me were Devika Rani, Nitin Bose, Sashadar Mukherji, Bimal Roy, S S Vasan, Mehboob Khan.
What was your most challenging role?
I was challenged by the prospect of playing Prince Salim in Mughal e Azam. There were no references to go by and no material to study as far as the character was concerned. There was enough and more textual material on the period and the events that were going to be depicted but the questions on my mind were about the conduct, bearing and characteristics of Salim that would help me achieve a palpable likeness to the character.
Bal Thackeray made a huge fuss about your Nishan-e-Imtiaz award from Pakistan. Prior to that you were great friends; you did tweet when he passed away.
Yes, there was a disagreement between us about my acceptance of the Nishan E Imtiaz but subsequently we put all our differences aside and resumed our friendship, coming to terms with the truth that he was a politician and I an artiste. It was never difficult for him to understand what I was communicating to him because he was an artist at heart. And it was never difficult for me to understand what his compulsions were as a politician with a huge following. Our friendship began before he became the Tiger. We respected each other’s work. As I said in my tweet and blog, I saw the sensitive side of the man when Sunil Dutt and I met him for a solution to the dreadful situation Sanjay was in. In the last couple of years we talked to each other often as two caring friends.
How has the journey been with Sairaji?
I don’t have words sometimes to thank the Almighty for bringing me and Saira together in marriage. She was young when I married her and many of my close friends wondered how we would equate with each other given the age difference and the supposed uneven maturity levels. The secret is that she has just refused to let me age physically, with her constant care and attention. Unobtrusively she caught up with my age in order to be my best friend, intellectual companion and often my mother who she knows I loved very much.
After our marriage she took serious lessons in Urdu language and literature. I imagined it was an exercise to perfect her diction; it wasn’t! She knew about my fondness for the language and literature. Saira is a product of Western education, having had her schooling in England. But her mother and grandmother saw to it that she respected Indian values and grew up to acquire a broad mind and vision.
Mohammed Rafi’s voice suited you the best; any favourite songs?
He was my voice in all my memorable films, and as dear to me as Naushad Sahab. With Rafibhai it was a mystical bonding as if he was a part of me when he sang for me, knowing, without being told, how I would perform the song during the filming of the sequence.