I finally read it! Don’t tell my friend who brought it for me all the way from India 2 years ago, only for it to sit on my shelf unnoticed unloved and unread. Until now! It took a while, but I finally finished it. And it was fascinating in lots of little “history of the industry” ways.
I’m gonna break this down section by section. And I’m not going to agonize over remembering every detail (well, not much). Just sort of give you a sense of what I found interesting and informative in each section.
Dilip Sahib spent his early childhood in a combined household in Peshawar. He lived with his grandfather, grandmother, mother, father, and various aunts and uncles who were in and out. It was an idyllic and yet not idyllic childhood. Essentially, Dilip gives an accurate description of the plusses and minuses. He loved playing with his cousins, and his grandfather was doting and wonderful. But he was also very aware of his mother’s lowly position in the household as the daughter-in-law, constantly working and waiting on her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law. And his grandmother had terrifying power over the whole household, she decided that Dilip’s looks were unlucky for him and forced his mother to shave his head and blacken his face before sending him to school every day. She hated doing it, and it made Dilip miserable, but no one could go against his grandmother.
(Peshawar when Dilip was a boy)
And then there was the really chilling memory, when he was 5 or 6 there was a flurry in the household, some upsetting news and his mother was told to run next door to the neighbors right away. He followed her there without her realizing it and saw the bodies of two boys, just a few years older than himself, with their families mourning over them. He got trapped in the room in the confusion, was yelled at by the colonial police who came to investigate, and then sent home. But that’s not the chilling part, the chilling part was Dilip matter of factly explaining that the boys had died as part of a family feud, such deaths were common, that’s why all the families had so many children, so that there would be another son to take over if one died. His whole happy household of long stories in the evening, plenty of playmates to play with, and so on and so on, had behind it this history of violence that drove families to be big and close.
The Peshawar years were his early childhood. His family moved to Bombay when political disorder upset the traditional fruit markets where they worked and his father looked to expand. As I understand it, their business relied on actually owning orchards elsewhere, leaving them to someone else to run, and handling the selling part of it in the city. His father moved to Bombay to open up a new market and was immediately successful. But he missed his wife, and his children, and so he took them away from the Peshawar household and brought them to Bombay. At least, that’s how Dilip remembers it.
I want to take a second here to think about the relationship between Dilip’s parents and how he saw it. Dilip argues that it was the blackening of his face and the shaving of his head as a boy which made him sensitive and able to play emotional scenes, because he was so miserable and alienated at school. But I think it was before that. Something inside of him that made him more attuned to the emotions swirling around him. That made him notice how his mother was abused by the other women in the household, and how his father was almost half-ashamed of how he loved his family, tried to hide his affection for his wife from his jealous relatives, and was reluctant to admit that he just plain missed his children and wanted them with him.
Dilip continued to be aware of the movements in the household between his siblings. His oldest brother who drifted away, his brother closest to him in age with him he had a close bond, who was always more thoughtful and intelligent. And of course his oldest sister Sakina, who was just plain evil. He stumbles around it a lot in the book, “set in her ways”, “difficult”, “strong minded”. But it’s pretty clear that from a young age she terrorized not just her siblings, but her own sweet mother. This is the same sensitivity he would bring to understanding his characters, and his co-workers, he always seemed to know just what to say and what to do to make them feel better.
Oh right, so they moved to Bombay, his mother made friends, his brother got sick and they moved to a hill station for a while, and then back. Dilip was put in an English Medium school and learned the language quickly, impressing his family and his father’s friends, his father used to make him recite an English poem to impress them. His father dreamed of him getting an OBE and sent him to college to learn more.
College is where Dilip became close to Raj Kapoor. They were two Peshawar boys, and their families were friends back there. Raj’s grandfather used to visit Dilip’s father and Dilip’s father would tease him about having a son who was in movies. Raj was already charming and a ladies man, but Dilip was shy and sports focused. His secret dream kept from his father was to be an athlete. He played soccer/football and ran track and loved it. And Raj would stand on the sidelines and lead the cheers. And then tease Dilip and try to get him to talk to a pretty girl, which he never learned how to do.
(Raj and Dilip)
And then one day, he and his father had a fight about something, Dilip doesn’t say what. He doesn’t say a lot of things, this book was done by dictation and it feels like it, a bit rambly and repetitive, and also self-edited as he went along. Big sections where he sort of dances around the point. Like this. He and his father fought about…..something. So Dilip hopped a train and left for Poona. He asked for a job at the first place he found, where they told him they didn’t need anyone, but his good English would probably get him a place working for the army canteen. Which it did. He worked at the canteen, charmed the officers, and eventually noticed that there gap that could be filled by a sandwich stand. He got permission to open one and quickly became popular and successful. And finally made enough money to feel like he could return home with honor.
There is one cute story during this period. He was asked to speak at an event held by the army on the topic of Indian Independence. He did a lot of research and gave a speech he was pretty proud of. And then he was arrested. He was taken to jail, and when they asked who he was and what he did, the arresting officer said “He’s another one of those Gandhiwallas”. He was thrown in a cell with a bunch of actual freedom fighters and learned they were on hunger strike. So he decided to go on hunger strike himself, and refused the (not very appetizing anyway) meal that was offered him. And then the next morning he was bailed out and his friends took him out to breakfast and he was very proud to tell them about his one night hunger strike.
And then he went back to Bombay. On the occasion of Eid-Al-Fitr. Throughout the book there are casual references to Dilip’s Muslim identity like this. He’s not making a deep religious point, or political statement, it’s just around him. His family celebrated Eid and it made him homesick. That’s all.
Back in Bombay, Dilip started looking for some kind of work. And one day on the street he saw a psychiatrist friend of the family, mentioned he was looking for work, and the friend suggested that he come along to a meeting at Bombay Talkies studio, they might have something for him there. Dilip was introduced to Devika Rani, and she called him back and offered him a contract with an enormous monthly salary.
At Bombay Talkies, Dilip went through essentially a training program. Devika took him in hand herself personally, and also introduced him to S. Mukherjee, the leading director, and Ashok Kumar, the leading actor of the studio. The 3 of them changed his looks, changed his name, and gave him directions on how to look at the camera, how to act, how to do everything. It comes up again and again throughout the book, Dilip referring back to what he learned in those early years.
(Dilip, Ashok, and Raj. Raj had the same kind of “training program”)
Beyond what he was learning, Dilip didn’t think much about his career choice. He worked hard, be made good money, he could contribute to the household at home. He knew his father wouldn’t be happy to see him acting, so he tried to keep it quiet what his actual job was. It finally came out when his father saw his face and a different name on a billboard. His father didn’t yellp, but he was clearly disappointed. Dilip confided in his best friend Raj, who suggested that his father Prithviraj take a hand. Prithviraj came over, talked to Dilip’s father as a friend and contemporary, and things became easier between them.
Dilip’s first film wasn’t a major success, and doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression on him. He did it, it was fine, he didn’t really care. The first film was over with and he could stop thinking about it.
And then Bombay Talkies fell apart. Soon after that first film. Devika Rani left, and the rest of the staff dispersed. All of them in demand and quickly hired by the new banners desperate for trained staff. Dilip moved on to Filmistan (Rani and Kajol’s family studio) and S. Mukherjee. But without a contract, just a film by film commitment on a freelance basis.
Which brings me to Kamini Kaushal, one of Dilip’s co-stars in this era and his first love. Maybe. Sort of. What he says is “I guess I was drawn more intellectually than emotionally to Uma [Kamini’s real name], with whom I could talk about matters and topics that interested me outside the purview of our working relationship. If that was love, may be it was.”
What Dilip meant by being drawn to her intellectually was that she could speak, and speak intelligently, in English. Language is a big thing for Dilip, and seems to have been a big thing for the film industry in this era in general. Part of Dilip’s qualifications for stardom was his amazing command of language, Urdu and Pashto and English, and then quickly picking up Bengali from S. Mukherjee and Ashok Kumar. They even asked him to sit in on story meetings right from his first day, because many of the writers came from the Bengali industry and needed Dilip’s touch with the classical dialogue.
That’s something he had in common with a lot of the actors he talks about. Long evenings spent reciting Urdu poetry to each other, playing with language, learning accents and so on. And so he was drawn to Uma because she could talk to him the way he liked to talk. That was his first love.
Dilip is a gentleman to the utmost degree, and so he only acknowledges romances which are already part of the public record and he cannot avoid acknowledging. There were all kinds of stories about him and Kamini, so he had to talk about her in some small way. And he also had to talk about Madhubala.
He says something at one point that implies he had met Madhubala when he needed someone bright and happy in his life. I’m not clear on if that is because his mother had just died, or because he had just lost Kamini Kaushal. But he gently indicates that Madhubala “filled a void that was crying out to be filled – not by an intellectually sharp woman but a spirited woman whose liveliness and charm were the ideal panacea for the wound that was taking its own time to heal”.
What that means is, he fell for Madhubala on the rebound but wasn’t sure if he wanted to commit. And once he did decide to commit (possibly because she seduced him knowing he would then feel obligated to marry her, he opens that possibility up very gently), he brought a proposal to her father who tried to lock him down to not just a proposal of marriage, but a business commitment to several films. They went back and forth, but the discussion broke down.
Now, you want my take on this? I think Dilip was just never that into her. He was going to propose because it seemed reasonable after they had been together a while, was planning to marry her because that is what you do. But he wasn’t willing to fight with her father to take her away, he just didn’t care enough to go above and beyond. Unlike Kishoreda, who cared more and was a little more willing to break social boundaries to get what he wanted.
After Madhubala, Dilip Saheb doesn’t really talk about anyone else besides Saira. But he implies that there were others. Even when talking about Saira, there is a casual comment about a woman he had recently broken up with who interfered on their first date. For Saira, essentially everything was easy, once he gave in and fell in love with her. She pursued him for years, he always thought she was too young. And then he saw her at her birthday party and suddenly she looked older and he was in love. He proposed on their first date, and they were married within weeks. (more details in my suggested movie treatment on the post here. Including quotes)
There is one other romance he has to acknowledge. His second wife. Which, I have NO IDEA what happened, even after reading the half a page in which he deals with it about 5 times. What is clear is that he regretted it immediately and his main focus was on getting a quick and clean divorce so as to spare Saira any more pain. After she read about it in the papers.
Dilip says he met her at a cricket match and she was already a mother of three and married. And she was a friend of his sisters. So he was extra polite. And then:
I was completely unaware of a connivance that was being mischievously perpetuated and a situation being cleverly created by vested interests to draw a commitment from me. Not once, but many times I was surprised by the lady and her husband who popped up from nowhere even when I was in different places out of Bombay to come up to me and greet me and linger on and on. Strangely, they were aware of my travel plans and my itinerary!
In 1982, when the news spread that I had married Asma and Saira read the sensational ‘revelation’ in a tabloid, it was very painful for me to console her as she trusted me and loved me unconditionally.
Okay, is it just me, or does it feel like he left out A LOT of stuff there? He meets this woman at a cricket match, and then a few more tons, and then suddenly we are skipping ahead and Saira is finding out that he married someone else. What the what what???????
And with that, I leave you, to come back in a few hours to cover Family, Later Career, Public Service, and Film Community.