Dilip Saheb wrote an enormous autobiography a few years back. I read it, and wrote about it on the blog. In honor of his death, if you want to learn more about his life, read this.
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???????
As I mentioned in the last section, Dilip spends a lot of time saying without saying that his oldest sister, Sakina Aapa, was a terror and a nasty brutal woman. She kind of overshadows all his family stories. Especially because, by the time he was a young man, Dilip was the head of the family with Sakina as his always contradictory co-head.
Dilip was part of a family of 12 children. He had 2 older brothers and Sakina. Below him, he had another 5 sisters and 4 brothers. The brother he was closest to died as a young man after years as an invalid. Dilip’s mother never really recovered, the asthma that plagued her got worse and worse, and finally she died as well. Followed by her husband, broken hearted after the death of his wife. Dilip’s oldest brother, Noor, had always been a little distanced in Dilip’s memories, moving on to his own thing. Which left Dilip and Sakina as the defacto head of the household, in charge of raising all the younger siblings.
(Sakina is the older woman looking judgemental at Saira)
Dilip had already been head of the household financially for years. Even before his father died, he had taken charge and found and purchased a house in Bandra near the film studios. His father retired and, along with the rest of the family, was living on Dilip’s earnings.
This is interesting just in terms of early stardom to me. Dilip was making very good money, as one of the top 3 stars in the industry. Enough to buy a large house and support a large family, including paying for overseas schooling for his younger siblings. And enough for himself to casually travel to London and other overseas locations for pleasure. But this is nothing compared to the money people make today. Dilip wasn’t founding hospital wings or purchasing fleets of sports cars. He didn’t have so much money that he didn’t know what to do with it, if that makes sense. He had the exact right amount of money, enough to take care of his family and continue his own personal development. And the area they were living in, back then, wasn’t the expensive exclusive top area of Bombay. It was just the area near the film studios, where most of the stars, along with producers and writers and everyone else, lived because it was practical.
Anyway, Dilip’s father died and he became head of the family. Sakina ran the house with an iron hand, but Dilip took charge of the education. He had great visions for all his siblings, boys and girls. And was disappointed when all 4 sisters chose marriage over work. And further disappointed when all his support came to nothing, and two of his younger brothers went nowhere in their professions. Another brother, Nasir, had a semi-successful film career, mostly thanks to Dilip’s support, and then contracted alopecia which put an end to his acting career.
(Here is Nasir acting opposite his brother in Ganga Jumana)
His sister Akhtar was the one who really broke his heart. She had the intelligence that made her stand out in the family, reminded him of the brother who had died. He prepared to send her abroad for studies, to help with whatever she needed, and then she ran off with K. Asif (director of Mughal-E-Azam). This wasn’t just a love marriage, Dilip didn’t care about his sisters having love marriages, it was a marriage to a man who he knew would be no good for her, who she was throwing herself away on. The clear impression is that his preference would have been for her to remain unmarried and have a successful career at something, over ever marrying. Let alone marrying someone who would force her to hide her light under a bushel.
K. Asif was already married twice. His first wife was a Rakhi sister of Dilip’s, Dilip’s high regard for her was the main reason he continued to work with K. Asif. He is already dismissive of K. Asif as an artist and an intellect, felt he had to do most of the work to bring out his character and any kind of subtleties to his role in Mughal-E-Azam on his own, felt that K. Asif unfairly promoted his romance with Madhubala just to help the film, suggests that K. Asif told Madhubala to seduce him so he would propose. And then this twice married unintelligent much older man used his ability to go in and out of Dilip’s household to seduce Dilip’s innocent sister, who was meant for greater things. Dilip reconciled with Akhtar years later (thanks to Saira’s interference), but you can see that the disappointment in her still burns.
(K. Asif with Dilip and Madhubala, looking super sleazy)
This household was fairly established when Saira married into it. Sakina and another unmarried sister ruled everything, Dilip hide out in a guest house in the backyard. At marriage, he assumed that Saira would want her own home, but Saira rejected this idea, agreed that he had been so close to his siblings all these years, she would not take that away from him. And so she moved in to Sakina’s household, and promptly became so ill that she almost died.
Dilip skates by this a bit but, having dealt with difficult relative situations myself (haven’t we all?), I can fill in the blanks. There was something about Saira not being able to use the bathroom ever because Sakina and the other sisters would always jump in first. Something about nasty remarks on the stairs, arguments over this and that. And Saira was shy and young and unable to stand up to them, would just say “it’s all right, it’s all right”. Until she started fainting and so on and Dilip rushed her to London where it was discovered that the stress had brought on colitis and she needed intensive hospitalization.
I’m just saying now, if your sister-in-law brings you to near death through stress related illness, MOVE OUT!!!! Which is what Saira did. She already had a house right across the road (remember, all the film people lived near each other for convenience), so she just started living over there with Dilip going between the two houses. And she could eat the food she medically needed to eat, and use the bathroom when she needed to get ready for shoots in the morning, and generally be treated in a decent humane manner.
Sakina presumably died at some point, because she stops popping up in stories by the time Dilip is talking about his nephews and nieces. Since Dilip was essentially head of the family for his younger siblings’ childhood, their children came to regard him as a grandfather. He remembers with great pleasure their childhood, running in and out of the house, always playing games and keeping the house lively. The end of the book includes reminiscences from some of those nephews and nieces which bare out his version. He was their beloved “Yousaf Uncle”, always ready for a game or a joke, teaching them how to fly kites, taking them to movies, buying “tickets” for their amateur shows in the backyard. That same push over personality which made him not the greatest defense against in-laws as a husband, made him a wonderful indulgent “Grandpa”.
Dilip does not talk as much in detail about his career as I want him to. But that in itself is revealing, he didn’t see his career as “and then the film industry began to shift in this way, so I started signing contracts with this kind of production house”. For him, it was clearly always about the roles. When he describes his famous films, it is in terms of what attracted him to the character, a particular scene he struggled with how to play, the work itself above all.
What does become clear, both from Dilip’s stories and what others said in the end section of the book, is that Dilip was essentially writing and directing his films starting early on in his career. He would sit in on weeks of story meetings, the director might casually ask him to just come up with his own idea for a particular scene and write his own dialogue, and he would show up with diagrams and notes on camera angles and speed and everything else. Not to mention organizing and directing rehearsals with his co-stars so they performed as he wanted them to perform.
What Dilip says without saying it is that this is how he was trained back in the Bombay Talkies days, so far as he was concerned, this was the job of the star. And not just this, but keeping everyone happy and safe on set. There are stories of him organizing games, buying books, being friendly and supportive and helpful, the first person you would go to with a question or a problem. That’s what Ashok was to him, that’s how Devika Rani told him he should be, so that is how he was.
(For instance, a very young Farida Jalal was taken in hand by him. It wasn’t just big stars he paid attention to, the “hero’s young sister” kind of actress got his personal attention as well)
And the thing is, as the only one among the big 3 in that era who never directed or produced, Dilip Sahib is the one we have to thank for most clearly modeling that behavior to everyone who came after him. That’s still how stars are today. They set the tone on set, they know everyone and everyone knows them, they sit in on story sessions write their own dialogue come up with their own bits of acting, direct the second unit , and so on and so forth. Raj Kapoor and Dev were producing, obviously in charge. But Dilip, he was there as “just” an actor, and the stories spread of what he considered part of his duties as “just” an actor, and that became the standard to live up to for everyone from Amitabh Bachchan to Aamir Khan.
Dilip was also the first to take a conscious break from acting. He made no movies between the mid-70s and early 80s. And then came back only in well-written scripts for directors he respected and with co-stars he was interested in working with. It’s the same change that the 3 Khans are struggling with today, and Amitabh struggled with in the mid-90s, but Dilip was the first. To go from “top actor” to “character actor” without any loss of dignity.
Here’s the thing I really miss, Dilip was an out and proud Nehruvian! He was asked by Panditji himself to help with a contested Bombay election, and from there he became a regular on the campaign circuit. Giving gracious off the cuff remarks in support of his chosen candidate without ever wanting to run for office himself. And without ever bringing strife between the groups. In a later campaign when the two parties were holding rallies in the same place, Dilip was accidentally put on the BJP pavilion. When he realized where he was, he made some gracious remarks about respecting his opponent, and smoothly removed himself.
It wasn’t just the campaigns, it was the way he lived his life. Dilip was twice invited back to Pakistan. The first time was to inaugurate a blood bank in Peshawar in his old neighborhood. The second, to receive an award from the President of Pakistan. Both times, Dilip paid in heartbreak for his attempts to bridge the gap between the two countries.
The first time, Dilip’s oldest friend Raj Kapoor fell sick while he was out of the country. Rishi gives an account in the back of the book of what happened. He remembered his whole life, Dilip being in and out of their home, his father being all excited and thrilling with anticipation any time Dilip planned to come over, and then greeting him with a booming “You are late again today!” So when Dilip finally arrived from Peshawar, flying immediately to Delhi to visit Raj in the hospital where he had fallen in to a coma, he came into the room and sat by the bed and took his hand and told him “even today I am late! Don’t punish me by not speaking to me, wake up. I went back to Peshawar, I saw the streets of our childhood, I have brought it all back with me to tell you, just wake up.” And of course Raj never did wake up, dying before Dilip was able to share with the only person in the world who would know what it was like to return to their shared childhood home.
(Here they are in happier times)
The second time Dilip went to Pakistan, Bal Thackaray lead a charge against him for being “unIndian”. He returned to face a public relations disaster, and the hatred of the same people who used to love him. Dilip mentions this briefly himself, but also mentions that he later made up with Bal. Which I kind of can’t believe, but I will chalk it up to Dilip’s greatness/inability to handle confrontation.
By this I mean the way he took the lead in the industry. Which is something Dilip himself doesn’t talk about much, but the end of the book is a series of reminiscences (I cannot BELIEVE I spelled that right on the first try!) from others, family and friends and fellow industry folks. And what they all talk about is endless warmth, graciousness, and support.
For instance, Amitabh was driving around with Salim-Javed late one night, like at 4am, and they passed Dilip Sahib’s house and Salim said “hey, we should go in!” Amitabh was embarrassed and tried to stop them, but Salim kept saying “it’s fine, it’s fine!” So the went in, told the watchmen to tell Dilip that his friends were here to see him, and a few minutes later Dilip came down, gracious and sincerely delighted to see them.
Dilip himself talks about how one of the things he loves about Saira is how she runs the house. Taking on the challenge of being able to feed dozens of people on a moments notice, they just have a huge freezer with food ready to be prepared as needed. This is how Dilip lives, this is what he believes is the right thing to do, to be kind and helpful and generous to all who come to his door.
Dharmendra had another story. The real first time he met Dilip was the first time he came to Bombay. He had this idea in his head that Dilip was his big brother. So he found out where Dilip’s house was and just walked right in and then right into the bedroom. Because where he came from, that’s what you did, everyone had open house all the time. But then he saw Dilip, surprised to see this 20 year old stranger standing in his bedroom, and ran out.
The next time he came, he had won a FilmFare contest. And Dilip’s sister was coincidentally one of the young women helping to prepare him for his interview. He found out who she was, and begged for an introduction, saying that Dilip was his “brother”, and sure enough she invited him back to the house. Dilip came down, greeted him as his little brother, and after a wonderfully encouraging and helpful talk about his future as an actor, Dilip literally gave him the shirt off his back, the sweater he was wearing that day, as a remembrance.
The younger crowd, they may not have met him in person, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t influence them. Aamir Khan (I think) uses the Eklavya-Drona comparison. Which is very apt. He considers Dilip Sahib his “guru”. Because just watching his works and studying his craft is enough to teach him how to act, how to be a star. Whether or not Dilip himself took him in hand personally.
(Okay, so they did meet at least once)
That’s the ultimate legacy of Dilip, I think, after reading this whole book. Not his messy personal life, or a successful series of children/siblings/nieces and nephews, or even his great performances. At least not just his great performances. It’s his performances, his dedication in putting them together, his willingness to help others give similar performances, his interest in helping the film industry as a whole move forward, all of the many many ways he has influenced those who came after him.