"I grew up hero-worshipping Sivaji Ganesan. He was like the guiding sun in my life. Then I discovered an entire galaxy in Dilipsaab," Kamal Haasan says.
"I discovered Dilipsaab rather late. It took me a long time to learn to appreciate him. I belong to another culture, another generation. The first film of Dilipsaab that I saw was Mughal-e-Azam. He touched something deep within me as an actor. You have to be an actor to fully understand what Dilipsaab achieves through his performances.
"Actually, I was introduced to Hindi cinema very late. The first Hindi film I saw was Padosan, and that too because I was told that the Tamil community was lampooned in the film through Mehmoodsaab's character. I ended up becaming a fan of Hindi cinema, and gradually visited the classics. I saw V Shantaram's Jal Bin Machali Nritya Bin Bijli and wondered why they called Shantaramji a great filmmaker. Then I saw Jhanak Jhanak Paayal Baje and Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani, and I knew why."
When Haasan arrived in Mumbai to work on his Hindi film Ek Duuje Ke Liye, he met Javed Akhtar. "I told him I am a fan of Dilipsaab although I had seen just one film, Mughal-e-Azam. He asked me to watch Ganga Jumna. After I saw it, I couldn't stop raving about it. I got all the inspiration I needed. In Ganga Jumna, he did an amazing and risky thing. He signed on an unknown teenager to play his character's younger version. Normally, characters go from childhood to adult. Here in Ganga Jumna, Dilipsaab cut it closer and trained a teenager to behave like Dilip Kumar -- the way the boy walks, climbs, talks... he brought his own spirit into the boy."
Haasan then paid tribute to Ganga Jumna in his Tamil film Guna. "I had written a scene in Guna with a gun that I saw in Ganga Jumna -- when I fight with the cops, the gun goes off."
Haasan soon met his idol after he watched Ganga Jumna. "I went to meet him the day after I saw Ganga Jumna. I had tears in my eyes when I told him what I thought of him. He just looked at me and smiled. Maybe he thought, 'Not another one.' I apologised to him for discovering him late."
From then on, Haasan has met Dilipsaab during every visit to Mumbai. "He came to Chennai on my request many years ago to give an award to Sivaji Ganesan. In front of 40,000 people, I showed off my familiarity with Yusufsaab. Before the function, I got to talk to him for two and a half hours in his hotel room. Rather, he talked and I listened. Those were the most revealing hours of my life as an actor. He described his life as a boy in Kabul. A deprivation of formal education never deterred him from educating himself."
Haasan met him last in October, and recorded the entire encounter on a moving camera. "He is absolutely coherent. He is old and tired of the idolisation," Haasan says. "He is craving for quiet. He doesn't care for the laudatory shouting all around him. I will meet him on his birthday, as I try to do each year," Haasan adds.
Haasan continues: "I dreamt of sharing screen space with Yusufsaab. In fact when I wrote the Tamil film Thavar Magan for Sivajisaab and me, I had already planned to cast Yusufsaab and me in the Hindi adaptation. But he wasn't keen so I let go."
Haasan has only one regret about his idol. "The country made him so insecure that Yusuf Khan changed his name to Dilip Kumar. Today, a man called Dileep has changed his name to A R Rahman. The country has grown up. Though not enough. In Tamil Nadu, you won't find any actor with a Muslim name except Nasser. Even I was advised to change my name since it sounded Muslim."