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'Would be criminal if I stopped Saira from acting'

Last updated on: August 14, 2017 15:50 IST

'On the first day of shooting, after our first shot together as co-stars was canned, a dream Saira had cherished for years, Rajinder Krishan, the poet who was watching the way Saira was following my brief and performing perfectly, took her aside after all the clapping had died down, and told her: "Beta, I think you performed brilliantly. However, I must tell you something in your own interest. You should not try to be Dilip Kumar in your enactment".'
'Be yourself, be Saira Banu. This is what all his heroines have been doing. All of them have tried to be Dilip Kumar and failed. It is only natural when you have an actor of his stature in the same frame.'
'Don't do it. Try to be yourself.'

IMAGE: The wedding day: Saira Banu with her mother Naseem Banu and Dilip Kumar.

Dilip Kumar's autobiography The Substance And The Shadow is a good read.

It has beautiful glimpses into the legendary actor's life as he started his movie career, made his brilliant hit films, married Saira Banu, and lived his life.

We present to you a chapter on his life with Saira Banu and the films they did together.

I began to discover the capacity my wife had for hard work and the pursuit for flawless work.

She was receptive to sound advice and was quick to absorb the guidance I gave her in the scenes we came together.

She co-starred with me in three films and I saw her tenacity and determination to get the nuances and emotional curves of the performance right.

Gopi (directed by A Bhim Singh) was a delightful experience. It was like an extended honeymoon for me and Saira.

We had a secluded house -- more like a cottage -- at Kodambakkam (a locality in Madras) in the midst of a lot of greenery with mango trees all over the backyard and with golden yellow sand covering the entire compound.

For our recreation and exercise, Nagi Reddy had a huge, high-walled badminton court made for us close by with a thatched roof of palm leaves.

Saira was very happy not only because we were left alone in the large house after pack-up from the shooting during the day but also because she was working with me for the first time.

By now, she had shed some of her shyness and the reservations of a conservative upbringing.

On the sets, she enjoyed the jokes between me and Om Prakashji -- a renowned comedian and character actor -- and she responded warmly to the upcoming actress Farida Jalal's attempt to befriend her.

In fact, she and Farida Jalal struck up a friendship that continues to this day.

Saira's Kathak guru, Roshan Kumari, who was choreographing her song and dance numbers in the film, was also a friend, who provided company in Madras.

Roshan Kumari and Saira would spend hours in their rehearsal of the choreographed movements for the song picturized on both of us, Gentleman, Gentleman, Gentleman..., which became a craze after the film was released.

IMAGE: Saira Banu and Dilip Kumar in Gopi.

On the first day of shooting, after our first shot together as co-stars was canned, a dream Saira had cherished for years, Rajinder Krishan, the poet who was watching the way Saira was following my brief and performing perfectly, took her aside after all the clapping had died down, and told her: 'Beta, I think you performed brilliantly. However, I must tell you something in your own interest. You should not try to be Dilip Kumar in your enactment.'

'Be yourself, be Saira Banu. This is what all his heroines have been doing. All of them have tried to be Dilip Kumar and failed. It is only natural when you have an actor of his stature in the same frame.'

'Don't do it. Try to be yourself.'

When we were back at our cottage, Saira related to me what Rajinder Krishan had told her.

It then struck me that his observation was right.

I had always tried to help my co-artistes by enacting their part for them in a scene during the preparation not because I wished to overpower them but simply because I wanted them to be a scale better than I was.

It was also something I had imbibed from S Mukherjee Sahab and Mehboob Sahab, who were well known for depicting facial expressions and body movements before actors.

Mukherjee Sahab, for instance, could become a graceful woman giving that glance of loving acceptance to her lover when he enacted it for Vyjayantimala's observation during the shooting of Leader (1964).

Likewise, Mehboob Sahab, with all his avoirdupois, could demonstrate the gait of a slim and agile village maiden when he was directing Nimmi in Amar (1954).

I explained the finer points to Saira by showing her how Mehboob Sahab feigned the shyness and the gait of the village girl with his bulky figure and chubby face undergoing a metamorphosis all of a sudden.

Saira went into peals of laughter, but she understood how helpful the two great men were and how passionate they were about getting the result they desired in a period of Indian cinema when there was no formal training available to artistes and directors.

IMAGE: Naseem Banu, Saira Banu's mother Naseem, and her bhabhi Rahat with Dilip Kumar at their mehendi ceremony.

As a matter of fact, when my brother Nasir and I were working together in Gunga Jumna (1961), Nasir would sit quietly and watch me explain scenes and demonstrate the facial expressions I wanted from the artistes.

During lunch one afternoon, I heard him telling Nitin Bose (the director of the film) about a young lady, who was smitten by him and how I had read her facial expression, which had betrayed her feelings for Nasir, who was hardly aware of the young lady's interest in him.

The truth is that I was fascinated by facial expressions right from my childhood.

I found out even as a child that facial expressions could convey what words sometimes failed to.

When Aghaji was angry or upset, he always remained aloof and silent. But his eyes and the lines on his brow could never hide his feelings.

I observed all the members of our family residing in the large house in Peshawar because I was either trailing behind Amma or sitting by her side when she made freewheeling conversation with visitors from her side of the family.

I took less interest in what she spoke or they spoke, but I paid keen attention to the way in which they expressed their feelings and thoughts.

I enjoyed observing their expressions, the use of their hands and the modulation of their voices.

Amma sometimes noticed what I was doing and gently told me to leave the room, explaining that children shouldn't be listening to conversations between elders.

Though I never sat next to Aghaji when he conversed with his friends, I observed them, too, from a distance. There were men whose hearty laughter enlivened the atmosphere and there were men who didn't react at all. The strong silent ones, I guess.

Among my leading ladies, it was Nargis who once jovially asked me how I knew so much about the way women expressed themselves. It amused her no end when I told her about my childhood observations.

 

IMAGE: Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu in Sagina.

To get back to Gopi, I began to discover the capacity my wife had for hard work and the pursuit for flawless work.

She was receptive to sound advice and was quick to absorb the guidance I gave her in the scenes we came together.

She co-starred with me in three films and I saw her tenacity and determination to get the nuances and emotional curves of the performance right.

In the two other films we did together, Sagina (1970 and 1974) and Bairaag (1976), she had to bring to life characters that bore no resemblance to her real self or anyone she knew.

She had to draw from the well of her own imagination and take the helpful directions given to her by the directors and writers with a sincere commitment.

We signed Sagina while Gopi was in the making and it entailed my going frequently by the time-consuming flights to Calcutta (now Kolkata) for meetings that director Tapan Sinha arranged.

I had met Tapanda earlier in the company of my friend Hiten Choudhary, but we did not talk much about films.

Tapanda was a man of few words and he preferred to converse as most highly educated men do. I understood he was a postgraduate in physics like S Mukherjee Sahab and had started his journey in cinema as a sound engineer like the latter.

While Mukherjee Sahab was very eloquent and enjoyed a lively conversation with people he knew well, Tapanda spoke only when needed.

Ashok Bhaiyya (Ashok Kumar) had spoken highly about Tapanda after he had worked in the Bengali film Hate Bazare (1967) with that director.

I had watched the 1957 Bengali film Kabuliwala in Bimalda's (Bimal Roy's) company. I had liked Tapanda's adaptation of the story by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and I had complimented the actor Chabi Biswas for his performance in the film.

Tapanda came across as a director who was receptive to suggestions and observations not only from me, but also equally from other actors.

He had long academic discussions with me about the backdrop and the period of the story and he urged me to read some literature he had compiled about the pre-Independence labour union movements and about the birth and spread of Naxalism in certain parts of east and north east India.

Such literature was very helpful to me in understanding the characters and their vulnerabilities against the backdrop of the revolutionary political scenario that had surfaced there.

IMAGE: Arriving at Madras airport for the shooting of Ram Aur Shyam.
Left to right: Pran, Baby Farida, Nagi Reddy, Dilip Kumar, Saira Banu, Nirupa Roy and A Chakrapani.

I was fascinated by the character of Sagina -- his complete lack of guile in dealing with critical issues and conniving people, his perceptions and instinctive abilities, his maverick behaviour at times, his love for Lalita (to be played by Saira) and, above all, his chequered destiny.

There was depth and realism in the way Tapanda had created the character of Sagina on paper and he told me that I was free to improvise if I wished.

In fact, he was a director who left much to the actors to study and understand the demands of the situations in the screenplay and come up with their improvisations.

To work with such a director is a genuine pleasure for actors who possess fertile minds and have the will to enhance the appeal of the character by repeated improvements, whereas it becomes a burden for actors who prefer to follow directorial guidelines.

The actors in Sagina Mahato were, to my delight, eager to participate in improvisations and improvements.

The first version was in Bengali and it meant my delivering my lines in that language.

I had already a soft corner for the Bengali language in my heart, having been in the constant company of Ashok Bhaiyya, Mukherjee Sahab and so many scholarly Bengali writers and directors in the early years of my career.

As such, it did not take a Herculean effort on my part to speak the lines in Bengali but the non-Bengali artistes from Bombay (including Saira) had to be given recorded tapes of their Bengali dialogue to hear and rehearse.

The reward for all the effort I put in to render my Bengali dialogue with conviction came after the film's release, when the local media wrote glowingly about it.

I was more than happy therefore to accept the prestigious Bengal Film Journalists Association's award for my acting in the Bengali original.

Four years later, the producers, J K Kapur and Hemen Ganguly, encouraged by the success of the Bengali film, went on to remake it in Hindi at considerable expense, reshooting the scenes at the same locations.

IMAGE: Dilip Kumar with his sisters Sakina, Saeeda and Taj.

The song situations were inserted in the Hindi version after some thinking to provide relief in the original narrative, which was moving at a slow pace that could bore the mass audience in the northern India states.

The song, Tumhre Sang To Rain Bitayi, picturised on me and Saira, was choreographed in the most unconventional manner with our own inputs in the movements.

It was a song suggesting the intimacy between Sagina and Lalita the previous night in much the same way that Dhoondo Dhoondo Re Sajana More Kaan Ka Bala suggested the consummation of the relationship between Gunga and Dhanno after they were hurriedly wed by a captive purohit (priest) in the jungles in Gunga Jumna.

If there was one thing that I insisted on while such situations were conceived was that there should be no explicit depiction of physical intimacy.

My condition went down well with the majority of directors I worked with, thanks to our like-mindedness on the subject.

It was always left to me then to work out the scenes. This did not mean that I was (or am) puritanical or orthodox.

I certainly understood the mass audience's expectations but, at the same time, I was acutely aware of the moral responsibility I shouldered as an actor.

As the head of a family comprising six girls and five boys, I was innately averse to any display of indecency and the first thought that always crossed my mind was about the embarrassment such scenes could cause to my own sisters if they watched me in, albeit, a make-believe situation in a film.

The film I chose to do may be a comedy, a labour-oriented subject, a historical, or a socially relevant theme, but I have generally chosen scripts with a social concern as its core content.

One can't get what one wants all the time, but, given the choice, I gave preference to such scripts.

Sagina Mahato, therefore, interested me as a subject for its inherent comment on, and exposure of, the politics that impacted the proletarian labour movements. It was also interesting as an unusual love story woven into a turbulent flow of events.

Saira was originally not supposed to be cast in the role of Lalita. She had her own workload to carry and the character was not major enough for her star stature at that point of time.

But Saira being Saira, she volunteered to play the part just so that she could be with me at the secluded hilly locations chosen near Kurseong and Gayabari (near Darjeeling in West Bengal) for the film.

The character turned out to be quite a fiery one and she took up the challenge 'manfully' and played the part with a courage and vigour that surprised me.

The reviews she received for her performance and the compliments she got from her colleagues made her justly proud.

IMAGE: Saira Banu with Dilip Kumar's sisters. Left to right: Farida, Saeeda, Taj, Saira Banu, Sakina, Aquila and Fauzia.

Her work in Sagina Mahato convinced me further that it would be unjust to abort her career just to have her by my side as my wife.

Within weeks after our marriage, I had watched rushes of Shagird and it was the first time I was seeing her on the screen.

At the end of the screening, I told her it would be criminal on my part if I stopped her from continuing her career.

The location for Sagina Mahato was a treat for the eyes, as beautiful and mountainous as some parts of Peshawar that still linger in my memory. It was bleak and grey on most days, with mist and white clouds descending from the mountains in the distance.

Being an outdoors loving man, I spent much of my free time trekking up the hills or exploring the markets where I would stop to buy white orchids to present to my wife.

On one such outing, I was taken to watch a play staged by a local theatre group and there I discovered a promising actor named Kader Khan, who met me backstage and expressed his wish to work in Hindi films since he was well acquainted with Urdu.

I spoke to Tapanda and cast him in a small part in Sagina and later in Bairaag.

Kader justified my faith in his abilities when he went on to make a mark later on in numerous Hindi films as an actor and writer. I have not seen any of the films that made him famous, but I learned he was in great demand.

IMAGE: Saira Banu and Dilip Kumar.

While shooting for Sagina, as always, I had a badminton court made next to our cottage, where I played the game every day with whoever wanted to play with me.

In the evenings, when the temperature dipped and the darkness of the night eclipsed the skyline and the landscape, we got together and formed a jolly ring around a bonfire singing and even dancing and miming.

It was our way of dispelling our alienation and loneliness at a beautiful but faraway location.

One evening Saira's guru, Roshan Kumari, a shy conservative Kathak exponent, who only performed before connoisseurs as per the tradition of the Jaipur gharana she belonged to, spontaneously put on her ghungroos (anklets) and performed extempore.

She came up with variations of tatkaar (footwork) while a unit member played the tabla for her. We watched spellbound the pirouettes she effortlessly performed while she danced with abandon.

I must not forget to mention the scene I greatly enjoyed performing in Sagina Mahato.

It was the sequence where Sagina feels claustrophobic in the office and he gets out to enjoy a breath of the open air he loves and there he sees a speeding train.

He takes off in a sprint alongside the running train competitively keeping pace, running faster and faster with the wind beating against his face.

When I suggested the scene to Tapanda, he liked the idea very much.

He looked at me and asked me in his quiet manner if I could wait for a double to be arranged for the run. He stared at me in disbelief when I told him I would do the sprint myself.

I told him about my athletic days, but he could believe me only when the scene was actually filmed in one take!

To this day, I receive compliments from avid filmgoers for the bracing impact the scene had on them and the emotional empathy it evoked.

Excerpted from The Substance And The Shadow by Dilip Kumar, published by Penguin Books India and Hay House India, with Hay House India's permission, Rs 699.

Dilip Kumar