Dilip Kumar’s 100 Years: How an Actor’s Quest for Home Moved the Pakistani in Me

Both India & Pakistan tried bracketing him & cast aspersions on his loyalties when they misjudged his complexities.

5 min read

Dilip Kumar’s (playing Prince Salim) magnum opus Mughal e Azam opens with a somber voice reciting the monologue "Main Hindustan Hoon" over a montage of the Indian map and other visualsThere are days when I wonder whether the line "Main Hindustan Hoon" spoke for Yusaf Khan aka Dilip Kumar too.

After all, aren’t his times the India journey; with his worldview equated with one chapter of the Indian tale—Nehruvian India? So, it would not be a far stretch of imagination to read India's past-present-future plot line through the lens of its Dilip Kumar chapter.

How Dilip Kumar Represented the Idea of India & Cross-Border Harmony

Lord Meghnad Desai wrote 'Nehru's Hero: Dilip Kumar in the life of India' deliberating much the same. For him, Kumar/Khan is quintessentially the dream of India, or rather how a particular generation wanted to perceive themselves—sensitive yet strong, passionate yet mindful, a role model and icon, a generation that was confident about their chances as they negotiated the future. When I watch any of the thespian’s interviews, these are the dominant values that leap across the screen.

However, it has not just been India. His life became a masterclass for audiences across the border, particularly for a Peshawar that was once home to him. In living rooms across generations, you could spot the Dilip Kumar hairstyle, and any cultural studies specialist could base their dissertation on how his sartorial preferences and mannerisms have steered and moulded generations of men in their aspirations for social capital—and perhaps, for some, it was not just to understand the Indian dream but also how to emulate it.

Sons of Peshawar Became Nation’s Heartthrobs

Those in the know, divide the Peshawar demographic as those who moved from the rural belts neighbouring it and the city’s khaare (read the urban Peshori).

In Kumar’s person, you found a personality both urban and urbane. Could this be one reason why audiences in my part of the world were divided in their loyalties when it came to Peshawar’s two noble sons—Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar?

I am sure, I was not alone in taking time to warm up to the latter and spending a significant part of my youth consuming Raj Kapoor’s filmography. Over the years, I have met many who came to Dilip Kumar at a later stage in life. Perhaps, Dilip Kumar in his self-assuredness and complexity made us nervous—such a long journey if we intended to work on ourselves and become the Sharma ji ka beta. 

While Raj Kapoor was a simpler template to follow and seek assurance from, like us, his characters too were work in progress. He was the innocent abroad, the wide-eyed, misunderstood young person with a golden heart. And so while Dilip Kumar may be the far better actor in Andaz—but Raj Kapoor’s Rajan and his mad frenzy about it was easier to understand.

Before narrowing in on Mughal e Azam’s opening sequence to articulate Dilip Kumar’s journey, I had thought I could read him and his particular relationship with Mumbai and Peshawar through the lens of his other offering— Devdas. Like the hapless lover, was he too conflicted between the two great loves and a sentimental longing for another life, another home that could have been his?


The Unflinching Public Persona

This nostalgia has been the lodestar of the diaspora’s life all the while battling admonitions of turning to stone if one were to turn around and acknowledge the voices of times past. But then we witness Dilip Kumar and his self-confidence.

He is not the confused soul who will struggle with the conflicts of tradition, guilt, inner turmoil, and anxiety of exile. Only once do we see him getting a little wistful—when he confessed to Pakistani newspaper and television journalist and writer Asif Noorani, how he would like to visit his ailing aunt who just couldn’t understand why he didn’t return to Peshawar.

All those who go out of town to earn money come back one day, but Yusuf is a strange person—he never bothered to return. I am told that he has earned a lot of money. He should come home now," she complained. But other than that, there has been nothing and so perhaps, he teaches me that perhaps all those who wander are not lost.

Rather I witness a man who is incredibly self-disciplined and self-fashioned and who always did the correct thing. He never falters, parrying questions from journalists and news anchors in Pakistan and India hoping to make him trip when he is asked to explain himself. Whether it was the name change from a Yusaf Khan to Dilip Kumar and what it signified being a Muslim in the public space, the quality of films being produced in India, and in later years, the controversy surrounding his accepting Nishan e Imtiaz, there are no long-winded explanations, just clear and concise responses true to Brand Dilip Kumar.


Kumar’s ‘Loyalty’ Trial & ‘Anti-National’ Tag

This cool-headedness and innate confidence in doing the right thing remained even when he had to face allegations of ‘being a traitor’ ironically from both India and Pakistan.

Back in 1998, when his name was announced for Nishaan e Imtiaz—Pakistan’s highest civilian award for “achievements towards world recognition for Pakistan or outstanding service for the country”), there was an uproar within certain circles with one section of the Pak press announcing that the declaration by the Pakistani President met with “the heads of all those present hung in shame.”

Amongst their list of grievances was not just that he had dropped the Khan for Kumar, but that he preferred to make Mumbai home. His supporters pointed out how the same clique had kept quiet when the former dictator Gen Zia ul Haq invited Bollywood actor Shatrugan Sinha over or even when Morarji Desai, India's erstwhile prime minister, was given a similar award. In India, his refusal to return the Pakistani reward was viewed as being a traitor to India and anti-national behaviour. But the proud son of Peshawar and Mumbaikar Dilip Kumar persevered. 

India and Pakistan insisted on trying to bracket him and when they could not understand his complexities, they cast aspersions on his loyalties. What they forgot was his incredible charity work in Pakistan earning millions for the Fatimid Blood Foundation, the Shaukat Khanum cancer research facilities and hospital, and the Al-Shifa Eye Hospital. How his home turned into a relief center at the time of the Mumbai riots, his donation drives and visits to the troops during the Indo-China war, and the countless ways he made India proud. 

A Man of Many Worlds..

Not for him Ghalib’s lover’s lament 

Dard e dil likhun kab tak jaun un ko dikhla Duun

Ungliyan figar apni khama khun-chakan apna. 

Dilip Kumar had nothing to prove, a man at peace and carrying an inner world within himself, an actor who filmmaker Paromita Vohra reminded me, spoke as if in private dialogue on a public screen. We were just blessed that we could live in a world that was witness to that beautiful soul.

(Aneela Babar is the author of We are all Revolutionaries Here: Militarism, Political Islam and Gender in Pakistan ( 2017) and a forthcoming memoir on consuming Hindi cinema in Rawalpindi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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