Into Dilip Kumar's World: How He Was Struck By Urdu Zubaan and Tehzeeb

It was Dilip sahab's immaculate Urdu that won him more 'wah-wahs' at such poetic soirees than established poets.

4 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>(Photo: Erum Gour/The Quint)</p></div>

Like his colleague and childhood friend, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar was born in the fabled Qissa Khwani Bazaar (‘the story-tellers’ bazaar) in Peshawar, and words were to remain his life-long friends. To be more precise, words and silences. Like the storytellers of yore, he knew how to modulate his voice (lehje ka utaar-chadhaav), how to drop to the lowest timbre, when to intersperse words with long pauses, how to use silences as much as words as an artiste’s tool.

In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that words, or dialogue delivery, would be Dilip Kumar’s trademark as an actor in a career spanning over five decades.

In public life too, Dilip Kumar – born Muhammad Yusuf Khan to a pathan fruit merchant’s family – was known for his measured, immaculate use of words in the two languages he was proficient in, Urdu and English. Audiences thronged to hear him deliver the sadaarati kalamaat (the chair or chief guest’s remarks) at many a mushaira both within the country and abroad among the Urdu-speaking diaspora. It was his immaculately enunciated, occasionally rhetorical, and sometimes florid Urdu that won him more wah-wahs at such poetic soirees than many an established poet.

Despite No Formal Education in Urdu, Dilip Kumar's Deep Passion for It Was Obvious

He was equally adept with words at non-literary gatherings. A friend who travelled with him across the small towns of Uttar Pradesh as Dilip Kumar graciously lent his weight to electoral campaigns, recalls a public meeting in Badaun that the thespian opened with the following remark: ‘Hum aur aap aksar andhere mein milte hain; aaj pehli baar roshni mein aap se mulaqat ho rahi hai.’ (‘You and I often meet in the dark, today for the first time we are meeting in light.’) These were simple words, simply said but so powerful. Needless to say, the crowd went wild.

Despite no formal education in Urdu, Dilip Kumar’s love for the language was legendary and he chose to speak in his somewhat stylised Urdu whenever the opportunity arose.

He was also known to host poets and writers for small, intimate soirees at his Mumbai home. Those who knew him, or had the occasion to hear him speak, talk of his phenomenal recall of Urdu verses, of his wide and varied reading and his eclectic choice of Urdu poetry for the purpose of recitation.

In his autobiography, for instance, he uses the following verse by way of dedicating the book to his parents:

Sukoon-e dil ke liye kuchh to ehtemaam karoon

Zara nazar jo miley phir unhein salaam karoon

Mujhe to hosh nahi aap mashwara dijiye

Kahaan se chedun fasana kahan tamaam karoon


How Story Narrations Often Turned Into Poetic Interludes With Dilip Sahab

In the same book, his wife Saira Bano writing in the Foreword reveals his great love for reading and how their house is adorned with countless bookshelves containing books on a variety of subjects: ‘Few among his countless followers know that Dilip sahab has always been a voracious reader. Whether it is novels, plays or biographies, his love of classical literature has been foremost. The classics of Urdu, Persian and English literature adorn the bookshelves of our home. When he’s done with the library bookshelves, we have to be ready to offer him a pick of the thousands of books tucked away carefully in our huge store rooms.’

In his autobiography, Dilip Kumar credits his older brother Ayub Khan for inculcating a love for the Urdu language in him. Ayub Khan not only read widely but also wrote some short fiction in Urdu.

Among the modern poets, Dilip sahab was known to recite, and occasionally hum the poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Among the older poets, Gulzar sahab reveals his penchant for reciting Nazeer Akbarabadi which Dilip sahab seemed to have read extensively and could quote from memory.

A story narration session with Dilip sahab was a joy for a literary-minded film-maker and lyricist such as Gulzar sahab because apart from the film under discussion it invariably involved many impromptu poetic interludes. He recalls one such session in Bangalore when Dilip sahab regaled Gulzar sahab by reciting the poetry of Nazeer Akbarabadi, the people’s poet (awaam ka shair), best known for his long poems such as Rotinama, Aadminama, Banjaranama, etc. Listening to the poetry of this 18th-century Agra-born poet recited by a pathan from Peshawar whose Urdu, after decades in Mumbai, was still redolent with a Peshori inflection was a rare experience!


His Deep Love for Urdu, That Percolated Down to His Own Tone and Tenor

Gulzar sahab also narrates how Dilip Kumar would write out his own scenes, improvising when necessary according to his own acting styles, inserting the spoken words given by the screenplay writer with his characteristic pauses, arranging and re-arranging his dialogue to make it “sit right” with his unique style of dialogue delivery. Often he would even write down his dialogue, in his immaculate Urdu script, in order to memorise it. Saira Bano too, refers to Dilip Kumar writing down his scenes and dialogues and working on the script till late in the night before the next’s day’s shooting.

Watching his old videos, one is struck by how deeply he seemed to have drunk from the well of Urdu zubaan (language) and tehzeeb (culture) and how deeply the shirini (sweetness) of Urdu zubaan had percolated into his own tone and tenor.

Listening to the sheer joy with which he rolls the words around his tongue, as though savouring the maza (taste/savour) of each syllable, one wonders if there will ever again be another like him: Aisa kahan se laoon ki tujh sa kahein jise?

(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!