My dear friend Niggi asked me to write this blog about Dilip Kumar who departed Earth yesterday at the age of 98. He was the last of the famous trio (Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand) of Indian male actors of the first Bollywood era. Born Mohammed Yusuf Khan in Peshawar (which is in Pakistan and is also Prime Minister Imran Khan’s birthplace) he was beloved in both India and Pakistan, and remained diplomatic and civil when it came to Subcontinent politics. His father was a fruit seller and moved to Bombay later on. He was invited to many entertainment events around the globe, including New Jersey. Niggi shared with me how she got to meet him and how impressed she was with his kind and friendly demeanor. He had many nicknames- one was that he was the “original Khan” in Bollywood, followed by many famous younger Khans. Another was the “king of tragedy”, as he played the tragic lover in many classic Indian movies like Ganga Jumna, Mughal-e-Azam, Devdas (first version) and so on- he made over 60 movies in his lifetime, and was known for his humility and loving nature. His nuanced acting brought a new model to the usually over-the-top melodramatic Bollywood movies. As Javed Akhtar said “Dilip Kumar invented method acting” even though people in the West associate Marlon Brando with the invention of method acting (https://youtu.be/xGcKKJkU5SQ).
One of our favorite activities at parties is to ask Niggi’s husband, Shamshad Gilani, about old Indian movies- which year was it made? Who was the heroine? Who was the hero? And he always knows the answer like a Google Bollywood! The fascination of the older generation with movies is understandable as it was the only form of entertainment in their youth. At a recent dinner the conversation revolved for a long time around all the cinemas in Lahore 50 years ago- trivia for some, but emotional connection for others. My husband tells me how his mother – Amajan- used to sneak out of the house to see movies with other family members, as his father forbade movie going. I even remember on a visit to Pakistan how bootlegged Indian film VCR’s or DVD’s – I can’t remember which- used to be an important shopping goal! I remember on a trip to Karachi, we all had to get off the PIA flight at a stopover, and my daughter Mona left a hefty collection of Bollywood song cassettes under her seat. When we returned it had disappeared, a treasure for any music lover! Now with digital streaming all those stories etched on plastics are more things to get rid of. Only recently, I threw away hundreds of cassettes, CD’s, DVD’s, VCRs, and I am still not done.
I am a big movie buff myself, and remember going to the movies with my parents in New York for all the Italian Westerns, like the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and before that seeing all the Hollywood blockbusters like Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, etc. Once a week, I try to be generous and watch an Indian movie, as my husband Shahid prefers them. Half an hour later he is fast asleep, and I find myself watching a movie that I did not want to watch- the worst scenes are the ones with face-slapping – such an ancient feature! Thankfully there is a trend towards more nuanced and engaging movies, which I do enjoy, e.g., Un-Paused.Movies and TV shows have shaped the realities of billions of people for almost a hundred years now. They can shape them in a negative direction with disastrous consequences (as in all Western movies involving Middle East or Arabs), or in a positive direction, such as love and adoration for the actors, and celebration of the culture they depict. In the end, it is not the movie actors who are gods, but the movie makers. The actors are just legends acting out the story that the powerful want told. In the process, we fall in love with them for who they are, their talent and for their ability to touch our hearts. Dilip Kumar was certainly a Movie God in that regard, and an amazing humble human being despite being so famous. Many fans are sad as Dilip Kumar said his farewell at 98, marking the end of a glorious era of Bollywood. May his soul rest in peace.