A Star of Substance, Without a Shadow of Doubt

When I first heard that Dilip Kumar’s autobiography was being released, I was puzzled given media reports that he has been suffering from Alzheimer’s for some time now. Surely it was a biography and not an autobiography? Something amiss here, that’s what I thought.

Being an ardent fan of old Hindi movies, I nevertheless bought the book in spite of doubts over its authencity. And I am glad I did!

Right through my school years, like most kids are wont to do, I went for the more light hearted, and what I then thought, better looking heroes. Shammi Kapoor was my first (and lasting) love, followed by Dev Anand and Rajesh Khanna. Dilip Kumar held no appeal for me. I neither thought he was good looking nor as great an actor as the adults in my family did.

All that changed as I matured and developed a finer appreciation for good cinema and acting. It was then that I understood why Dilip Kumar was hailed as the thespian of Indian cinema. And when I finally saw Ganga Jamuna, sometime in the late 1990s on the recommendation of a friend, the realization of just how talented he was really came home.




The stronger the substance, the longer the shadow

In his autobiography, as narrated to Udayatara Nayar, Dilip Kumar attempts to separate the star from Yousuf Khan, the person he maintains he really is.

Reading the book, the feeling grew on me that the title can be interpreted as the long shadow of Dilip Kumar determinedly dogging Yousuf Khan’s heels all his life, growing in stature till it threw a cast over the real substance of the person he really was. Sadly, in the eyes of not just his fans, but his industry colleagues and even his family (with the sole exception of perhaps his wife).

Another way of looking at it is The Substance and the Shadow is an attempt by Dilip Kumar, in his twilight years, to finally set the record straight on many misconceptions and myths that he may have felt dogged by, much like a faithful shadow that never leaves you. In fact, he says as much at the start of his narration. That may have been the intention with which he narrated his life but at the end of it, he succeeds in leaving the reader thoughtful and pensive over the many layers in this enigmatic man, revealed a chapter at a time. Much like the layers he managed to embed in his screenplays and roles.

A Life Review

This is perhaps one of the areas where the book triumphs. It truly is a narration of a life rich with emotion and experience, and reading it is akin to Dilip Kumar sitting across and talking to the reader, mesmerizing her or him just like he did with his characterization and dialogue delivery in his various films.

The narration, much like the man he reveals himself to be, is a meticulous chronicling of his life from his childhood in Peshawar. As meticulous as the method he used in selecting, preparing and executing the roles he played in the 60 odd films he starred in over the course of a career spanning some 4 odd decades.

Neither does Dilip Kumar (habit will have us, mere strangers to him, calling him that) shy away from talking about the controversies in his life, be it Madhubala or his second marriage. But, he does so like the gentleman he has always been, consciously shielding his wife from pain and the eyes of an ever critical and judgmental world.

“Kaun Kambhat bardasht karne ke liye pita hai; mein tho pita hoon ke bas saas le sakhoo.” This unforgettable dialogue from Devdas rings in your ears as you finish the last page of his rendering of his life. And you wonder if he had to tell the world his version of his life story in order to breathe more freely by finally uncorking the feelings he had bottled up over so many years.

If the book has any weak points, it is that the narration tends to fall flat here and there. There was also no need, I feel, for the section at the back featuring the reminiscences from industry colleagues and a few family members. That section rings completely false and tends to read like carefully worded press releases. No substance. None at all, I’m afraid.

Review Prompt

A screen or theatre actor is often given a prompt to cue an action or entry. What was the prompt for a hobbyist writer and blogger like me to write a review on Dilip Kumar’s autobiography?

I sometimes watch the broadcast of the now too many and overdone film awards. In one such broadcast, I was touched by the way Dilip Kumar turned to his wife, Saira Banu, with a helpless and childlike expression. The camera, they say, never lies. And on this one occasion, the camera revealed the bond and commitment that existed between this couple. During the same broadcast (I think several cine stars of yesteryear were being felicitated), I saw the emotion and pain on Waheeda Rehman’s face as she watched Dilip Kumar struggle to get up, leaning physically and emotionally on his wife.

I guess it is that memory that had me wondering how this autobiography could be written. Unless it was recorded when he was more healthy and being released only now.

I also wondered, just like I did when I read Conversations with Waheeda Rehman, if these stars who once shined so brightly were in financial need now? What else could be the reason for these two intensely private people to agree to talk about their lives?

Of course, like most ordinary mortals, it could be that they are going through a life review and wished to set the record straight before the curtain finally falls on their lives. But, if the books on their lives have been motivated by the need for money, I would request fans everywhere to go out and buy their books. It’s the least we can do for two stars who delighted us and gave us so much to dream about down the years. And that too stars who led their lives with much dignity.

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