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Memories of the Original Heartthrob – Dilip Kumar birthday special

Rinki Roy, daughter of legendary filmmaker Bimal Roy, goes down the old wooded lane of Pali Hill of yore to relive her crush on arguably Hindi cinema's greatest actor.

Dilip Kumar, circa 1961. Copyrighted photo by Jitendra Arya

Rinki Roy

Our black Austin Sheerline swerved precariously, screeching aloud, to descend from the last hairpin bend on Pali Hill. I was on my way to Sophia college. Few times a week, I took this detour to pick up a classmate, Fawzia Khan, from her Pali Hill home nestling at the final bend of the hill.

The car soon stopped outside their massive timber gate. Asking driver Jawan Singh to call Fawzia, I relaxed in the back seat. Jawan Singh had barely pushed open the gate a little when my heart stopped. Through the gap, I saw the hero of my dreams. In person. The most debonair man in the movie world, his handsome dark features lit up occasionally as he stood casually surveying the morning from his threshold. My fingers crossed themselves in silent prayer. Praying fervently that he look towards the car, glance at me once, just once! With the prayer I shut my eyes… I could hear Fawzia noisily descend the stone steps.

She passed her brother yelling: “Khuda hafiz Laale!“

Fawzia’s reward was a big fat Laale hug. She flopped on the seat beside me. And the car turned back towards college. Sitting next to Fawzia, I desperately struggled to silence my pounding heart.

Laale! That was the household name for Indian cinema’s greatest tragedy king, the great romantic lover Dilip Kumar aka Yusuf Khan. His sisters were my classmates. On the strength of that I began calling him Yusufbhai. Secure in the belief that I was family. Which, indeed, I was privileged to be. Besides, he was one of my father’s favourite actors.

So many memories of dream-drenched moments serenade the mind. I recall the big tray laden with a steaming teapot and flaky khari biscuits for our afternoon tea. Those delicious sunlit evenings with Fawzia spent in the Juliet balcony of their Pali Hill home. We pretended to study Logic for the Inter Arts exams when our minds wandered far away. Even with Fawzia next to me, my heart would miss beats! Ears strained for his footsteps. Eyes yearned for a glimpse of the dashing Laale. At times, the gods seemed too kind. Quite often he passed by the hall, his flip-flops announcing his presence. Laale would stop briefly by the door, peer into the veranda, flash that enchanting grin. And like a mirage vanish unexpectedly, leaving me faint with unmet romantic anticipation! 

I remember one particular morning as clearly as if it were yesterday.

We were at Mohan Studios on a routine visit to Father’s film set. Along with me were overseas friends. After watching a bit of shooting we all got terribly bored. I decided to leave quietly with the delegation. We were walking towards the car park when on the way I encountered a strange-looking creature. The creature’s face appeared earth red. Large pearly earrings hung from his lobes. Dressed in a yellow and blue jazzy garment, the bizarre figure sat atop a mound in the studio compound. Out of the blue I heard someone shout:“Hey, hey, you little girl — here… HERE!’’ the voice rose a few pitches higher.

Startled, I looked around to find out who was being summoned thus. To my surprise, that creature was looking at me! I approached the colourful figure with uncertain steps. At a distance of about 10 feet, I realized that the scary-looking creature was actually Yusufbhai in disguise.

He greeted me with an affectionate pat accompanied by that grin which made women’s heads spin as if they had had a vertigo attack. But that very minute a young AD (assistant director) scrambled up to him, shattering all hope of any romance. Eyes lowered, he respectfully informed Yusufbhai that the lighting was complete. Before I knew it, Yusufbhai had whisked me off with a tug towards the sound stage. Inside the set, lights glittered from a million swinging chandeliers. A trellised alcove decorated with pretend creepers completed the romantic backdrop. The only real thing, perhaps, were the pigeons flapping around. 

The minute a disembodied voice ordered “full lights”, water fountains sprayed the set obediently. On the edge of this enchanted make-believe garden reclined the utterly incomparable Madhubala. Dazzling, beautiful, she lay in a posture of cool, indolent charm. Waiting for her beloved Salim, to melt in his embrace. Everyone, it seems, waited for the director’s familiar command: SOUND, START CAMERA, ROLLING.

The poor director, however, was pacing up and down the set. Every other minute he took nervous puffs at his half-lit beedi. Resembling a steam engine. Little did I guess then that I was an accidental witness to the iconic love scene from K Asif’s magnum opus, Mughal-e-Azam (1960). That famous scene in which Salim and Anarkali are secretly courting. Until they get caught in the clandestine act by the emperor Akbar.

The gorgeous screen pair — Salim and Anarkali, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala — were not on talking terms at the time. The intense cold war between the two was common knowledge. On the set that particular noon, it was a curious spectacle. A playful Madhubala giggled non-stop. She flirted with the pigeons, the fountain. Frequently pretended to forget her lines. In contrast, Dilip Kumar was a bundle of nerves.  The frustrated star sent angry messages through director K Asif. In wild exasperation he grumbled: "Asif saheb! Aapki heroine ko boliye ki woh badtameeze se pesh na aye…  [Sir, tell your heroine not to misbehave]."

Poor Asif saheb! Pacing between the two towering stars, he looked comical in his failed attempt to control the hopeless situation and bring about harmony.

Amused but weary by the ongoing charade, again, I quietly sneaked out of the set with my overseas cousins. In my heart of hearts desperately yearning to replace Madhubala!

Naivety, I have to add, gets the better of us when we fall in love, hopelessly. The common ailment of youth each of us has experienced. It got the better of me, I admit. Engaged in a one-sided romantic affair, I did incredible things to contain its sweet agony. Behind my bedroom door hung a stunning black and white portrait of Yusufbhai as Devdas. Camouflaged during the day by a scarf that was quickly removed by night. The 15-year-old me feasted her eyes on the image of the enchantingly handsome man. So much in love with the star was I that in my earnest desire to get close to him I was ready to elope with his blue Studebaker bearing the number plate BMW 2424. Marry his hair brush... anything touched by the man of my daydreams. 

Perhaps I should hum Mukeshji’s Yahudi (1958) song with minor alterations! 

Yeh mera deewanapan hai. Sorry, deewanapan THA!
Aah the junoon, the delicious, delirious madness of falling in love...

Those dream-drenched days have long vanished, of course — evaporated in the daily struggle we call living. It has, thankfully however, left a trail of oft-remembered moments. I have carefully saved them to remind me I was young once. Weave them into amusing tales for my grandchildren as they are all ready to fall in love, romance their little princes, or princesses, as the case may be. 

Dilip Kumar’s journey has indeed been a Suhana Safar. Remember his magnificent presence in Andaz (1949), Jogan (1950), Deedar (1951), Daag (1952), Aan (1952), Devdas (1955), Naya Daur (1957), Madhumati (1958), Yahudi (1958) and Mughal-e-Azam (1960). What an incredible body of work! Despite a few hiccups in his personal odyssey, the star’s professional popularity, his status remains unchallenged. After each bout of ailment, he lingers back, delaying the poignant moment — his final exit.

My car slows down as it heaves up Pali Hill from the Khar end. I pass by Yusufbhai’s former home that occupies an entire corner of the hill. It is no more than a rubble heap. Shielded by the developer's high corrugated sheets which hide the disputed place. In front is a signboard declaring: “This property belongs to DILIP KUMAR. YUSUF KHAN.”

Dilip Kumar's property today. Photo: Shutterbugs Images

My fingers cross in silent prayer. Passing by the site of that old place, I long to step in. Recall the charmed time. Perhaps sit in the Pali Hill balcony, savour Yusufbhai’s enigmatic smile, fill my ears with his silky voice. I shut the rubble heap out of vision and surrender myself to the era of pure romance.

Janamdin mubarak Yusufbhai — Many Happy Returns: Tum jiyo hazaron saal, saal ke din ho pachas hazaar.