Interview Hindi

Dilip Kumar shot for his last film Qila while battling a bout of malaria

Filmmaker Umesh Mehra looks back on the project which turned out to be the legendary actor's swansong.

Dilip Kumar in Qila

Keyur Seta

Actor Dilip Kumar, who died in Mumbai earlier today aged 98, was known for the quality of his performances as well as for his dedication to his work. One example of his professionalism was narrated by filmmaker Umesh Mehra who directed the thespian in what was to be the last film of his career, Qila (1998).

Mehra has many memories of the actor from the days of the shoot, but the incident on the very first day stands out. “It was a small scene on a hospital set,” said Mehra. “It was supposed to be a heart attack and he [Dilip Kumar] was recovering and in bed. He was supposed to look unwell. He was looking really unwell; like he needed a doctor. He shot the scene and it was done well.”

When Mehra and the others on the unit came to know the story behind that simple scene, there were touched by Dilip Kumar’s professionalism. “When we finished for the day, we learnt that he was running a fever of about 101°F because he had had a bout of malaria!" said Mehra. "He did not tell us and shot for the entire day. This is the kind of dedication and spirit the man possessed. Today, if someone has a cold, they just call up and cancel [the shoot].”

Dilip Kumar in Qila

Interestingly, before Qila went on the floors, Mehra had heard some scary stories about working with Dilip Kumar. “We had heard of how movies would get delayed [because of him]," he said. "People, for some reason, always said it was so difficult to make a movie with him.”

But Mehra's experience was quite the contrary. “He would work like the gentleman professional that he was," the veteran director said. "And he finished the movie, start-to-finish, in six months! It was unheard of. People couldn’t believe that Dilip Kumar’s movie was completed in six months. I can’t remember one instance where he threw his weight around or was disrespectful.”

Qila was only the third time in his long career that Dilip Kumar played a double role, after Madhumati (1958) and Ram Aur Shyam (1967). Of the two twins, Jagannath Singh is an evil and cruel landowner who gets murdered while Amarnath Singh, a judge, tries to find the killer and realizes that there are many suspects because of Jagannath’s activities. The film also starred Rekha, Mukul Dev, Mamta Kulkarni, Smita Jaykar, Gulshan Grover and Avtar Gill.

Mehra shared a good rapport with Dilip Kumar since they had met regularly for a couple of months before the shooting began. “We decided let’s get through with a script and let him and me be satisfied and we don’t have anything else to discuss after we have agreed upon everything,” said Mehra.

The filmmaker recalled the moment when Dilip Kumar faced the challenge of mouthing several pages of dialogue while delivering a judgment in court. “He would curse himself like, ‘Oh, you bloody fool, you think you are the great Dilip Kumar? You think you are a great actor?’,” Mehra recalled, laughing.

Although the actor played two characters who were as different as chalk and cheese, he never made a show of his preparation. “He would do his own homework," Mehra said. "Of course, whenever required, we would go through the scenes and the lines. At times, he would discuss with writer Humayun Mirza. But that’s it. He came on the sets and was ready.”

Dilip Kumar, Umesh Mehra, Avtar Gill and the crew at the shoot of Qila

Qila turned out to be Dilip Kumar’s last film, but that was not how he had planned it. “He never gave the impression that he was planning to retire," said Mehra. "He never discussed retiring. He loved acting. He would not take up a film easily. I know many people approached him after Qila and had been approaching him before the film for years. He probably had his own way of choosing [a project].”

So how did he agree to do Qila? “We narrated the script. He liked it. He had some suggestions. We worked on those. Once that was done, it was fine,” said Mehra.

Umesh Mehra and Dilip Kumar on the sets of Qila

As the actor was shooting after a long break, he took time to get used to the new ways of working. “But once he got into the groove, he really started enjoying his work all over again," Mehra said. "We had an understanding that he wouldn’t work after these many hours and I wouldn’t push him beyond 5pm. But gradually he would be working till 7pm, 9pm or even later at times,” he said.

Mehra and the crew had to face the wrath of Dilip Kumar’s wife Saira Banu for the actor’s enthusiasm to work late. “She would call up and ask why Saheb hasn’t left yet," recalled Mehra. "But if he didn't want to leave, I wasn't going to push him out!”

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