reviews and essays

Only Ordinary Men

The lives and times of two acting giants

By TRISHA GUPTA | 1 November 2014

IN 1929, an American publisher offered Sigmund Freud a five-thousand-dollar advance to write his life story. He had already published An Autobiographical Study, outlining his professional career. But as for a tell-all memoir, Freud’s response was outright dismissal.

A psychologically complete and honest confession of life … would require so much indiscretion (on my part as well as on that of others) about family, friends, and enemies, most of them still alive, that it is out of the question. What makes all autobiographies worthless, after all, is their mendacity.

Whatever one thinks of the more far-fetched applications of his theories, most people would concede that Freud knew something about the inner life. Yet, in the near-century since Freud levelled his charges against autobiography, our appetite for the genre has only grown, spilling far beyond the boundaries of the book, into the everyday flows of the virtual world. The unreliable narrator is no longer the preserve of fiction. Accusations of narcissism and opportunism may dog its footsteps, as Daniel Mendelsohn argued some years ago in the New Yorker, but the confessional memoir feels like the genre of our times.

Add this to the Indian reader’s inexhaustible interest in the film world, and you have a winning combination. It is no surprise that an increasing number of volumes in the Indian cinema section of bookstores are biographies and memoirs. In just the last three years, there has been Khagesh Dev Burman’s book on SD Burman (originally in Bengali), Yasmin Khalid Rafi’s book on her father-in-law Mohammed Rafi (originally in Hindi),Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Vittal Balaji’s RD Burman—The Man, the Music, Akshay Manwani’s biography of the lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, two books on Rajesh Khanna, and a re-issue of Vinod Mehta’s Meena Kumari biography from 1972. Among autobiographies, a distinctly popular new subgenre is the interview-based book, often titled “Conversations with …”. Gulzar, AR Rahman and Waheeda Rehman have recently been thus enshrined by the prolific British film writer Nasreen Munni Kabir, and Mani Ratnam by the film critic Baradwaj Rangan. But the full-fledged autobiography still has an advantage: it may be an inherently self-indulgent form, but witnessing the narrator going off on tangents, uninterrupted by a questioner trying to keep them on track, is what makes it so pleasurable.

Dilip Kumar and Naseeruddin Shah’s have been the most-talked about film autobiographies of 2014. Both are illustrious actors, known for their deep commitment to their craft. Yet there, it would seem, any similarity ends. Dilip Kumar, 91, made his debut in the 1944 Bombay Talkies film Jwar Bhata, and went on to become one of popular Hindi cinema’s best-loved heroes for three decades. Even more striking was his return, after five fallow years in the 1970s, for a memorable second innings, with meaty roles appropriate to his age in films such as Kranti (1981), Shakti (1982), Vidhaata (1982), Mashaal (1984) and Saudagar (1991). Naseeruddin Shah (who is either 64 or 65, depending on whether you trust his school certificate or the slightly muddled parental memory), made his debut in Shyam Benegal’s second feature Nishant (1975) and swiftly gained a reputation for his stellar performances in the cinema of what came to be called the Indian New Wave. He also did several popular Hindi films, most of them (he says) for the money, thus making no bones about his distaste for that world and its demand for a larger-than-life persona.

The memoirs themselves are remarkably different in style. The Substance and the Shadow is a 456-page tome, of which 300-odd pages are devoted to the great man’s spoken reminiscences, put to paper—and translated from “the chaste Urdu that Dilip Sahab spoke at times”—by Udayatara Nayar, former journalist and a close friend of his wife Saira Banu. The rest of the book consists of short, largely hagiographical reminiscences by relatives, friends and film industry colleagues, ranging from Manoj Kumar to Aamir Khan. Dilip Kumar has been the subject of several biographies—by Bunny Reuben, Sanjit Narwekar and Meghnad Desai, among others—and the avowed purpose of this book is to set the record straight, to cancel out the “distortions and misinformation” spread by other accounts. Several reviewers have greeted the book’s measured, somewhat distant tone—especially with regard to romantic relationships—with disappointment, while his criticism of some of his own siblings (and corresponding praise for Saira Banu’s family) has been cited as reason to doubt if Kumar is indeed the book’s author.

But it seems to me entirely in character that the famously gentlemanly Dilip Kumar would choose to be scrupulously polite, even reticent about personal relationships that have been the subject of decades of speculative gossip—just as much as it seems in character that Naseeruddin Shah would write a memoir “for [his] own amusement,” to test what he could recall. For Shah, the writing is itself a kind of experiment, like so many of the experiences he describes. And Then One Day is a conversation with himself; the audience is an afterthought: “I felt very much like writing it but not at all sure I wanted anyone to read it.”

In contrast, Dilip Kumar’s memoir makes apparent that this is a man who has been subjected for decades to the curiosity of journalists, colleagues and fans, and he has internalised their recurring questions. He frequently begins sections with “I have often been asked if …” One instance is his account of whether the “temperature” (his word) of love scenes is aided by a real-life relationship, a question he tells us has been often asked with regard to Mughal-e-Azam, where he starred as Prince Salim to Madhubala’s Anarkali. He answers “as honestly as decency permits.” He was, he admits, attracted to Madhubala “both as a fine co-star and as a person,” but “matters began to sour between [them], thanks to her father’s attempt to make the proposed marriage a business venture.” By the time the celebrated romantic scene was shot, “with the feather coming between [their] lips,” they had “stopped even greeting each other,” writes Kumar. He ends on a note of self-congratulation that’s characteristic of the book: “It should, in all fairness, go down in the annals of film history as a tribute to the artistry of two professionally committed actors who kept aside professional differences and fulfilled the director’s vision of a sensitive, arresting and sensuous screen moment to perfection.” Earlier, speaking of being intellectually drawn to Uma Kashyap (better known as Kamini Kaushal), he writes, “If that was love, maybe it was. I don’t know, and I don’t think it matters any more.”

Kumar’s stoic, even graceful acceptance of people’s interest in his private life is an extension of his enthusiasm for meeting fans. Describing a special annual train from Bombay to Poona that was set up as an innovative fundraising venture by the National Association for the Blind, he refers, perhaps conceitedly, to himself in the third person—people would buy tickets “for the sheer pleasure of travelling with Dilip Kumar and talking to him and getting photographed with him”—but his pleasure in the experience is unquestionably genuine. “It was like a picnic,” he writes. He loved the chance to speak to people in their own languages, and their “diffidence dissolved … when they realized that Dilip Kumar was a simple chap with simple tastes and a simple wife who walked two steps behind him and gazed admiringly at him.” (There is much in the book in praise of Saira Banu, but it is revealing that the “simpleness” of a man, in Dilip Kumar’s eyes, is not complete without a simple wife who is devoted to him, and walks “two steps behind.” Kumar often comes across as generous and forward-thinking with regard to women—as keen to fund the education of his sisters as his brothers, for instance—but he is very much the benevolent patriarch.)

Naseeruddin Shah, in contrast, is frank about the fact that being “considered public property” and “being accosted and treated with familiarity by strangers” gets his hackles up. He concedes the paradox that he became an actor to be famous, but then found himself shying away, even from praise. “I could no longer take compliments seriously—they came to me even for some very inferior work,” he writes. And his relationship with his wife, the actress Ratna Pathak, is among the most endearingly honest parts of the book—my favourite moment is when he describes her parents getting worried that she was becoming serious about “this drug-addled mongrel.” Pathak was a few years younger than him, but the amused fondness which Shah attributes to her could not be more different from Saira’s adoration. But then Saira (21 years younger than her husband) was a fan much before she became a wife—and has stayed one.

THESE DIFFERENCES ARE PREDICTABLE GIVEN what we already know about the two men. What is unexpected is the multiple ways in which their narratives echo each other. Both come from North Indian Muslim families, with middle class parents whose deep investment—financial and emotional—in their sons’ education is considered wasted when they take to acting as a profession. Both are close to their mothers and have complicated relationships with their fathers (more complicated in the case of the headstrong Naseer). Both leave home for significant lengths of time without telling their parents where they are going, and for both this experience is a defining one. The young Naseer, shortly after being rejected by Aligarh Muslim University and taking admission at an obscure Meerut college called NAS (“known as ‘Nanak Chand’ for some no doubt very good reason which I didn’t have time to uncover”), sold his worldly possessions—bicycle, watch, books and the warm clothes he wouldn’t need (“it was never cold in Bombay”)—and set out for Bombay with nothing more than an assurance from the character-actor father of a friend’s girlfriend that he “would do his best for me.”

Dilip Kumar, born Yousuf Khan, couldn’t run away to Bombay because he already lived there. He went, instead, to Poona, where he ended up as the assistant manager of the Army Club canteen, a job of which he seems to have made a great success by speaking English “the way the language should be spoken,” and even managing to set up a sandwich stall on the side.

There’s a brilliant little twist here, or perhaps two: Naseer’s rather hopeless stint in Bombay—though he did manage to make his first screen appearance, as an extra in a crowd of mourners at the (screen) death of Rajendra “Jubilee” Kumar in the film Aman—came to a close in Dilip Kumar’s house. The facts are probably not that surprising, given that we’re talking about a Muslim elite which fifty years ago was even smaller than it is now, but here they are: Dilip Kumar’s eldest sister, Sakina, was a regular visitor to Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti’s shrine in Ajmer, which Naseer’s father helped administer after he retired from the Provincial Civil Service of Uttar Pradesh.

After his son had been missing for two months, Aley Mohammad Shah finally sought help from the one person he knew in Bombay with a filmi connection. The upshot of it was that Naseer was found and transported from the Madanpura zari factory where he had been sleeping to the safe confines of Dilip Kumar’s family bungalow in Pali Hill, where, after having been given a massive talking-to by the redoubtable Sakina apa, he spent a few delirious days making imaginary acceptance speeches with the great man’s Filmfare award trophies in hand, and poring over books on cinema in his private den. The most revealing part of this story, though, is the sole encounter that took place between the star and the teenager, best told in Naseer’s own words:

Spotting him alone in his garden, I tremulously approached him, hoping to ask if he would find me work, but the words I would say had barely formed themselves in my head when I realized he had already delivered a short lecture on why ‘boys from good families should not join the film world’ and dismissed me from his presence.

Perhaps this should not surprise us, being as we are a country where the ways of “good families” are upheld precisely by the feat of wilful forgetting: each generation forgets its own youthful rebellions by the time the next is ready to rebel. But still, given Dilip Kumar’s moving account of his own trepidation in confessing his line of work to his father (even after he had completed three films), it is sad that he was not more sympathetic to the desires of this callow youth who was briefly in his care. (Their paths crossed again many years later, on the sets of Karma, but Shah says he hated the film and didn’t mention the youthful incident because he assumed Kumar wouldn’t remember it.)

Dilip Kumar, of course, had the kind of entry into cinema that can only be described as fairy-tale: beginning with bumping into an old teacher of his at Churchgate station, who takes the twenty-year-old along to where he’s headed. Dr. Masani’s destination is Bombay Talkies, where the studio’s doyenne Devika Rani gives young Yousuf the once-over, asks about his proficiency in Urdu and offers him an actor’s job on the spot—at the impressive salary of Rs 1250 a month. (Kumar was gobsmacked because he knew that Raj Kapoor, who happened to be a friend from his Peshawar childhood days as well as a classmate at Bombay’s Khalsa College, was paid only Rs 170 a month.)

Meanwhile, Naseeruddin Shah, after that false start, returned to acting via the new professional routes that had been created in the post-independence era. His fascination with theatre, kindled in school by watching performances by Geoffrey Kendal’s Shakespeareana troupe, was nurtured at Aligarh Muslim University (where he was eventually admitted) by two older women—a teacher called Zahida Zaidi, and a co-student called Purveen Morad, whom he ended up marrying in 1969. As Shah tells the tale, it is chock-a-bloc with impetuous decisions, often taken under the momentous influence of a play or a film. A trip from Aligarh to Delhi with Purveen to see Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle at the National School of Drama was instrumental in his joining the NSD, which he did in 1970. In 1972, having “wandered into” a show of Piya ka Ghar at Regal Cinema in Connaught Place, he realised that at least five of the important parts were played by actors trained at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). The idea that “FTII had become a factory for manufacturing stars” would prove short-lived, but Shah had made up his mind, and joined the institute the following year.

 

THEIR STARKLY DIFFERENT ROUTES TO acting not with standing, both men treated the job with utmost seriousness and both emerge, in their memoirs, as staunchly committed to the demystification of performance. Given that they belong to such different schools of cinema, it is fascinating to observe how often they echo each other.“I had no clue what acting was,” writes Dilip Kumar of his initial days at Bombay Talkies. “It was something to be studied and learned and practised.” A page later, he describes the first acting lesson he ever got, from the already well-known Ashok Kumar, then shooting for Kismet (1943): “It’s very simple. You just do what you would do in the situation if you were really in it. If you act it will be acting and it will look very silly.” Dilip Kumar appeared confused, and Ashok Kumar began to laugh. But “his words gradually began to make sense to me. In the scene that I had observed the previous day … he had laughed exactly the way he had just done. He reacted to a response very naturally as he just did to my puzzled look.”

Naseeruddin Shah, who had been imagining himself as a hero since his childhood, and done a lot of “strutting the stage” with swashbuckling performances at both Aligarh and NSD, does not have so pristine a beginning. He does, however, arrive at a similar conclusion after his first class with FTII acting teacher Roshan Taneja, an experience described in the book’s trademark style: an older man deprecating his smart-alecky youthful self. “I was … itching to display my magnificence … ready to do anything he might ask—laugh, cry, mouth magnificent dialogue, get angry, get dejected, make funny faces, stand on my head, roll on the floor; whatever he came up with I could do it,” he writes. Asked to simply leave the room and come in again, Shah “‘made an entry’ … deliberately tripping over the doorstep and berating an imaginary person who I had not in fact imagined at all.” Taneja asked someone else to step in. Watching this other person respond much more organically to the professor’s instructions, Shah had a bingo moment.

Incapable as an actor of responding to immediate stimulus, I had always needed a map, so to say, and was lost without one… Now for a change we were being told to ‘throw characterization out of the window’ and perform each action as ourselves, the attempt being to understand our own behaviour and reflexes.

Of course, this was not enough when playing a character quite different from oneself, but it was a better start than the bombast he felt he had acquired at NSD.

Later, in the context of Rajendra Jaspal (a classmate and close friend at both NSD and FTII before their relationship—and Jaspal himself, distressingly—fell spectacularly to pieces), Shah writes that Jaspal’s performance in Manthan had “an intensity… that goes beyond acting.” “He had in fact become the character he was playing.” It was, he continues, an early lesson in how undesirable it was for “naturalistic acting” to reach this extreme point of identification. Dilip Kumar, it appears, learnt this lesson the hard way. “I had been playing characters who were ill-fated and a morbid outlook had seized me as a result of my extreme involvement and my living the character beyond the working hours,” he writes. In the early 1950s, Kumar baffled older colleagues like Mehboob and Naushad when he confided that he had sought help from a British psychiatrist called WD Nichols, who suggested that he drop the tragic roles, at least temporarily. “They thought I was crazy,” he writes. But Kumar’s decision was made, and with the box office success of Azaad (1955), he proved himself a hit at light-hearted roles as much as melancholy ones.

Shah, who grew up watching Hollywood at his boarding school and came to Hindi cinema somewhat later, is openly disdainful of Hindi movie acting, in which, as he pithily puts it,

conviction necessarily has to be tempered with élan and not a little self-love, where being visibly synthetic, trumping the other actors and maintaining a certain detachment from the part while connecting closely with the audience are essential requirements.

Even Shah’s ability to underplay took time to emerge. He describes Benegal’s Junoon, for instance, as “an acting contest,” in which Ismat Chughtai’s is the only performance he approves of now, because she wasn’t trying to act everyone else under the table. Meanwhile, in the popular Hindi film roles he mysteriously continued to be offered, his attempts at realism were neither appreciated nor appropriate. As one director said to him caustically, “Naseerji, this is not an art film, here you have to act!”

Shah argues that one reason why he never entirely fitted into popular Hindi cinema was because there an actor’s reference points are meant to come not from life, but from the cinema. The economy and quiet intensity that Dilip Kumar brought to his performances—as Naseer himself points out—made him an exception. The Substance and the Shadow cites several instances where Kumar drew on his own experience for particular renditions; for example, channelling a memory of his father’s desperation at his mother’s collapse into a legendary scene in Mashaal, or mimicking a maali—a gardenerremembered from childhood for the famous Eastern UP dialect of Ganga Jumna.

Descriptions of childhood are often the most evocative, detailed parts of memoirs, perhaps because the danger of betrayal—or need for mendaciousness—is low. The extent to which both men project their actorly futures back into the past, digging deep into the tunnel of memory to emerge with signs of what they would eventually become, is striking. Dilip Kumar’s account of his growing up in Peshawar, for example, includes his listening raptly to the maulanas who recited in the Kissa Khwani Bazaar and imitating their dramatic style at home. The household’s winter entertainment was to sit around a warm sigdi (brazier) on the terrace, with each member of the large joint family required to tell a story or sing. Ideally, they would share tales of “valour and nobility,” or “clean folk verses or ghazals of eminent Persian poets.”

Sometime in the mid-1930s, his fruit merchant father, whom they called Aghaji, moved to Bombay with his wife and children, settling in an apartment in Nagdevi Street, close to Crawford Market. A few years later, when his elder brother Ayub developed a respiratory disorder, the children moved to Deolali, a hill station 180 kilometres from Bombay, where treatment was better. The young Yousuf enrolled at the Barnes School, where his English got a boost. A particular poem became a party trick for Aghaji to display his son’s newly-acquired English skills. Many years later, pushed to address a political crowd for the first time, Dilip Kumar drew a deep breath, recalled the applause that had come his way for the poem, and spoke extempore for ten thundering minutes. (He became a full-fledged campaigner for the eminent Congress statesman VK Krishna Menon in a legendarily bitter election against Acharya Kripalani, and later even became Sheriff of Bombay.)

Shah, too, despite all the lack of attention and under-confidence that plagued his childhood, provides instances of surprising his teachers (and even himself) with his memory for words. Where Dilip Kumar has long impressed listeners with his impromptu recitations of Urdu and Persian poetry, Shah impresses them with producing Shakespeare on tap. If Dilip Kumar stored away in his brain the sights and sounds of women in the Peshawar marketplace, or the accent of a dhobi in Deolali, Shah’s account of himself is startlingly similar: “If I had been blessed with any ‘gift’ at all, it was an ear for the spoken word. I can still actually recall the grains in a voice I have heard fifty years ago.”

Reading these memoirs together has a powerful effect. It forces you to think of the different sorts of cinema that this country has produced. Dilip Kumar was certainly a product of the studio system, where a remarkable camaraderie and bonhomie were the order of the day. Professional specialisations existed, but the close relationships between people and the non-hierarchical learning environment meant that an actor who was eager to learn could sit unobtrusively with the camera assistants, participate in script brainstorming sessions, discuss the picturisation of a song and even suggest changes. All of these things the young Dilip Kumar did, developing an understanding of film craft as a whole that he put to good use (though some might say it was the cause of his ghost-directing in later years).

As for Naseeruddin Shah, his actorly coming of age owes much to coinciding perfectly with the most productive period of the Indian New Wave, allowing him to find his niche in such consummately crafted films as Nishant, Bhumika and Junoon (all Shyam Benegal), Sparsh (Sai Paranjpye) and Aakrosh (Govind Nihalani). Neither of these actors could have emerged without the vitality of the milieus in which they began their careers. Yet both eventually outgrew their milieus—or perhaps those worlds shrivelled, leaving them looking like giants.

But if our cinema has changed, so has the world around it, and at least in one way, the change is encouraging. The man who is, in many ways, the original Khan of the Hindi film industry, had to become Dilip Kumar, because Devika Rani “with her customary authority” told him that it made good sense to have a screen identity that would “have a secular appeal.” Basheshwarnath, Raj Kapoor’s grandfather, provided another kind of explanation to Yousuf’s father Aghaji as he took him across the road from Crawford market to show him his son’s face on a hoarding of Jugnu: there was “no need to be dismayed,” said Basheshwarnath, because his son “had adopted another name to keep the family honour intact.” We never quite learn what Aghaji thought of this particular theory. But we do know that the first thing Naseeruddin’s father said joyfully to his mother when he saw Nishant was that their son had not changed his name.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Dilip Kumar mimicked the dialect of a dhobi he remembered form his childhood for his role in the film Ganga Jamuna. Kumar picked up the accent from a maali—a gardener. The Caravan regrets the error.

IN 1929, an American publisher offered Sigmund Freud a five-thousand-dollar advance to write his life story. He had already published An Autobiographical Study, outlining his professional career. But as for a tell-all memoir, Freud’s response was outright dismissal.

A psychologically complete and honest confession of life … would require so much indiscretion (on my part as well as on that of others) about family, friends, and enemies, most of them still alive, that it is out of the question. What makes all autobiographies worthless, after all, is their mendacity.

Whatever one thinks of the more far-fetched applications of his theories, most people would concede that Freud knew something about the inner life. Yet, in the near-century since Freud levelled his charges against autobiography, our appetite for the genre has only grown, spilling far beyond the boundaries of the book, into the everyday flows of the virtual world. The unreliable narrator is no longer the preserve of fiction. Accusations of narcissism and opportunism may dog its footsteps, as Daniel Mendelsohn argued some years ago in the New Yorker, but the confessional memoir feels like the genre of our times.

Add this to the Indian reader’s inexhaustible interest in the film world, and you have a winning combination. It is no surprise that an increasing number of volumes in the Indian cinema section of bookstores are biographies and memoirs. In just the last three years, there has been Khagesh Dev Burman’s book on SD Burman (originally in Bengali), Yasmin Khalid Rafi’s book on her father-in-law Mohammed Rafi (originally in Hindi),Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Vittal Balaji’s RD Burman—The Man, the Music, Akshay Manwani’s biography of the lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, two books on Rajesh Khanna, and a re-issue of Vinod Mehta’s Meena Kumari biography from 1972. Among autobiographies, a distinctly popular new subgenre is the interview-based book, often titled “Conversations with …”. Gulzar, AR Rahman and Waheeda Rehman have recently been thus enshrined by the prolific British film writer Nasreen Munni Kabir, and Mani Ratnam by the film critic Baradwaj Rangan. But the full-fledged autobiography still has an advantage: it may be an inherently self-indulgent form, but witnessing the narrator going off on tangents, uninterrupted by a questioner trying to keep them on track, is what makes it so pleasurable.

Dilip Kumar and Naseeruddin Shah’s have been the most-talked about film autobiographies of 2014. Both are illustrious actors, known for their deep commitment to their craft. Yet there, it would seem, any similarity ends. Dilip Kumar, 91, made his debut in the 1944 Bombay Talkies film Jwar Bhata, and went on to become one of popular Hindi cinema’s best-loved heroes for three decades. Even more striking was his return, after five fallow years in the 1970s, for a memorable second innings, with meaty roles appropriate to his age in films such as Kranti (1981), Shakti (1982), Vidhaata (1982), Mashaal (1984) and Saudagar (1991). Naseeruddin Shah (who is either 64 or 65, depending on whether you trust his school certificate or the slightly muddled parental memory), made his debut in Shyam Benegal’s second feature Nishant (1975) and swiftly gained a reputation for his stellar performances in the cinema of what came to be called the Indian New Wave. He also did several popular Hindi films, most of them (he says) for the money, thus making no bones about his distaste for that world and its demand for a larger-than-life persona.

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Trisha Gupta is a writer and critic based in Delhi. Her published work can be read on her blog, Chhotahazri, at www.trishagupta.blogspot.in

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