It all began with Republic Day quotes
S.S. Pillai, the then-editor of Screen sent me with senior reporter R M Kumtakar to get Dilipsahab's quotes on Republic Day for the special issue. That was in 1968 when I had already put in a year's active service and I was well-groomed enough to meet superstar Dilip Kumar. As a kid I had met him many times with dad but this was our first meeting in professional capacity. He was then preparing for a film to be directed by Jabbar Patel. He was sketching the look of the character he was to play. He had an easel in front of him - he had already sketched the hills where the film was to be located, he had also sketched Saira Banu's character as a hillside belle. I watched him in awe. After RMK asked his serious questions Sahab asked me: "You little girl, now tell me what do you want?" I promptly fired my questions. He answered me patiently. Then he started asking me questions about Indian cinema - how much I knew about Durga Khote and Devika Rani, the films I had watched and how I would review those if I had to do so. I answered his questions with utmost sincerity and in the evening when Mr Pillai called him to talk about something he told dad: "Your daughter is talented. She will go places." I was so flattered! But my father warned me that I should concentrate on working hard.
No fooling around on the sets
I met him many times subsequently and he greeted me warmly partly because I was Mr Pillai's daughter and partly because he felt I was serious about my job. He remarked once: "You are toiling very hard. Keep it up." I was in the family way and was moving around in buses and trains, walking to the studios etc. working relentlessly. It was instant rapport with Saira Banu when I met her on the sets during the making of Jhuk Gaya Aasmaan which released after their marriage. Because of Saira, I had a greater access to their home and was spending a lot of time at Pali Hill. I discovered that Sahab was a very hardworking person. He never took his profession lightly. Always I found him working on dialogue, script or discussing a subject with the director he was working with. He introduced me to Tapan Sinha, the director of Sagina Mahato saying: "She is Mr. Pillai's daughter. But more than that she is a responsible journalist." I was so happy. I travelled with Sahab and Saira to Chennai during the making of Sudhakar Bokade's Izzatdar. I was covering the shoot. Saira made sure I was given the adjoining room and I had the privilege of staying awake till 2 a.m. with her while Sahab worked on dialogues and scenes. The next day despite the late night he would be charged and well prepared for the shoot while his co-stars like Govinda would report late on the sets. There was no seriousness on the sets and it dismayed him, but on his part he remained dedicated to his job. The indifference bugged him but he never made an issue of it, he just got on with his work. He would ask the director for the next day's scene and the director would fumble helplessly. That's how the industry had started functioning then. But he would insist and they would have to send him his scenes on which he would work late in the night! Madhuri Dixit was in the female lead. Saira became fond of her and Sahab, too, would observe that she was a well-brought-up girl.
His cook prepared feasts for the Saudagar unit
During the Mahabaleshwar outdoor shoot of Saudagar (where I was there for another coverage), director Subhash Ghai and co-star Raaj Kumar would also automatically get into the mood to "work" when Sahab would arrive. Sahab and Raaj Kumar would talk in Punjabi with Subhash. I recall one afternoon when the camera angles were being discussed Sahab told Subhash that the angle he had in mind just wouldn't work. Subhash insisted and so did Ashok Mehta that it would be just right to register the confrontation between Sahab and Raaj Kumar. Sahab smiled and remained quiet. Finally, when the rehearsal time arrived, Sahab was proved right. Subhash and Ashok Mehta touched Sahab's feet. There was no fooling around for him whilst making a film, he would give his all to the film. I realised how different he was from the other actors - he was so full of dignity, warmth, chivalry and concern for everybody. He's a great foodie - he loves home made delicacies. He took their cook Narmada to Mahabaleshwar so that she could prepare feasts for the entire unit. So lunch-time was a big party for everybody. Young debutante Manisha Koirala would sit with him and he would talk patiently and lovingly to her and put her at ease. Likewise newcomer Vivek Mushran. His fatherly approach towards younger colleagues has endeared him to so many, ask Dharmendra why he loves Sahab so much. After I lost my father I too turned to him for his valuable advice in personal and professional matters.
From a shy boy to a thespian
Dilipsahab was born in Peshawar, Pakistan and he spent his early childhood there. He grew up like any other boy except that he was painfully shy. He has loving memories of his mother as he always trailed behind her clutching at her dupatta. After World War II, his father migrated to Mumbai to set up his fruit business. He remembers his house in Nagdevi Street near Crawford Market, Mumbai, his schooling at a British school in Deolali and his first job at an Army canteen in Pune very vividly.
It baffles him no end was he landed up as an actor. Something that continues to mystify him as to how he faced the camera and went on to be an institution in acting!
He watched very few films before joining Bombay Talkies where it was mandatory for him to watch Indian and Hollywood classics. He recalls how Devika Rani asked him: "Why don't you become an actor?" and time stood still for a shy young man who had no idea what acting was.
Reading inspired him in reel and real life
What has helped him all along in his career, he says in his autobiography, is his reading habit. He never had any idols. He read books in English and Urdu. His older brother, Ayub Khan, was also an avid reader and together they would find new and exciting reading material. When Ayubsahab was ill, Dilipsahab would readout chapters from books to him. Ayubsahab's favourite author was Somerset Maugham. His love for story development and plotting took root. In fact, he attributes his refinement and his capacity to deal with life's complex situations to his vast reading and the maturity it gave him.
He lived in a big rented house at Pali Mala, Bandra before buying his bungalow at 48, Pali Hill. He doesn't speak about his personal glories. He is a humble person who hasn't changed over the years and still has the same friends. Even today, Pyarelal, the dhobi who has washed his clothes for years, continues to starch and wash his spotlessly white attire.
I remember visiting him at 48 Pali Hill as a school girl with my dad. There was a huge crowd of fans outside his bungalow. I asked dad "Is something wrong? Why are so many people waiting outside?" Dad told me it was nothing unusual. They were there everyday to see Sahab going out in his car. He became a superstar long before Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan arrived.
In those days his tousled hairstyle became a rage but it wasn't a deliberate attempt on his part. His hair was like that and it just caught on. He is a very refined person and he likes to hobnob with highly-educated professionals and always dresses like a gentleman. It has a lot to do with his fine character and his family background. He is what he is. I feel, in terms of refinement and stature, that the most worthy successor to his legacy is Amitabh Bachchan .
Hits and heroines
Dilipsahab does not give any special place to any of his films. From Mughal-E-Azam and Ganga Jamuna to Naya Daur he speaks about his films in a very special manner. He was passionate about every film he featured in. Sahab chose his films carefully and selected scripts that were suitable to which he could give a dimension of his own.
Dilipsahab refers to some of his heroines in his autobiography in his own gentlemanly way. It is a refined and forthright account of his life and times. He does not play to the gallery. He never has. The book is a reflection of the refined man he is - sans vulgar remarks and lurid anecdotes. One of his fans, Vijaybhai, a textile business man, has a roomful of pictures and magazines featuring Dilipsahab and he has volunteered rare pictures for the book . It's the only book wherein his life he talks about from the day he was born, his childhood, his boyhood, his family members.
Made for each other
He speaks about Saira with the respect, love and admiration she deserves. "I am grateful to God I married Saira!," he says. Indeed, nobody can look after him like she does - Saira is protective like a mother, possessive like a wife and admires him like a most zealous fan. Once, after an argument with him when Saira walked away in a huff, Sahab told me to put on a DVD of one of his films - when she heard the dialogues she came quickly before the TV and went running to him and embraced him saying, "How can I be angry with you?" She is still head over heels in love with him. They are made for each other. Their philosophies match - they are both great human beings and citizens. They support 50-55 needy families of all faiths in Mumbai by providing them with food, clothes and medicines. They also provide medical and educational assistance to the needy. Their charity work is conducted quietly.
Agile mind and sound health
Contrary to rumours, Dilipsahab is healthy in mind and body. His memory is still very sharp - he quotes passages from English classics and Urdu poetry. There is no serious problem with his health. But he doesn't want to work in films, I feel, because the scenario has changed so much - he cannot sit there waiting for stars to turn up. Can he? Also who's there to write a role for him? Subhash Ghai and Rajkumar Santoshi still want to make films with him. If there is some wonderful role and right set-up - maybe he will act again!
Sahab liked Jodhaa Akbar, Munnabhai MBBS and Black that he watched at special screenings. He does not watch movies on TV and prefers watching Sports channels. These days Saira's serial, Stree Teri Kahani for DD, which has high TRPs is being shot at their bungalow and Sahab often comes down quietly to watch the proceedings and makes relevant suggestions.