During the 1990s, I interviewed Dilip Kumar on several occasions. These are excerpts from an audio interview that I did in his house which did not end up in the book that I was researching at the time. We were talking about the great film studios that saw their decline in the late 1940s and discussing the profound change that took place in the Hindi cinema of the 1950s.

I have always found Dilip Kumar’s observations, particularly on the film industry of the past, so well-thought through that almost everything he spoke about had new insight and a certain lived wisdom.

The prestige and the magic

Nasreen Munni Kabir: We were talking about the major Indian studios.
Dilip Kumar: These institutions enjoyed great credit and prestige in our society like Prabhat Film Company. They came up with films like Duniya Na Mane, Padosi, Shejari, Sant Dnyaneshwar.

NMK: And Sant Tukaram.

DK: Yes, Sant Tukaram and Aadmi. Shejari is a Marathi film. They had excellent technique. These studios had their own departments, even their own laboratories and vast grounds. I think Prabhat had about 30 acres or 40 acres of land. This was in Poona.

Likewise, there was New Theatres in Calcutta. Men like Debaki Bose, P. Barua, Nitin Bose, Hem Chandra working there. Bimal Roy also came from New Theatres. They had very talented people who made some outstanding films like President, Debaki Babu made Chandidas and Barua made Devdas and Sapera. The studios were run by literary men like Mr BN Sircar of New Theatres.

When we were young, many people who had a literary background and qualitative efforts worked in films – which gained them great prestige and public acknowledgement – even today they are referred to with a certain measure of reverence.

There was Bombay Talkies too. They owned their own studio where they worked and their own library and music rooms. They had a laboratory of their own, an editing department and owned their own equipment. They offered catering for the lower staff members and for the higher staff. They had their own medical dispensary and medical advice was available free for all the workers.

Lunch would cost me two rupees and eight annas at Bombay Talkies because I had come into the higher salary bracket rather quickly. And it would cost the lower staff only about four annas. The canteen was subsidised. BT had prestigious men on their board of directors. No lesser man then Saksaria took it over.

Likewise, there was Prakash Studios, Ranjit Studios – they specialised in musical comedies, but they also sprang a few surprises by producing a film like Tansen.

NMK: You mean the one with KL Saigal?

DK: Yes. Baiju Bawra was made by Prakash, and they made so many excellent mythological films.

All those institutions had started disintegrating by the end of the ’40s, after the war. And we had the emergence of what was generally referred to as the “Independent Motion Picture Producers Association.” [IMPPA] But in fact, they were dependent and continue to be dependent. Almost 90 percent of these so-called independent motion picture producers don’t even own a camera or have any lighting filters or sound systems. Everything is hired.

Most importantly, this was the exodus of the writing talent from the cinema because the old studios that I talked about once had on their payroll accredited writers who had national credibility and that’s why you found that selectivity, aesthetic points of view, proper treatment of certain subjects resulting in certain films that still stand the test of time.

So, the ’50s saw the great upsurge of independent talent that could not be contained by the studios, and they found that their own prodigies were competing with them by making films outside the system. Some of these dedicated people made good films like Guru Dutt and Raj [Kapoor]. They came out of the studios. They continued making films with the same passion, but were a sort of a one-man-show.

Bimal Roy consolidated himself as a producer of great stability and credence. He had come to Bombay where I first met him. He was staying with a friend of ours and was trying to make films. This was after he had made a film with Balraj Sahni, Do Bigha Zameen, and Do Bigha Zameen gave Bimal Roy credibility. People started asking who is Bimal Roy? Soon enough he made other films; Sujata, Devdas, Biraj Bahu. Some of these independent producers who had left the studios consolidated themselves, and so did Bimal Roy, who was a man of great dedication and talent.

But along with this change, many dealmakers crept into this media in the ’50s and that has done immense damage to the industry because for every film that a credible man had made, there were nine other productions assembled by dealmakers. I wouldn’t call them picture makers – they would put up a proposition with one main star, some music director, make a deal and get finance. As a result, there followed an indifferent performance of vast numbers of films at the box-office. It spoiled the credibility of the picture maker. And the distributor who had 10 films had to balance the profit of one against the loss of the nine others.

NMK: Did this start in the 1950s?
DK: Yes, yes. And so, you see the losses of the credible picture maker. My film, for instance, or let’s say, Raj Kapoor’s film or Mr Mehboob’s film, Mr Bimal Roy’s film would get good revenue, but that revenue did not accrue to the filmmakers because the distributor had to balance the profit with his losses.

The ’50s was the beginning of the erosion of authority a picture maker had on the marketing of his product. During the ’40s and up to the ’50s, the director was the principal man, over and above the stars, but after the ’50s, his position was gradually undermined, and the distributor and the financier became the top people. Whereas on one side there was boom, and on the other side, there was decline in the inner health of cinema.

NMK: Given the shrinking of good films made, how did you choose your scripts?
DK: Well, let’s say there are two types of scripts. I am a studious person and for me I felt there were bad scripts and scripts that were less bad. So, you’ve had to play the waiting game. And try and be part of the evolution of the script – the writers were writing, and they would ask your opinion. Or they’ll pick up some novel and take certain ideas because they were literary men. It was nice teamwork, a good climate to work in.

When the country became free, we thought, oh, the sky is the limit now, but it was the other way around. I remember I was unemployed for about ten months. Then all sorts of people came to see me because Dilip Kumar had become a commodity by that time. I had no studio and no institution to which I belonged, and we lived in a very sheltered atmosphere. These were businesspeople and they were hustlers and all kinds of people.

So, amid all that, one tried to pick the right kind of person to work with and go through the story. If you didn’t like the story, you had to be be firm enough to say no, because they tempted you with money. I think we are forced to live a lifestyle which was beyond our means.

You see the people who emerged in this process were men like Bimal Roy, K Asif and Mehboob Sahib – he had a studio, and we couldn’t bracket him with the rest.

Men like Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt and several others utilised this independence and have almost come through the baptism of fire. They’ve had their baptism of the financier and the distributor. You see the measure of their success could not be denied to them, but they’ve received only a fraction of what their films earned, whether it’s Raj Kapoor or whether it’s Bimal Roy or anybody. This is what an honest picture maker had to suffer and while there were good things, there were also bad things.

I am just pointing out the strain which you may miss while you are doing your research – it was a strange mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous and it still continues to be that way because oddly enough we’ve never succeeded in pointing the attention of the authorities on this abominable pilferage because unless the picture maker has the purview over his sales, he is not really going to accumulate enough resources for his experimental films or even for his regular films.

Today even after making so many films, a man must go out to seek finance. Why should he seek finance? If a fairer amount of his box office returns were accrued to him...

I am not trying to run down any distributor or exhibitor because the distributor is buying the film on spec — he is giving a minimum guarantee money which may not come back to him. So naturally his policy is to balance the loss of one film against the profit of another. You can’t blame him for that.

NMK: But the audience were ready to see good movies.
DK: Yes, we can’t find fault with the audience. You see Madhumati was also a financial success. There is that slight difference of chemistry in a good successful box office film and a very good film which is a box office failure. There is that subtle difference and I don’t want to go into that because anything that is said seems to be become controversial.

NMK: What about the difference between a film like Aan or Mother India, they were high quality films.
DK: Yes. Now, the difference between Mother India and let’s say, Pather Panchali, which is a far more artistic film, acclaimed all over the world, but which would not work for the vast audience here because the eye of the picture maker is so sophisticated, so urbanised. This doesn’t undermine the aesthetic virtuosity of the effort itself. But you know when you say things like that, you either hurt someone’s feelings or you create controversy.

Now mercifully we have some regional literature coming up but that’s far too scant for all these volumes of films that we make.

Also read:

‘My professional name is Dilip Kumar’: Encounters with one of India’s greatest actors

When the Shiv Sena attacked Dilip Kumar for supporting Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’

Being rather than doing: Why Dilip Kumar is one of the greatest actors in Indian cinema