The sequence is both celebrated and parodied: Dilip Kumar, screaming and flailing for help on a lonely and rain-swept street in Mumbai as Waheeda Rehman clutches her stomach in agony.
Yash Chopra’s Mashaal (1984) is based on a screenplay by Javed Akhtar, which in turn was based on the Marathi play Ashroonchi Zhali Phule by Vasant Kanetkar. The movie has Anil Kapoor as the hero, but its most famous scene belongs to an acting warhorse.
Dilip Kumar plays Vinod, the editor of the community newspaper Mashaal. Vinod and his wife Sudha (Rehman) adopt street ruffian Raja (Anil Kapoor) and help him iron out his creases. Vinod sends Raja off to journalism school in Bangalore. While the young man is picking up reporting skills, Vinod wages a war of attrition against the gangster Vardhan (Amrish Puri).
Vardhan crushes Vinod and Sudha – he gets them evicted and has Vinod’s press burnt down. As the homeless couple wander through the Ballard Estate neighbourhood in Mumbai on a day when there is a bandh in the city, Sudha is overcome by a long-standing illness. As she writhes in pain, Vinod loses his reserve and dignity. He desperately tries to hail passing vehicles and screams in the dark for help. “Ae bhai, ko hai,” Vinod yells into the night, but to no avail.
Few actors other than Dilip Kumar could have injected empathy and pathos into a sequence whose melodramatic potential is cranked up to full volume. The sequence still stands as a snapshot of Mumbai’s notorious apathy towards those who are not useful in any way.
In his autobiography Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow, which was authored with Udayatara Nayar, the acclaimed actor described the manner in which he depicted Vinod’s anguish. Kumar channelled his memory of his father, Mohammed Sarwar Khan (whom he called Aghaji) and the death of his elder brother Ayub, for the scene.
“…the deep pain I saw on Aghaji’s face when my brother Ayub Sahab breathed his last and the helpless cry for immediate medical aid from Aghaji once when Amma fainted after a bout of breathlessness, as he held her listless body in his arms, were images that surfaced from my subconscious to spur me,” Kumar writes. “No matter how much an actor may have in his emotional reservoir as personally experienced moments to build his make-believe responses before the cameras, when it actually comes to giving a final take, it takes all that he has and much more to render the scene credibly and powerfully.”
The sequence took four days to shoot. Dilip Kumar was running a fever at the time, and was staying in a room at the Taj Mahal Hotel in neighbouring Colaba for the duration of the shoot. Kumar rested for two days and was on the sets on the third.
“I needed the rest since I had told Yash I would render the entire scene without an interruption once the cameras rolled on the location,” he says in his memoir. “I kept my commitment and completed the scene unhindered on the third day. When we completed the work, it was pretty late in the night and I could see moist eyes all around me and there was an eerie silence. For a second or two it disturbed me. Yash came up to me and I could see that he was unable to say whatever he wanted to say because he was choked with emotion. After a while, everybody relaxed and the admiration surfaced. There is no greater award for an actor than the genuine appreciation of his colleagues.”