On December 11, 2020, Yusuf Khan alias Dilip Kumar will be 98 – two short of a unique century. Perhaps the only Hindi movie star to have achieved this landmark, not only as an actor but in his later professional life, as producer and director of films. His popularity has transcended the limits of the Indian subcontinent radiating to all corners of the world.

My family had a special relationship with the renowned actor and hence this personal recollection.

It was 2am when the telephone bell rang next to the sofa where I was trying to sleep after a hard day at the airport, where I worked as an executive.

“Hello,” I said in a groggy voice not unmixed with irritation on being disturbed at such an ungodly hour.

“Is Mr Abbas there?” came the voice from the other end.

“Yes speaking,” I answered haughtily because I had just started working and had only recently savoured the title of Mister before my name.

“I mean, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas,” came the reply in a voice that seemed even more soft and soothing even as my anger was mounting.

“No,” I barked into the telephone, “He has left for Moscow last evening.”

“Really,” said the strange voice, “I thought he had returned from the Soviet Union.”

“But I told you he has left… only this morning.”

“Kaun, Annu Miyan bol rahe hain?” The voice was now speaking in chaste Urdu.

“Yes,” I propped myself up on the sofa becoming a little curious because only very intimate friends and elders called me by my nickname, Annu. “Aap kaun bol rahe hain?”

“Mera naam Yusuf Khan hai.”

“Kaun Yusuf Khan?” I said, returning to my nasty irritable self.

“Mera tijarati naam Dilip Kumar hai,” the voice now seemed to be enjoying my discomfiture.

Dilip Kumar.

Yusuf Khan was baptised Dilip Kumar many years earlier by Devika Rani, who had discovered him, and the name has stuck for over 65 years now. The actor who made a lacklustre debut in Jwar Bhata in 1944 with a thin voice and an expressionless face soon got hold of himself. By intelligent and patient hard work and sheer perseverance, he learnt to act and speak and give appropriate expressions, making his first great mark in Ramesh Sehgal’s Shaheed in 1948.

On a personal level, the man was always affectionate, lovable and even adorable. He was the best ever to enter and emerge from Hindi film studios. He commanded a worldwide following of loyal fans. In 1998, he came to Pakistan to receive the coveted Nishan-e Pakistan on Pakistan Day. At the time, a senior professor of psychology at a leading women’s college in Karachi was willing to give her right arm to have the darshan of her childhood hero, the one and only Dilip Kumar or Yusuf Khan.

In India, my sister, now in her seventies, was so fond of DK as a teenager that she kept his photograph wrapped in layers of coloured and perfumed tissue papers tied in a red silken handkerchief. She was to become a doctor of philosophy, write several books and hold the position of Minister of State in the government of India. It was a dream fulfilled for her whenever Dilip Kumar’s younger sisters would invite her over to spend a weekend at 22 Pali Hill in Bandra. Their joyous fun-filled evenings and endless laughter rang through the house where Yusuf Bhai stayed with his brothers and sisters before he married Saira Banu and moved next door.

What a cheerful household it was, with a constant flow of young boys and girls enjoying the company of the great actor who was fond of narrating anecdotes and reciting shayari to regale his audiences. This was on account of his wide and voracious reading after his matriculation from the Anjuman-e-Islam school Mumbai.

Dilip Kumar in Gunga Jumna (1961). Courtesy Citizens Films.

Our beloved domestic help, Mohammed Yaqoob, viewed his films not once or twice, but half a dozen times. He spent a chunk of his salary to see a Dilip Kumar starrer while his family in the Hyderabad Deccan waited for remittances from him.

A shoe shop owner in Dilip Saab’s native Peshawar would have a special pair prepared on the star’s birthday and send it across the Wagah border regardless of the geo-political situation and tensions.

Dilip Saab’s sisters Akhtar and Saeeda were appearing for their matriculation examination. Their centre was next door to our house in Juhu. I, “Annu Miyan”, a class five student in a local school, was asked by Yusuf Bhai to look after his sisters during their exam recess. My instruction was to make sure they ate their lunch and their minds were kept tension-free. So much for brotherly care and concern from the man who was, is and will always be India’s greatest actor.

But there was a time when the doors of 22-B Pali Hill were shut for me. Dilip Saab had learnt that I carried messages from his sister to K Asif, the director of Mughal-e-Azam, during their courtship. The great Khan vehemently disapproved of the match. Only much later and a few years before Asif’s death did the Pathan reconcile to the marriage and also forgave this cupid for his adventurous ways.

Dilip Kumar in Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Courtesy Shapoorji Pallonji.

In addition to his career as a popular and award-winning actor, Dilip Kumar was at the forefront of Mumbai’s social and cultural life. He helped raise funds for worthwhile causes and even canvassed for general elections though not always with great success. One landmark of his political career was his appointment as the Sheriff of Mumbai. Along with another legendary showman and close friend Raj Kapoor, Dilip was described by the late Jawaharlal Nehru as the symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity in the film industry.

For a while, he developed a giant-sized ego. He had illusions of becoming like Charlie Chaplin and began to interfere in all aspects of filmmaking without taking credit for anything except acting, which makes the offence even more unforgivable.

The story goes that the talented and official director of the film Bairaag, Asit Sen, was reduced to bringing tea for Saab and paan for his wife Saira Banu while Dilip himself wielded the megaphone. Despite working on the film tirelessly for several hours every day for months, directing it, editing it and scripting it, the 1976 film turned out to be a colossal flop.

What is less well-known is a tete-e-tete with the famous film writer KA Abbas.

“How long do you take to write a script?” asked Dilip of Abbas.

“Well, if I am not doing anything else to make a living, then I can complete the first version of the script in one month,” replied the writer modestly.

“Remarkable,” commented Dilip, “Mr S Mukherjee and I have been toiling over one scene of a film and we have reached nowhere near satisfactory completion.”

Replied the writer, “If you place me before the camera to act, even after a month you will still find me there going through the 500th retake.”

“What do you mean?” demanded the sensitive and intelligent Dilip Kumar narrowing his eyes, sensing that there was more to the reply than the words he had spoken.

“Simple,” said the writer. “Everyone should do what comes naturally to him or for what he is trained.”

In the late 1980s, Dilip Kumar was in Pakistan raising funds for children stricken by blood diseases on a trip sponsored by Fatimid. In 1998, in honouring Dilip Kumar, an Indian actor, the Government of Pakistan had shown large-heartedness. This should augur well for the thawing of relations even under Narendra Modi’s rule. Hope Modi is all ears.

Saira Banu and Dilip Kumar in November 2020. Courtesy Dilip Kumar’s official Twitter handle.