Suhana Safar is Forever


Mohammed Yusuf Khan was born in pre-independence India in Peshawar, the city that is now in Pakistan.

One of twelve children born to Lala Ghulam Sarwar Khan and his wife Ayesha Begum, Khan was barely 18 when he moved to Pune in 1940, where he set up a dry fruit store. 

In an interview in 1970, Khan explained that he adopted his stage name Dilip Kumar because his father disapproved of careers in Indian cinema. From the lacklustre response to his first few films, he might have gotten away with the ruse. However, one can only imagine the father being very pleased when his son’s career took off in 1947 with the box office hit Jugnu.

Over the course of a truly stellar career, Dilip Kumar won much acclaim, garnering eight Filmfare Awards as best actor, before transitioning gracefully to supporting, but memorable roles.

Outside the film industry, Dilip Kumar won multiple civilian awards including the Padma Vibhushan in 1995 from the Indian government.

The government of Pakistan, too, conferred on him their highest civilian award (Nishan-e-Imtiaz in 1998), and his family home in Peshawar was deemed a national heritage site in 2014. He is the only Indian actor to be also honoured by the government of Pakistan.

Dilip Kumar’s passing on July 7 from natural causes generated a universal outpouring of grief in a subcontinent reeling not only from COVID-19, but also from powerful voices (amplified by social media) that have sought to divide communities along religious fault lines.

Among the numerous tributes in India and around the world (including in  New York Times, Guardian and Toronto’s Globe and Mail), the most poignant for me was the two-minute video clip by the legendary actress Vyjayanthimala who, despite being a devout Hindu, said that it was due to “Allah’s mercy” that she got to work on many films with Dilip Kumar, adding that besides being an outstanding co-star, he was a noble soul.

I was fourteen when the film Leader, their sixth film together, came out in cinemas in 1964. By this time, they were established as one of the most bankable screen couples. The film’s song, Ek Shahenshah ne banwa ke haseen Taj Mahal, sung at the monument to love, is in my opinion, one of the most romantic songs of all time. Music director Naushad and poet Shakeel Badayuni have perfectly captured the lyricism and serenity of the morning raag Lalit, and Lata Mangeshkar and Mohamed Rafi, two singers in their prime, perform beautifully as playback singers. 

I am not sure if Dilip Kumar had a hand in selecting music directors, but Naushad has scored the music for more than a dozen of the actor’s films, a collaboration that spanned 20 years, and included hits such as Andaz (1948), Amar (1954), Devdas (1955), Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Ganga Jumna (1961) and Dil Diya Dard Liya (1966)

And what majestic compositions Naushad has spun: Insaf ka mandir hai yeh, Bhagwan ka ghar hai and Kha-mosh hai khevanhar mera from Amar come to mind – both songs are in raag Bhairavi, Naushad’s favourite.

The beautiful Madhubala played the female lead in Amar, and starred in many films with Dilip Kumar. They were reportedly in a long relationship, before breaking up as a couple – the result of her father’s interference. They were barely on speaking terms when they filmed Mughal-e-Azam. Yet the scene in which she (as Anarkali) meets Dilip Kumar as Prince Salim is considered to be a film classic. The two lovers meet as Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the most renowned classical vocalist of the era, sings Prem jogan banke in the pre-dawn raag Sohini. 

Mohamed Khaki’s aunt and uncle, Zera and Haider Dhanani, with Dilip Kumar at a reception in Dar es Salaam in 1969.
Mohamed Khaki’s aunt and uncle, Zera and Haider Dhanani, with Dilip Kumar at a reception in Dar es Salaam in 1969.

Khansaheb had previously refused to sing for films, and in an attempt to rebuff the Director K. Asif’s request, quoted a fee that was 50 times what the top singers of the day received. This outrageous request was accepted and the Ustad went on to sing not one, but two songs, the other being the Drut Bandish (fast composition) Shubh din aayo in raag Rageshree.

I am no expert on cinema, but I venture to say that Dilip Kumar was among the first to adapt “method acting”, a style that encourages actors to identify with the inner motives and convey the emotional tenor of their character. While Marlon Bran-do’s performances, particularly in the screen adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), is considered to be an ico-nic example of this style, Dilip Kumar had already made it his own by the time Brando made the film in 1951.

Whether he was joyously singing Sawan aaye ya na aaye (raag Brindavani Sarang) with the brilliant Waheeda Rehman, or was the despondent (and drunk!) lover singing Koi sagar dil ko behlata nahi (raag Kalavati) in Dil Diya Dard Liya, Dilip Kumar embodied his character to the extent that one forgot that Mohammed Rafi was his playback singer.

Shortly after I moved to Canada, I saw Devdas in a rather seedy theater in the east end. So small was the diasporic Indian population in 1975 that the theatre showed Indian films only on weekends. 

Vyjayanthimala plays the besotted prostitute Chandramukhi to Dilip Kumar’s Devdas, a man unable to accept the marriage of his childhood sweetheart Paro (played by the luminous Suchitra Sen) to another man, and who is spiralling into deeper depression, abetted by alcohol. Dilip Kumar won the Filmfare Award that year, cementing his reputation as Tragedy King. 

Chandramukhi finds a wasted Devdas (no one did drunk better than Diip Kumar!) in a back alley, singing:

Kisko khabar thi, kisko yakeen tha

Aise bhi deen aayenge, haai!

Jeena bhi mushkil hoga, aur

Marne bhi na paayenge, haai!

Notwithstanding the suicidal sen-timent of the song, Dilip Kumar lived a long and happy life, suppor-ted by his soulmate Saira Banu. His passing at the age of 98 still leaves a void – it feels like an end to an era of goodwill, grace and charm.

Mohamed Khaki is a Raag-Mala Toronto Team member.