Way back in 1968, I saw my first Hindi film at the age of seven. It was Ram Aur Shyam, starring Dilip Kumar in a double role. We lived in the US then and screening was courtesy of an NRI association in the town of Syracuse. It must have been a spur-of-the-moment plan, leaving my parents no time to find a babysitter, for Ram Aur Shyam was not a children’s film. I remember being scared half to death by the ferocious red-eyed villain Pran, who mercilessly whips the docile Ram, only to get whipped, in turn, by the fearless Shyam in the end. For a seven-year-old who had never watched anything but Walt Disney films, it was an unforgettable experience.
Back in India, several years later, when my schoolmates asked me who my favourite hero was, I declared it was Dilip Kumar. They were mystified since this was an era of Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Jeetendra, and Dilip Kumar was already considered a hero of the previous generation. But I stuck to my guns since I’d never seen another Hindi movie after Ram Aur Shyam
The next time I saw Dilip Kumar again was at home on television, in a movie called Dil Diya Dard Liya, which was the sort of movie that got him the sobriquet of ‘tragedy king.’ It was a very weepy movie but, Dilip Kumar looked very handsome, even as silent tears ran down his face. He doesn’t get beaten up as he did in Ram Aur Shyam, but in Dil Diya Dard Liya, he suffers a lot in love.
My favourite Dilip Kumar movie is Sagina, released in 1974 – a remake of the Bengali film Sagina Mahato, which also had Dilip Kumar paired with his wife Saira Banu. In the title role, Dilip Kumar plays a brash, big-hearted union leader who is ultimately brought down by the system, but not before he creates his mayhem. It featured the brilliant song “Sala Main To Sahab Ban Gaya,” penned by Majrooh Sultanpuri, with music by SD Burman.
Dilip Kumar aged very well and in his later years he played suave middle-aged characters with great elan. It made for splendid viewing when he played Amitabh Bachchan’s father in Shakti (1982) where the two actors seemed to be battling it out for screen presence. Another film he looked great in was Saudagar (1992), where he was pitted against another great actor, Raj Kumar. From 2002, I lived in the Mumbai suburb of Khar for eight years and I’d often stroll past the famous Dilip Kumar bungalow, which remains a landmark on Pali Hill. For a while, I covered the Filmfare Awards for The Economic Times and I always hoped I’d get to see my favourite actor, who holds the record for winning the most Filmfare Awards, including a lifetime achievement award in 1993. But Dilip Kumar was already 78 in 2002 and that was not to be.