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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



DILIP KUMAR: Me and the Padma Vibhushan winner

DILIP KUMAR: Me and the Padma Vibhushan winner

Getting the nation’s second highest civilian honour at 92 years and 45 days of age maybe a good example of beating the clock by the proverbial whisker, and Dilip Kumar is a most deserving recipient. But his art has already bagged all possible honours in the 54 year acting career he had, from 1944 to 1998.

As a teenager, I earned tons of appreciation for mimicking him in the famous temple-deity confrontation scene from Dil Diya Dard Liya. Later, as an aspiring actor, I nursed an ambition to work with Dilip Kumar and Sanjeev Kumar, having relished their performances in the film Sunghursh. With Sanjeev, I bagged a small role in Anamika. With Yousuf Khan Saahab (Dilip Kumar), I had to be content with a role in a TV series which he ‘ghost’ directed. But my first meeting with Dilip Kumar was not on the sets of Zara Dekho To Inka Kamaal. In fact it was not a set we met on, but in a running train.

Back in the early 80s, the National Association for the Blind (NAB) used to charter a train once  a year, the NAB special, and take passengers from Bombay to Pune to attend a prestigious horse-race there, and the train would return to Bombay, late in the evening, the same day. There was a high charge for the trip and the income went towards the charitable projects of the NAB. I had started compèring stage shows in 1970, and was approached to compère live entertainment aboard the train. There were going to be singers and other performers who would move from compartment to compartment, in the vestibuled train, but I was to remain seated in one compartment, with my microphone. Professionally, it was not to bring me anything but a small token as fee, but the idea was fascinating. All the more, because Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu were to be travelling with us.

At one point, I was told to make an announcement, which I did, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu, our Chief Guests on board, will come to you to greet you, from compartment to compartment. You may use this golden opportunity to obtain their autographs.” The autographs were against a contribution to the NAB fund. Some minutes later, I found Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu heading straight for me, and began to wonder if all was well. It was not. Dilip Kumar came right up to me and said, “Please announce ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. and Mrs. Dilip Kumar will come to you to greet you, from compartment to compartment. You may use this golden opportunity to obtain their autographs.’ I told him I had already made such an announcement thrice, to which he replied, “No, you haven’t. I did not hear it.” I repeated that I had, and there were people around me who would confirm that. He then elaborated, “You did not say Mr. and Mrs. Dilip Kumar. Now please be specific.” His wish was my command. I did as instructed, in his presence. He gave me half a smile, and proceeded on his rounds. It dawned on me only later that this was his attempt to reaffirm that the days of his second marriage to Asma in 1980 (he subsequently divorced her), and were behind him, and he was doing his best to make-up to Saira, by insisting that be identified as (the) Mrs. Dilip Kumar, and not Saira Banu.

From the late 80s till the mid 90s, I had occasion to compère at least five shows where he was the chief guest. At one such event, a horde of photographers descended on him as soon as he entered the stage, blocking the view of large audience at Nehru Centre, Mumbai. They just kept on flashing their bulbs and would not move for quite some time. The audience, meanwhile, was getting very restless and wanted to see Dilip Kumar. In an attempt to stop the unending photography and move them away, I said in Urdu, “Yeh chhotey-motey sitaarey timtimana bund karen, to maen adakaaree key aaftaab ko aapkey saamney pesh karoon.” (Once these teeny-weeny stars stop twinkling, I will present the Sun of acting before you). It had some effect, the photographers soon moved away, and Dilip Kumar was greeted with thunderous applause. As usual, gave an inspiring speech. After the show, I spotted my Ustaad (Guru) Ameen Sayani coming towards me, back-stage. I was not aware that he was in the audience that day. He came and patted my back, and said that the way I helped prepare the ground for Dilip Kumar’s appearance was commendable. Coming from him, this was a Great compliment.

I have also had the enviable opportunity of interviewing Dilip Kumar on camera, for a video tribute to the singing legend, Mohamed Rafi, who had rendered dozens of outstanding songs as playback singer for Dilip Kumar. We had managed to interview Naushad, Shammi Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, Asha Bhosle, Manmohan Desai, Laxmikant, Anand Bakhshi and others associated with the immortal singer, but the tribute would not quite be complete without Dilip Kumar. It took some time to arrange the shooting, but he agreed, and invited us to his home. We set up the equipment and told him that the programme was in English. While we were shooting, he would often slip into Urdu, and I would give him a slightly raised eyebrow look. He would immediately and seamlessly slip back into English. Of course, he is highly fluent in both languages. After the shooting was over, he said, “You did tell me repeatedly that the programme was in English, but I guess I am so fond of Urdu that I lapsed into it inadvertently.” It is one of my life’s biggest disappointments that I was never given access to any of the above interviews.


My association with kathak Guru, Padma Shri Dr. Roshan Kumari, who has taught Saira Banu and choreographed some of the songs of her and Dilip Kumar’s films, led to two more occasions when I got to some proximity with Dilip Kumar. Firstly, on the occasion of his marriage silver jubilee, there was an entertainment programs at his residence. Subhash Ghai, one of India’s top producer-directors and a close associate of Dilip Kumar, supervised the technical arrangements of light and sound, while Roshan Kumari’s team presented kathak dance. I compèred. Lastly, when Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu were looking for an actor to play a 70 year-old, old-school film story-writer who tries to convince Hema Malini to agree to act in a film based on his story, Roshanjee put in a word, and I was selected. The role was not very long, but the exacting demands of Dilip Kumar meant several rehearsals at the Dilip-Saira bungalow. He made me speak in a dozen-odd styles (luckily I am adept at mimicry) and with an equal number of expressions, often making me go back to an earlier interpretation.

On one such day, he was very busy and the rehearsal could not start for quite some time. I was panicking, because I had to compère a show at Madh Island, Malad, which is a good 90-120 minutes from Yousuf Saahab’s abode at Pali, Hill Bandra. Somehow, I mustered up enough courage to tell him about my engagement. As expected, he got angry, and blamed people of my generation for shirking hard-work. I then looked to Sairajee for support, and she obliged. “Chico (she often refers to him as Chico), he has already come thrice to rehearse. And you know he is a compère. He has compèred several shows where you were the chief guest, remember? The show cannot start without him. Let him go, na!” And it worked. Yousuf Saahab said, “Oh, I did not remember. You are a compère. No wonder your pronunciation is good. Sorry I got angry. Have tea and toast before you leave.” And he himself offered me some toast, which, I later learnt, was a privilege few could boast of. That television series was titled Zara Dekho To Inka Kamaal, and my episode was shot a few days later at Hema Malini’s home. Farida Jalal was also in the series, as anchor. In later episodes, the title was changed to Is Duniya Ke Sitare. That was in 1998, the same year Dilip Kumar acted in his last film Qila, which we saw in his gracious presence at a preview theatre not far from his home.

The last time I saw him was three years ago at Roshan Kumari’s home, when he and Saira came to wish her on her birthday. At that time, there were just the four of us in the ground- floor flat. He was not there for too long, but those were memorable moment for this humble actor-journalist. I am now reading his autobiography. Shortly, I hope to write in these columns about the 450-page book, which is deeply engaging.



About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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