Dalip Tahil has been on the cusp of superstardom for so long, he’s probably given up waiting.

 

I was scheduled to meet Dalip Tahil in two hours. Like any good hack, I had put off doing my homework on him to the last available minute, and was now frantically trying to get online. As I had expected, my search threw up several pages (Gooooooooogle) of results, and I ploughed into my task with great satisfaction. Only to get into a frustrating informational cul-de-sac. Of course, Dalip Tahil was mentioned hundreds of times, but almost always only as part of one film review or another [“…and the domineering dad so-and-so (played by Dalip Tahil)…”, “the daughter of the villainous tycoon such-and-such (Dalip Tahil)….”]. Of course there were a couple of sites that went so far as to carry a (much-abbreviated) DT filmography table. But as far as the man’s origins, evolution, achievements, thoughts, and ambitions were concerned, the Net, usually so generous with embroidered and usually invented trivia on the stars’ personal and professional lives, was strangely silent. Only one website, sindhiinfo.com, under the section ‘Sindhis in Bollywood’, could be persuaded to disgorge two stingy paragraphs – the distilled essence of which was that Dalip Tahil was an actor, and the son of Admiral Tahiliani, the ex-Chief of Navy Staff.

“So it must have been an exciting early life?” I venture when I meet him at his Bandra flat, leading with my solitary shiny factoid. “Big houses, huge gardens, lots of domestic staff… After all, not everyone is the son of an Admiral.” He looks a little puzzled, and then enlightenment dawns. “You’re thinking of Tahiliani!” he says. “But I am, or was, Tahilramani. My dad was in the Air Force.” Sigh. 

In a way, this deafening silence about Tahilramani Jr is appropriate. For it is how Dalip Tahil’s career in Bollywood has panned out. The man is definitely a fixture in the industry – his first film, Shyam Benegal’s debut Ankur, was shot some thirty years ago, when he was only eighteen, and his name has figured in bold caps when the credits have rolled in over a hundred films – but no trumpet fanfare has attended his entrances and exeunt, no awards gleam dully on his shelves, no writer of salacious gossip has thought him worthy of her depraved attentions.

Even today, after twenty years of non-stop work in the film industry, Dalip Tahil does not see Bollywood as the be-all and end-all of his existence. “It’s definitely a part of me, a major part,” he admits, “but it isn’t all there is to me. I’m grateful for the recognition and the fame the industry has brought me, I am grateful for the chance it has offered me to be a freelance artiste all my life, and I am aware that it has helped open a few doors, but I still see it as my workplace, not my life.” 

What really are his passions then? The theatre, and an abiding interest in sports, both of which were nurtured on the playing fields and in the auditoriums of Sherwood College, Nainital, where he boarded as a youngster, well away from his family’s peripatetic lifestyle. “I was an average student academically,” he recalls, “and that was largely due to the fact that I had no time to study.” Considering he was part of the school hockey, cricket and football elevens, the elocution team, the choir, the debating society, and of course the dramatics society, that isn’t difficult to believe. The pinnacle of his school acting career came when he was fifteen – the year he won the Geoffrey Kendall Cup for best actor.

Then he came to the city of dreams. His dad had since retired from the Air Force and taken up residence in Mumbai, and Dalip came there for his summer vacations. “I thought I was the cat’s whiskers,” he smiles. “I’d just won the Kendall Cup, and there was no one more talented in the world than I.” Alyque Padamsee was the lodestone then for every aspiring theatre actor, and naturally, it was to him that Dalip went, after cold-calling him first at his residence. Three glorious months followed on the sets of Marat/Sade, learning the basics of props and production, and ended with Dalip actually essaying a small role in the play that featured some of the biggest names in theatre at the time – Kabir Bedi, Homi Daruwalla, Pearl Padamsee, and Alyque himself. Recounts the veteran theatre director smilingly, “I remember Dalip at fifteen as an angelic face with bright eyes and high energy. During the three months that we rehearsed and performed the play, Dalip had to take a lot of hammering from the guards of the asylum – he had no lines to say but made up for it with plenty of grunts and groans.”

Dalip Tahil: The Man Who Could Not Be King

After that memorable summer, he returned to work with Padamsee every vacation, and three years later, when he was just eighteen, he debuted in Benegal’s Ankur. It was supposed to be a significant role, and he shot extensively for it, but most of the footage in which he featured ended up on the editing room floor. It was the other two first-timers, a young Shabana Azmi and Benegal himself, who reaped all the glory. After that first brief brush with Bollywood, Dalip returned to theatre, and to Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, where he was now a student. His next Bollywood experience would come only ten years later.

Those ten intervening years, the seventies, saw Dalip establish himself as one of the country’s premier male models. His print campaign with young adman Prahlad Kakkar for Modella suitings catapulted him to the status of a major celebrity, and a host of other ads, including some of the very first ones on Indian television – Bombay Dyeing, HMT, Jenson and Nicholson – followed. “We became quite a team, Prahlad and I,” recalls Tahil. “The income from the modelling was good pocket money, supplementing what I made from my job at an ad agency.”

For his theatrical passion Dalip kept going back to Alyque Padamsee even working for a short while at Lintas, the advertising agency he ran. In 1979, Alyque cast him in the role of Marlon Brando in the play A Streetcar Named Desire, opposite Sabira Merchant. Declares Padamsee, “Dalip has an overpowering male presence and was perfect for the role. It was due to the electricity between Dalip and Sabira that a serious play like Streetcar ran for more than fifty shows. Years later, when I cast him as Che Guevara in Evita – after I had heard him sing in Pearl Padamsee’s Godspell – the Tahil electricity crackled again with Sharon Prabhakar, and this time, we did over a hundred and fifty shows!”  

It was his performance in Streetcar that catapulted Dalip into Bollywood. Javed Akhtar, after sitting through his performance, took him to meet Ramesh Sippy. The result was Shaan. “My role in the film wasn’t a great one,” says Dalip, “but Shaan was a huge film. It had Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor in it, and it was quite an experience watching Ramesh Sippy work. After Shaan, I was never out of work.” And with Padamsee’s Evita  he firmly established himself as a widely respected singing actor on Mumbai’s English stage.

The sad thing however is that the appeal of English theatre is limited, and  his noticeable performance in Shaan  never landed the lead role in  a Hindi film, though he has been involved in several hundreds of them till now. Which, when you think about it, is all a bit unfair. But the man himself wouldn’t have it any other way. “Nobody ever saw me as hero material,” he says with disarming candour. “And seriously, I have never wanted to be the hero. If I had, I would have used Ankur as a stepping stone into Bollywood. But I wasn’t into commercial cinema then at all. Even Shaan did not happen through my efforts.” True, but it is still a pity that this fine actor missed the hero’s bus. Agrees original mentor Padamsee, “I don’t think Bollywood has utilized him fully at all. Father roles are okay but Dalip definitely has the talent to play the lead.”

Dalip Tahil: The Man Who Could Not Be King

But  Dalip Tahil has played midwife at an inordinate number of superstar births on the silver screen. Take Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, which launched babyface Aamir Khan, Baazigar, which launched Kajol and firmly established Shah Rukh Khan as superstar, all the way up to Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai, which, in one fell swoop, made Hrithik Roshan the heartthrob of all India. But Dalip is not complaining. He thinks it is remarkable enough that he made it in Bollywood at all, coming as he did from a tradition of English theatre. “I am probably the only person who made the transition from English theatre to Hindi commercial cinema successfully,” he reflects. “All the others came from the film institutes, or the regional theatre, or, more recently, from television. What probably helped was my UP/Hindi-speaking background, which ensured language was never a problem.”   

However once Bollywood  became the mainstay of his income, he did not find time and the inclination to do theatre for nearly two decades, though he featured frequently on the small screen, where he is perhaps best remembered as Bhushan, the eldest son of the family in the hugely successful 1986 soap Buniyaad. Last year he returned to theatre once again with the musical The Man of La Mancha which he directed and played a lead role in. It had a successful run, but not for long. There isn’t money in English theatre to force actors to make long term commitments. But Man From La Mancha atleast provided Dalip the opportunity to sing once again. “If there is anything I regret about my years in the film industry,” he confesses, “it is never having had the chance to sing in the movies. That is something I would still love to do.”

For the moment however Bollywood producers even if they want to, will have to wait to cast him in a singing role. For it is the London West End that is now gearing up to fulfil Tahil’s Bombay dreams. Some months ago, Dalip heard that the producers of Bombay Dreams, the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on the romance of Hindi films was looking for Indian actors who could sing. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to showcase all his skills and the perfect medium to do it in. He made the trip to London, auditioned, and won the role, becoming the only actor from Bollywood to do so. Starting next month, at least for a year, he will be based in London where Bombay Dreams opens at the West End. “It is gratifying,” he says, “hugely thrilling. It gives me a deep sense of satisfaction and a great sense of achievement. It is a godsend, this chance to take a break from the movies, to look back and introspect, doing at the same time something completely different, and so exciting, at my age.”

Dalip is 50, but he thinks his whole life could take a different course post-Bombay Dreams. And he is ready for it. He is also looking forward to spending a year in London with his family. “I want to do lots of singing there, join some choirs. Also play some cricket in its home country. I don’t think I will have much time for anything else, considering I have to be onstage every night, for a whole year.” This could indeed be his big moment. As Alyque Padamsee says, “I hope Dalip’s role in Bombay Dreams utilizes the full potential of this extremely powerful actor-singer.” Amen to that.

 

This story was first published in the May 2002 issue

Photographs by: Ashima Narain