Kamlesh Pandey was in the seventh grade when he became a Dilip Kumar fan. He then went on to write a film for him. On the actor’s 93rd birthday, we reminisce about the ever lasting charms of Dilip Kumar. 

I would surrender my place in the queue to read a few more pages. That meant a simple haircut could take all morning. The irony was that none of us actually wanted to have a haircut—we were all Dilip Kumar fans and preferred to wear our hair long and tousled, much to our parents’ annoyance.

But when I first saw Insaniyat I thought the chimp acted better. I couldn’t understand why my older relatives were going gaga over Dilip Kumar’s acting. But it was not long before Dilip Kumar worked his way into my mind with Daag, Deedar, Jogan, Amar, Andaz, Footpath and Devdas to name only a few, in much the same manner that he had insinuated his way into the hearts and mind of much of the nation.

Dilip Kumar was not merely an actor or a star. His performance defined our personal worldview of love and longing, life and death, not just our hairstyle. Dilip Kumar made unrequited love and sacrifice fashionable for an entire generation. Heart-broken healthy young men prayed to get tuberculosis. Many hit the bottle. Tousled hair and brooding eyes became fashion statements.

I escaped the fashion statement, but I couldn’t escape Dilip Kumar. In the late ’60’s and ’70’s, when the Parallel Cinema movement was at its peak, Dilip Kumar was still holding his own with Gopi, Sagina and Ram AurShyam.

During the ’70’s and ’80’s, most of the cinemas in the Grant Road area played his old movies in the matinee and the theatres used to be full of 50/60-year-old Dilip Kumar fans in burkhas, some chaperoned by their teenage granddaughters. I revisited the matinees of my own adolescence.

And then Hindi films discovered me.

Subhash Ghai asked me to write Saudagar, which had the only two actors I had ever admired: Raaj Kumar and Dilip Kumar. I would have done that film for free, but I got paid for fulfilling a lifelong dream—to write for Raaj Kumar and Dilip Kumar.

It was a lazy afternoon in the lobby of Fariyas hotel in Lonavla where Subhash introduced me to Dilip Kumar. Dressed in his favourite spotless white, he hugged me as if I was an old friend. That was the beginning of my seduction by Dilip Kumar, the actor. Subhash made some small talk and excused himself to visit the health club, leaving us together to discuss the scenes we had planned for the first shooting schedule. But not before reminding me quietly that I was no more a fan of Dilip Kumar, but a professional colleague, and the writer of the script. His warning was insufficient preparation.

Dilip Saab (as he is addressed by the film industry) suggested that we retire to my room and look at the scenes.

Shaheed, Dilip Kumar, Actor, Bollywood, Mughal-e-azam, saira banu

MY ROOM, FARIYAS HOTEL—EVENING

I offer Dilip Kumar the only chair in the room and sit on the bed. He prefers to walk around while I narrate the scene. I am not sure if he is listening. I am nervous. I think I have written a lousy scene, not worth the attention of the greatest actor in the history of Indian cinema.

The scene is where Dada Bir (Dilip Kumar) receives a letter from his friend Mandhari (AnupamKher) about his grandson Vasudev (VivekMushran) and is sharing it with his sister Badi Bi (Dina Pathak) and daughter-in-law (Dipti Naval). The letter is full of Vasudev’s achievements.

Suddenly, just when I am thinking of leaping out of the window and running all the way back to Mumbai, Dilip Kumar turns to me. He points to the bare walls and begins to describe the entire scenario—who is standing/sitting where and doing what, including the properties of a farmhouse. And then he takes the scene from my hands and begins to speak his lines addressing all the absent characters and using invisible properties. He uses the entire room for his pacing and builds an emotional high, which even I, as a writer, never realised the scene had. In a brief shining moment, sitting in a bare room in a hotel in Lonavla, I am transported to Dada Bir’s farmhouse in Himachal Pradesh and moved to tears at a grandfather’s pride in his grandson’s achievements—from whom he has been away for 12 long years. He makes me recall my own grandfather and how he must have felt when he heard that his good-for-nothing grandson got a job, and a good one at that.

Dilip Kumar asks me what I think of his interpretation. I mumble some inanities about the length of the scene and the need to shorten it a bit—paper being cheap, raw stock, expensive. He laughs.

SUBHASH GHAI’S ROOM—NIGHT

I tell Subhash what Dilip Saab did with the scene. He tells me I am still reacting like a fan. I must try and grow into a professional colleague.

One week later

SUBHASH GHAI’S FARMHOUSE, MADH

It is the first day of the shooting. I am going over the scene with Dilip Kumar. It is the same scene he had performed for my benefit in my hotel room in Lonavla. With  disarming humility, he asks me if he should use an accent. Dilip Kumar asking me! I am oblivious to what he is really trying to do. With the naivete of a passionate fan, I agree. I know from Gunga Jumna and Sagina that he has a wonderful ear for dialects. He thanks me for agreeing and asks for a little time to work on it. I exit, thrilled that the greatest actor in the history of Indian cinema asked me for my opinion on his suggestion. I feel cocky. I am on top of the world.

SUBHASH GHAI’S FARMHOUSE, MADH

I tell Subhash that Dilip Saab has suggested that he should use an accent for his dialogues and I have promptly agreed. Subhash bursts into a belly laugh and says that Dilip Saab is a ‘naughty boy’. Being only three films old, I do not underWhat makes Dilip Kumar so inescapable? Why do actors keep bumping into him even when they desperately attempt to avoid him? I am still waiting for an actor who is not obliged to take a leaf from the book of Dilip Kumar every time he has to do a scene. From Rajendra Kumar to Manoj Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan, most of the successful Hindi actors of the last three decades have drawn at least part of their sustenance from the amazing repertoire of Bollywood’s greatest actor. Whether they admit it or not (most do, some grudgingly, some privately and some openly).

The matrix of stories told by Hindi films has more or less remained the same. There have been some bold variations on the same theme, but no major departures. Because we are a nation of great storytellers and the stories in Hindi films are a continuity of the mythology and folklore that nourish our roots. This means that when we go to see a Hindi film, we’re actually going back to our roots. Hence, the same stories, the same relationships, the same conflicts, the same values and the same scenes. Despite our love of this predictability, we expect to be surprised every time. That has been the challenge for every Indian writer, filmmaker and actor: how to surprise the audience while offering the same meal day after day and film after film. This is where one begins to admire the talent of actors like Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan who still manage to enthral us while working within such constraints. The challenge gets worse for other, less talented actors who have to face a benchmark like Dilip Kumar. They are left with no choice but to ape him. Actors like Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri did make some courageous efforts to find a new route, but while his craft was admired, the legend remained unchallenged.

That has always amazed me because, funnily enough, one does not find any noticeable growth or development in his performances. From his earliest Milan right through to his Devdas in the late ’50’s, his genius appears to be consistent. He perfected his craft over the years so painstakingly and calibrated his performances with such precision that he could virtually orchestrate laughter and tears, applause and chuckles from his audience at his will and command.

And yet he made it all seem effortless. The method was conspicuous by its absence. By keeping motion, whether on his face or in his body to a minimum, he forced an audience that had been trained to accept the broad gestures and theatrical body language of an earlier generation to work with him at understanding what he was trying to convey.

The two most valuable gifts that Dilip Kumar has given to Hindi cinema are his own unique grammar of silence and the fine art of dubbing. For the first time in Hindi cinema, he demonstrated how correct dubbing could enhance a performance. His silent, self-effacing minimalism stood out boldly against the backdrop of Raj Kapoor’s boisterous excesses and DevAnand’s exaggerated stylishness.

When Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar shared the limelight in Andaz, both used every trick, every subterfuge, to steal scenes from each other. After Andaz, the pairing was never repeated although it had proved itself at the box office. After Insaniyat, DevAnand not only foreswore swashbuckling, dhoti-kurta roles forever but also foreswore Dilip Kumar. But their healthy rivalry continued. Dilip Kumar won the race for the best actor by refusing to run it; he ambled along nonchalantly to the winning pole while enjoying the landscape and reading Sartre. He chose his pace, carefully crafted his persona and learned to say ‘no’. He chose to remain Dilip Kumar, gently breaking a million hearts while playing a heart-broken young man. And so he managed to sail through many flops, keeping his persona, his mystery and his stature intact. He chose his films carefully whether it was the breezy NayaDaur, the swashbuckling Azaad and Kohinoor, the epic Mughal-E-Azam or the frothy Ram AurShyam.  Or Gunga Jumna. Especially Gunga Jumna.

Gunga Jumna is an inescapable film. It has made me miss many script deadlines. For me, the dilemma has always been to decide what is more rewarding—watching a Dilip Kumar film or writing a Dilip Kumar film?

I still do not have an answer. I only have a personal journey from being a passionate fan to a professional colleague who got hooked on Dilip Kumar in the seventh grade and finally found himself writing movies starring him.

In the late ’50’s and early ’60’s, film magazines were not allowed in respectable homes. Kids could only read them at the barber’s shop. Everyone, adults and children, fought over the film magazines there until they were divided into pages and distributed. On busy Sundays, I would surrender my place in the queue to read a few more pages. That meant a simple haircut could take all morning. The irony was that none of us actually wanted to have a haircut—we were all Dilip Kumar fans and preferred to wear our hair long and tousled, much to our parents’ annoyance.

But when I first saw Insaniyat I thought the chimp acted better. I couldn’t understand why my older relatives were going gaga over Dilip Kumar’s acting. But it was not long before Dilip Kumar worked his way into my mind with Daag, Deedar, Jogan, Amar, Andaz, Footpath and Devdas to name only a few, in much the same manner that he had insinuated his way into the hearts and mind of much of the nation.

Dilip Kumar was not merely an actor or a star. His performance defined our personal worldview of love and longing, life and death, not just our hairstyle. Dilip Kumar made unrequited love and sacrifice fashionable for an entire generation. Heart-broken healthy young men prayed to get tuberculosis. Many hit the bottle. Tousled hair and brooding eyes became fashion statements.

I escaped the fashion statement, but I couldn’t escape Dilip Kumar. In the late ’60’s and ’70’s, when the Parallel Cinema movement was at its peak, Dilip Kumar was still holding his own with Gopi, Sagina and Ram AurShyam.

During the ’70’s and ’80’s, most of the cinemas in the Grant Road area played his old movies in the matinee and the theatres used to be full of 50/60-year-old Dilip Kumar fans in burkhas, some chaperoned by their teenage granddaughters. I revisited the matinees of my own adolescence.

And then Hindi films discovered me.

SubhashGhai asked me to write Saudagar, which had the only two actors I had ever admired: Raaj Kumar and Dilip Kumar. I would have done that film for free, but I got paid for fulfilling a lifelong dream—to write for Raaj Kumar and Dilip Kumar.

It was a lazy afternoon in the lobby of Fariyas hotel in Lonavla where Subhash introduced me to Dilip Kumar. Dressed in his favourite spotless white, he hugged me as if I was an old friend. That was the beginning of my seduction by Dilip Kumar, the actor. Subhash made some small talk and excused himself to visit the health club, leaving us together to discuss the scenes we had planned for the first shooting schedule. But not before reminding me quietly that I was no more a fan of Dilip Kumar, but a professional colleague, and the writer of the script. His warning was insufficient preparation.

Dilip Saab (as he is addressed by the film industry) suggested that we retire to my room and look at the scenes.

Naya daur, Dilip Kumar, Actor, Bollywood, Mughal-e-azam, saira banu

MY ROOM, FARIYAS HOTEL—EVENING

I offer Dilip Kumar the only chair in the room and sit on the bed. He prefers to walk around while I narrate the scene. I am not sure if he is listening. I am nervous. I think I have written a lousy scene, not worth the attention of the greatest actor in the history of Indian cinema.

The scene is where Dada Bir (Dilip Kumar) receives a letter from his friend Mandhari (AnupamKher) about his grandson Vasudev (VivekMushran) and is sharing it with his sister Badi Bi (Dina Pathak) and daughter-in-law (Dipti Naval). The letter is full of Vasudev’s achievements.

Suddenly, just when I am thinking of leaping out of the window and running all the way back to Mumbai, Dilip Kumar turns to me. He points to the bare walls and begins to describe the entire scenario—who is standing/sitting where and doing what, including the properties of a farmhouse. And then he takes the scene from my hands and begins to speak his lines addressing all the absent characters and using invisible properties. He uses the entire room for his pacing and builds an emotional high, which even I, as a writer, never realised the scene had. In a brief shining moment, sitting in a bare room in a hotel in Lonavla, I am transported to Dada Bir’s farmhouse in Himachal Pradesh and moved to tears at a grandfather’s pride in his grandson’s achievements—from whom he has been away for 12 long years. He makes me recall my own grandfather and how he must have felt when he heard that his good-for-nothing grandson got a job, and a good one at that.

Dilip Kumar asks me what I think of his interpretation. I mumble some inanities about the length of the scene and the need to shorten it a bit—paper being cheap, raw stock, expensive. He laughs.

SUBHASH GHAI’S ROOM—NIGHT

I tell Subhash what Dilip Saab did with the scene. He tells me I am still reacting like a fan. I must try and grow into a professional colleague.

One week later

SUBHASH GHAI’S FARMHOUSE, MADH

It is the first day of the shooting. I am going over the scene with Dilip Kumar. It is the same scene he had performed for my benefit in my hotel room in Lonavla. With  disarming humility, he asks me if he should use an accent. Dilip Kumar asking me! I am oblivious to what he is really trying to do. With the naivete of a passionate fan, I agree. I know from Gunga Jumna and Sagina that he has a wonderful ear for dialects. He thanks me for agreeing and asks for a little time to work on it. I exit, thrilled that the greatest actor in the history of Indian cinema asked me for my opinion on his suggestion. I feel cocky. I am on top of the world.

SUBHASH GHAI’S FARMHOUSE, MADH

I tell Subhash that Dilip Saab has suggested that he should use an accent for his dialogues and I have promptly agreed. Subhash bursts into a belly laugh and says that Dilip Saab is a ‘naughty boy’. Being only three films old, I do not understand. Subhash tells me I will understand it when I meet Raaj Kumar.

FLASHFORWARD:RAAJ KUMAR’S VAN, MANALI

It is the first shooting schedule with Raaj Kumar. I discuss the scenes with him. He loves the dialogue but seems to be more bothered about his clothes. I tell him that what he is wearing is perfect (though I think it is a little outlandish). He talks about his favourite writers and asks me where I had been all these years. I am flattered. We discuss a little bit about some obscure Russian novelists. Raaj Kumar is a great fan of Dostoevsky. So am I. We instantly click.

And then he quietly asks what Laale was going to do (‘Laale’ is his nickname for Dilip Kumar. Dilip Kumar’s nickname for Raaj Kumar is ‘Shehzaade’)

I tell him Dilip Saab is using an accent.

Raaj Kumar is about to light up his pipe. He stops and looks at me, perhaps trying to discern the level of my involvement in this conspiracy. Perhaps he senses my innocence and suggests that he should also use an accent. Now I realise what Subhash meant. I am in big trouble.

I try to convince Raaj Kumar that in the film, he is an educated industrialist and an aristocrat who has spent most of his life in America and is returning after 12 years. It will not work. Mercifully, he agrees. But I can also hear the wheels turning in his mind. How is he to hold his own in the confrontation scenes with Dilip Kumar? Laale will have an edge over him. I now understand why Subhash called Dilip Saab a ‘naughty boy’. I decide that I need to make his lines stronger to balance their performances.

FLASHBACK:

SUBHASH GHAI’S FARMHOUSE, MADH

Dilip Saab arrives for his first shot and begins to deliver his lines. He has apparently concocted a beguiling mix of Hariyanvi and Avadhi tempered with a hint of Pashto, a frontier dialect from his birthplace, now in West Pakistan. It works. Subhash is thrilled and worried both at the same time. He is thinking of Raaj Kumar and how he would have to balance both thespians.

andaz-vaShaheed, Dilip Kumar, Actor, Bollywood, Mughal-e-azam, saira banu
Andaz (1949)

BACKSTORY:

Subhash Ghai had scored a virtual casting coupe by bringing Dilip Kumar and Raaj Kumar together after 28 years. They were first cast together as brothers in Paigham. Many felt that Raaj Kumar stole the thunder from the reigning king, Dilip Kumar. In the intervening 28 years, Raaj Kumar too had built a mystique, a persona, a huge fan following and a legendary status that again, many felt, equalledDilip Kumar’s. The industry believed that Saudagar would never be made. Not only because it would be impossible to manage both thespians together, but also because Raaj Kumar had been diagnosed with cancer. But Subhash ignored all industry gossip. Both the legends went out of their way to assure him of their full co-operation. Raaj Kumar, in fact, showed Subhash Ghai his medical report which revealed that he was now all right after his treatment. But what perhaps mattered most to both Dilip Kumar and Raaj Kumar is the fact that in Hindi movies, ageing stars do not get offered leading roles every day.

DIILP KUMAR’S SUITE, MANALI—NIGHT

Dilip Kumar is regaling us with his stories, many of them from his Mughal-E-Azam days. Subhash and I are in splits. Dilip Kumar mimics K Asif, Wazahat Mirza and Kamal Amrohi to such perfection that the scene deserves to be ranked among his best comedy scenes ever. Suddenly, almost on cue, Raaj Kumar enters.

Dilip Kumar changes his persona in an instant. He gets up and embraces Raaj Kumar. Both backslap each other between shouts of ‘Laales’ and ‘Shehzaades’ as if two long lost buddies are meeting. But then 28 years is a long time.

MY HOTEL ROOM, MANALI—DAY

The entire unit is out. I am closetted in my room, reworking the next day’s scenes. The phone rings. It is Dilip Saab. He invites me to join him for lunch. It is not a very difficult choice for me whether to work on a Dilip Kumar scene or have lunch with him. I instantly choose lunch with Dilip Kumar even if it means inviting Subhash’s dirty looks for not finishing the required scenes. It is not everyday that one gets invited by the greatest Indian actor to have lunch with him.

RESTAURANT, MANALI

In Manali, Dilip Kumar always has three menus to choose from—one from his personal cook who accompanies him everywhere, the second from the hotel chef (Dilip Kumar loves chefs and knows how to get the best from them) and the third, a local chef from Manali for Himachali dishes.

He is as passionate a connoisseur of food as he is of everything beautiful (especially beautiful hands). And a raconteur par excellence. He loves the sound of words. He makes love to words, rolling them on his tongue like a rare wine, exploring their hidden flavours and subtle nuances of meaning, choosing them as carefully as a jeweller chooses a diamond before he finally places it on a piece of exquisite jewellery.

We talk about writing and writers. His favourite are Persian poets, especially Sheikh Saadi and Omar Khayyam. I remind him that there was once a rumour about him playing Omar Khayyam in an international film. He dismisses it as a mere rumour, though he would have loved to play the great Sufi poet. I ask him about ChanakyaAur Chandragupta, starring him as a bald Chanakya, Amitabh Bachchan as Chandragupta and Dharmendra as SeleucusNikator. The film never took off but I do remember his photographs in a film magazine in full make-up and costume of Chanakya with a shoulder-length mane and high, shaven forehead. It would have been an epic if it had been made. But Dilip Kumar dismisses it as being too ambitious. A film of this stature deserved a far more talented director and resourceful producer than currently available at that time. I ask him if it was true that he was offered the role played by Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia and he refused. He says he refused it because it would have been below his and his country’s dignity to play a minor role in an international film. I remind him that Omar Sharif went on to become a major Hollywood star. I discover that Dilip Kumar is not moved by such considerations. He is not the one to be tempted by money or international recognition. For example, he would not wear a sari and dance to a vulgar song like other actors even if offered Rs 50 crore while every actor and sportsman today has allowed himself or herself to be seduced by the colour of money offered by companies for being their brand ambassador. Dilip Kumar has consistently stayed away from it all. Even when he has done any promotion, it has always been for a public cause and whenever he has received a payment for a promotion, the money has always been donated to his favourite charity—the Institute for the Blind.

And then we begin to talk about Saudagar. He suggests we retire to my room and discuss it over some elegant tea.

SAUDAGER-PShaheed, Dilip Kumar, Actor, Bollywood, Mughal-e-azam, saira banu
A still from Saudagar (1991)

MY HOTEL ROOM, MANALI—LATE AFTERNOON

Dilip Kumar is telling me the story of Saudagar. I am taping it for posterity. Not for “Saudagar according to Dilip Kumar”, but for the sheer magic of his voice, the pitch, the timbre, the inflections, the resonances, the subtle twists and turns of his rhythm rising and falling like the river flowing outside the hotel room. I am reminded of Richard Burton’s voice in the recording of Under Milkwood and how the words of poet Dylan Thomas dipped in Burton’s wine-warmed voice can give you a hangover. I am in a place where all gifted actors like Dilip Kumar choose to take us. Paul Muni, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Bogart, Olivier, Brando, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and of course, Amitabh Bachchan when he recites Madhushala.

The last golden light on the Himalayan peaks is fading away. The blue shadows loom large across the hills. Suddenly, he decides to call it a day and warns me that he might call me in the middle of the night and wake me and Subhash up to discuss his ideas for the scene.

DILIP KUMAR’S SUITE, MANALI—MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT

Dilip Kumar lives up to his warning. We discuss his interpretation of the scene and promise to keep it in mind.

RIVER BANK, MANALI—DAY

The entire unit is waiting for Dilip Kumar to turn up. It is a crucial scene where a drunk Dilip Kumar challenges Raaj Kumar who is watching him from his balcony high up in the hills.

Dilip Kumar has reservations about this scene. From Daag to Devdas and Sagina, he has perfected the drunk in Hindi cinema. He feels he’s done it often enough. It would be just one more drunken scene, he feels. We assure him that the scene will get the loudest applause in the theatre. He is still sceptical. He doesn’t refuse point blank, but he doesn’t turn up for the shot either for one reason or another.

Subhash explains. Drunkenness needs just the right degree of exaggeration to make it work. Too much and it will be overacting. Too little and it won’t be enjoyable. At 65, his control over his body language may not be as complete as at 32. Craft does not age, bodies do.

I am sent to his room to reassure him that if the scene does not work, we will cut it out.

DILIP SAAB’S SUITE, MANALI—DAY

I enter and offer to take a bet for Rs 100 if the scene doesn’t get the loudest applause in the theatre. He smiles. He is not unused to applause. I remind myself that I am sitting in front of an actor who had mastered the craft of working the audience when I was in the 7th Grade.

We go over the scene, line-by-line. He rehearses it a couple of times and asks me to signal him from behind the camera if he is getting too loud or not loud enough.I am flattered once again. We leave.

RIVER BANK—AFTERNOON

Dilip Kumar is performing the drunken scene. He gives so many variations, one better than the other, I wonder how Subhash is going to choose the best take. Subhash tells me he would know. That’s what qualifies him to be a director. I realise I will never be a director, not if I have to work with actors like Dilip Kumar.

METRO CINEMA—DAY

The first show of Saudagar. The drunken scene by Dilip Kumar gets the loudest applause in the film.

MY HOME—NIGHT

I call Dilip Saab and tell him he has lost the bet. He still owes me Rs 100. I called Dilip Saab a ‘naughty boy’. I decide that I need to make his lines stronger to balance their performances.

 

FLASHBACK:

SUBHASH GHAI’S FARMHOUSE, MADH

Dilip Saab arrives for his first shot and begins to deliver his lines. He has apparently concocted a beguiling mix of Hariyanvi and Avadhi tempered with a hint of Pashto, a frontier dialect from his birthplace, now in West Pakistan. It works. Subhash is thrilled and worried both at the same time. He is thinking of Raaj Kumar and how he would have to balance both thespians.

BACKSTORY:

SubhashGhai had scored a virtual casting coupe by bringing Dilip Kumar and Raaj Kumar together after 28 years. They were first cast together as brothers in Paigham. Many felt that Raaj Kumar stole the thunder from the reigning king, Dilip Kumar. In the intervening 28 years, Raaj Kumar too had built a mystique, a persona, a huge fan following and a legendary status that again, many felt, equalledDilip Kumar’s. The industry believed that Saudagar would never be made. Not only because it would be impossible to manage both thespians together, but also because Raaj Kumar had been diagnosed with cancer. But Subhash ignored all industry gossip. Both the legends went out of their way to assure him of their full co-operation. Raaj Kumar, in fact, showed SubhashGhai his medical report which revealed that he was now all right after his treatment. But what perhaps mattered most to both Dilip Kumar and Raaj Kumar is the fact that in Hindi movies, ageing stars do not get offered leading roles every day.

DIILP KUMAR’S SUITE, MANALI—NIGHT

Dilip Kumar is regaling us with his stories, many of them from his Mughal-E-Azam days. Subhash and I are in splits. Dilip Kumar mimics K Asif, WazahatMirza and Kamal Amrohi to such perfection that the scene deserves to be ranked among his best comedy scenes ever. Suddenly, almost on cue, Raaj Kumar enters.

Dilip Kumar changes his persona in an instant. He gets up and embraces Raaj Kumar. Both backslap each other between shouts of ‘Laales’ and ‘Shehzaades’ as if two long lost buddies are meeting. But then 28 years is a long time.

MY HOTEL ROOM, MANALI—DAY

MY HOTEL ROOM, MANALI—LATE AFTERNOON

Dilip Kumar is telling me the story of Saudagar. I am taping it for posterity. Not for “Saudagar according to Dilip Kumar”, but for the sheer magic of his voice, the pitch, the timbre, the inflections, the resonances, the subtle twists and turns of his rhythm rising and falling like the river flowing outside the hotel room. I am reminded of Richard Burton’s voice in the recording of Under Milkwood and how the words of poet Dylan Thomas dipped in Burton’s wine-warmed voice can give you a hangover. I am in a place where all gifted actors like Dilip Kumar choose to take us. Paul Muni, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Bogart, Olivier, Brando, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and of course, Amitabh Bachchan when he recites Madhushala.

The last golden light on the Himalayan peaks is fading away. The blue shadows loom large across the hills. Suddenly, he decides to call it a day and warns me that he might call me in the middle of the night and wake me and Subhash up to discuss his ideas for the scene.

DILIP KUMAR’S SUITE, MANALI—MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT

Dilip Kumar lives up to his warning. We discuss his interpretation of the scene and promise to keep it in mind.

RIVER BANK, MANALI—DAY

The entire unit is waiting for Dilip Kumar to turn up. It is a crucial scene where a drunk Dilip Kumar challenges Raaj Kumar who is watching him from his balcony high up in the hills.

Dilip Kumar has reservations about this scene. From Daag to Devdas and Sagina, he has perfected the drunk in Hindi cinema. He feels he’s done it often enough. It would be just one more drunken scene, he feels. We assure him that the scene will get the loudest applause in the theatre. He is still sceptical. He doesn’t refuse point blank, but he doesn’t turn up for the shot either for one reason or another.

Subhash explains. Drunkenness needs just the right degree of exaggeration to make it work. Too much and it will be overacting. Too little and it won’t be enjoyable. At 65, his control over his body language may not be as complete as at 32. Craft does not age, bodies do.

I am sent to his room to reassure him that if the scene does not work, we will cut it out.

DILIP SAAB’S SUITE, MANALI—DAY

I enter and offer to take a bet for Rs 100 if the scene doesn’t get the loudest applause in the theatre. He smiles. He is not unused to applause. I remind myself that I am sitting in front of an actor who had mastered the craft of working the audience when I was in the 7th Grade.

We go over the scene, line-by-line. He rehearses it a couple of times and asks me to signal him from behind the camera if he is getting too loud or not loud enough.I am flattered once again. We leave.

RIVER BANK—AFTERNOON

Dilip Kumar is performing the drunken scene. He gives so many variations, one better than the other, I wonder how Subhash is going to choose the best take. Subhash tells me he would know. That’s what qualifies him to be a director. I realise I will never be a director, not if I have to work with actors like Dilip Kumar.

METRO CINEMA—DAY

The first show of Saudagar. The drunken scene by Dilip Kumar gets the loudest applause in the film.

MY HOME—NIGHT

I call Dilip Saab and tell him he has lost the bet. He still owes me Rs 100.