The early hours of Wednesday, July 7 marked the mortal end of the legend of actor Mohammed Yusuf Khan, aka Dilip Kumar, at the age of 98. He will forever be remembered for bringing a distinct form of method acting to Indian cinema.

The industry veteran is survived by wife Saira Banu, with whom his marriage lasted 54 years, setting an enduring example of off-screen romance.

 

The couple have often been regarded as an inspiration for the younger generations, having stood the test of more than just time. They survived the scrutiny to their 22-year age gap, high-profile extramarital affairs and pregnancy complications, to rewrite the rules of ‘happily ever after.’

Here’s a recollection of their romance – a tale for both the storytellers and their audiences.

Professional rejection

Saira Banu first met Dilip Kumar as a 12-year-old fan. She was studying in England, and her mother Naseem Banu (an actress herself) had brought Saira to India for vacations. “It was a party by Mehboob Khan (director of Mother India) and I met him. I fell in love with him almost instantly; I was just 12 then. Even if he was leaning on a chair or standing against a wall, you could easily make out that this is a man of different fibre and of superior material,” she had said in an interview.

 

The years rolled by, and Banu became an instant hit with the audiences, after her debut in Junglee. But it seemed like she had failed to earn professional respect in Dilip Kumar’s eyes. “My name popped up when the casting of Dilip saab starrers Ram Aur Shyam and Sangharsh was being done; they came to my house to offer the film. But it met with Dilip saab’s disapproval,” she had said.

Overcoming initial hurdles

Priya Rajvansh was chosen in her stead as the lead actress for the 1964 movie Leader. Banu became ‘terribly cross’ with him thereafter. On the other hand, Dilip Kumar was also making headlines with off-screen affairs with co-star Vyjayanthimala at the beginning of that decade, after previous failed relationships with Kamini Kaushal and Madhubala.

 

In 1966, Saira Banu’s family had bought a new house in Pali Hill, Mumbai – close to where Dilip Kumar used to reside. They had hosted a housewarming party on Banu’s birthday that year. “Apparently, my mother invited him and he said he would try to come. And guess what! As I came down the stairs, I got to see Dilip saab getting out from a beautiful car wearing a fantastic suit with a tie. He walked in and shook hands with me. The next thing I heard was, “You have grown up to be a beautiful girl”.

The next morning he telephoned.

‘Saira bol rahi hain?’

Aap mujhe kyun yaad kar rahe hain? Aapaji (he used to call my mom, Aapaji) ko phone doon?’

Nahin, nahin. Mujhe aapka shukriya karna tha, it was a beautiful party and you were looking very beautiful’.

And then the phone conversations began.

Old-school romance

Kumar was shooting in Madras (now Chennai) at this point. But given the budding romance, he started flying to Mumbai every evening, after pack-up. This continued for a week. After consultation with Banu, he took permission from both her mother and grandmother to take her on a drive to Cuffe Parade.

They got off the car and he popped the question:

“Saira, you are not the kind of girl I want to drive around with, or be seen around with… I would like to marry you… Will you be my wife?”

“How many girls have you said this to?”

“I understand. I haven’t worked with you and you are angry with me . Main kya karoon, mujhe hamesha lagta tha that you are too young.”

Eventually, she said yes. Saira’s family was duly informed and soon, the wedding bells chimed.

Failed pregnancy & controversy

The couple never had children. In his autobiographyDilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow, the actor revealed that Banu had conceived in 1972, but developed complications in the pregnancy, leading to the child’s death.

Following this, they did not try to have children again, believing it to be ‘God’s will.’

Kumar, in the book, also went on to discuss his ill-fated marriage to Asma Rehman in 1982, 16-years after he tied the knot with Saira, calling it the only regret in his life.

“Well, the one episode in my life that I would like to forget and which we, Saira, and I, have pushed into eternal oblivion is a grave mistake I made under pressure of getting involved with a lady named Asma Rehman whom I had met at a cricket match in Hyderabad,” he recalls.

 

The thespian said Asma initially looked like umpteen other women admirers, who were introduced to him by his sisters.

“In this case, however, I was completely unaware of a connivance that was being mischievously perpetuated and a situation being cleverly created by vested interests to draw a commitment from me… I can never forget or forgive myself for the hurt I caused to Saira and the shattering of the unshakable faith she had in me.”

A love like no other

Despite the betrayal of trust through the second marriage, Saira Banu continued to love Dilip Kumar like no other. She had gotten used to the antics from the day of their engagement when a woman – not from the industry, who was supposedly his ex-girlfriend overdosed on sleeping pills. He had go pacify her before attending the rest of the ceremony. “I got sort of used to such things. There were girls who would stand in front of his car and wish that the car runs over them,” she had said.

“My marriage was a dream come true for me. I had pasted his pictures in my room even before we got married. The only other person who made it to those walls was Rock Hudson,” she had candidly confessed in a past interview.

 

She also continues to pray ‘every day for Madhubala’s soul to rest in peace.’ Banu also played peacemaker between her husband and ex Vyjayanthimala. The women later went on to become ‘close like sisters’ and Banu calls her senior ‘Akka.’

“It is out of love and not duress that I look after Dilip saab. I am not looking for praises to be called a devoted wife. Just to touch him and cuddle him is the world’s best thing that’s happening to me. I adore him and he is my breath itself,” she had summed up their dream-like relationship.

Images: Twitter/TheDilipKumar