Dilip Kumar wanted to quit acting soon after completing Ram aur Shyam (1967)
“He felt he had done tragedies, comedies, costume dramas, the works, there was no terrain left for him to explore. Our marriage was barely a year old. I begged him not to quit. I would have been blamed. I persuaded him to banish the thought.”
Rocky phase in marriage, the Asma Rehmani episode, circa 1981
For the first time, Saira Banu straightens out the record: “If Sahib erred, it was at the instigation of vested interests who had planned to hurt me. Men are polygamous by nature, but I had to take a strong stand that I would never tolerate this. He took me aside and admitted he had made a mistake. He asked me to stay by his side, and I did.”
The Hidden Scripts:
Over the decades, the supremo actor has written three scripts personally -- titled Kari-Begaar located in Kashmir, Babajaan about a bank employee with a split personality and Kaali Sarson about skin colour prejudice. In addition, there’s a draft for a biopic on the revered Urdu poet Mir Taqi Mir. “These were long-nutured subjects, which could still fructify if the right director and actors could be found for the projects.”
Those quotes have been derived in the course of a conversation with Saira Banu on the legendary Dilip Kumar’s 97th birthday. Elegantly dressed as always, head-covered, she has been right by the bedside of the ailing Muhammad Yusuf Khan for over a decade now, snatching scant hours of sleep and hurried meals.
Describing herself self-effacingly as ‘the chief nurse’, yesteryear’s beauty queen says that the birthday will be celebrated on a quiet note with friends and family.
Doctors have advised that guests should not be allowed to step into his room since Dilip Kumar is vulnerable to infections.
The garden of the 34-B bungalow on Pali Hill will be bedecked with lights and prayers will be offered for his well-being . There will be cake, dinner and music too. Among her closest friends, she names Farida Jalal, Farida Dadi, Roshan Kumari, Mani Talati and Asha Parekh, besides pointing out that her husband’s two brothers Aslam and Ahsan Khan and sisters Farida and Saeeda Khan are very dear to her.
Smiling stoically, Saira aapa as I call her, reminisces, “The last time we celebrated sahib’s birthday on a grand scale was when he turned 89. Virtually the entire film industry came under one roof. Around then, there were some hostile vibes between the three Khans but they were all there. Shah Rukh Khan danced away the whole night. Salman was very caring, and of course Aamir has always been like family. Even Rajesh Khanna and Dimple Kapadia had shown up together. We also had a lovely get-together in the garden on his 90th birthday.”
What’s the status of Dilip Kumar’s medical condition now? “It’s been a harrowing time for us, especially since the last five years, going in and out of hospital,” she narrates, adding, “About 12 years ago, he had complained of being uneasy. The physicians had hinted towards cortical degeneration Since then there have been a variety of complications. A wonderful team of specialists, physicians and nursing staff have been attending to him round the clock. We’re also trying out alternative homeopathy treatment.”
Although unwell Dilip Kumar’s spirits are up. He communicates with smiles and at times, cricket, football and tennis matches are watched on TV. Classical music by Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan as well as the ghazals of Mehdi Hassan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan are played at low volume in his room.
For healing therapy he listens to recitations of the Surah Ar-Rehman, the 55th chapter of the Quran.
On Saira Banu’s 74th birthday on August 23, he had remembered to send her a huge bouquet of pink lilies. “But you know what?” the doting wife remarks, “It’s always been useless to give him birthday presents, whether it’s a Mont Blanc pen, a Cashmere cardigan or bespoke shirts from Gabbana’s. A couple of hours later, I’d find his secretary using the pen, the cook wearing the cardigan and the chowkidar in one of the shirts! He’s never been materialistic at all. For him a kind word or gesture are way more valuable.”
In a convivial mode, she elaborates, “Throughout his life sahib has been fond of travelling, never staying in one place for too long though. He has never held malice against anyone. In fact, he has been too good to be true. From him I’ve learnt never to talk ill of anyone. Unlike him though I tend to be lazy and at points, do suffer from spells of depression. The solution is to keep busy.”
Plans are afoot to set up a Film Museum dedicated to the thespian’s artistry. Also the essays, poems, limericks and musings Dilip Kumar would write over the decades into the early hours of the morning are being compiled for publication.
“The exchange of love notes between saab and me are so witty,” she laughs. “Like once he was chatting with JRD Tata on an airflight, and I kept sending him notes that he was ignoring me…and he would keep sending me sweet, humorous notes right back.”
Plus Dilip Kumar’s vast collection of Urdu, Hindi and English books are being catalogued. Among them are works by Eugene O’Neill, Emily Bronte, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Iqbal, Mirza Ghalib, Rabindranath Tagore, Premchand and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay “He has been an avid reader of religious texts,” she notes, “and has full knowledge of the Quran, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita and the Guru Granth Sahib.”
Quiz her about the public campaign calling for a Bharat Ratna Award for Dilip Kumar and the spontaneous response is,
"“There’s no question about the fact that he deserved one but sahib has never yearned for awards at all. He did get many trophies, honours and recognitions topped by the Padma Vibhushan from the government.”" - Saira Banu
The glass-framed honour is displayed prominently in the drawing room.
Saira aapa requests if my questions could stop. On her own volition, she states, “I have deeply venerated my ammi (Naseem Banu) and Yusuf sahib. My love for sahib can never be measured in words. I was so much in love with him from the very start, at first sight. I have been a classic case of a woman madly in love. Our love’s forever.”
Rewinds she, “Around 1970, I had a near-fatal attack of food poisoning. I was flown to the famous London Clinic, where he held on to my hands night and day. He nursed me with devotion. I have learnt caretaking from him and my ammi. Richard Burton was in the adjoining room. My favourite actress Elizabeth Taylor would visit Burton off and on. And saab actually got her to visit me in my room, and say hello. That’s just one of the wow moments in my life, thanks to him.”
Next, she asserts voluntarily, “ You may have been surprised when I told you that men are strongly polygamous. I’ll substantiate this. I must have been 11 or 12 when I was travelling in a train with my father in London. He kept staring at a young woman seated across us. I said, ‘Dad, stop ogling, this is so embarrassing’ and he replied, ‘Can’t help it, she’s so gorgeous, we are made this way.’ Imagine, this coming from my dad who was married to Pari Chehra (Angel Face) Naseem Banu. I guess it’s an animal instinct for men to be this way.”
I interrupt. Does’t this amount to condoning chauvinism? “Oh ho,” she shrugs. “I couldn’t help blaming circumstances for the unbelievably similar situation in my life. Still, the very notion of ‘sharing’ my husband with another woman was repugnant. Unacceptable! I was tough, it was either her or me. He gave it to me in writing that he would no longer have anything to do with her. After that ultimatum, it has been perfect…”
Before completing the sentence, she laughs, “If he ever went astray after that, it was never brought to my notice. As they say, the wife is the last one to know.”
Despite her smiles and laughter, I can detect her eyes moistening. As I leave the famed 34-B Pali Hill address, the lights are on in the special-care room of the bungalow’s third storey. The king of kings resides there, perhaps oblivious of the love which will pour in on his 97th birthday from his devoted fans from all over the world.
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