No book on Hindi cinema has ever been as keenly anticipated as this one. That is understandable. The Substance and the Shadow is after all the autobiography of the one and only Dilip Kumar.
A thinking actor with mass appeal, a rare breed in this celebrity-obsessed country, the iconic star had hitherto kept his personal life under wraps.
That life has been anything but ordinary. The night Yousuf Khan, the Pathan boy who would be India’s Tragedy King, was born in Kissa Khwani Bazaar, Peshawar, in 1922, a major fire broke out in the locality even as a severe blizzard raged.
Dilip Kumar and drama have gone hand in hand ever since, and this book captures most of it in his own words. The narrative is supplemented with a segment devoted to the impressions of his family and friends.
The Substance and the Shadow germinated in 2004, a year that saw a rash of books on the actor, including a ‘definitive biography’ by Bunny Reuben. Dilip Kumar was appalled at the “distortions and misinformation” that the account contained. This is an attempt at setting the record straight.
Has the wait been worth it? Given the depth of his experiences, one could be forgiven for wondering: shouldn’t Dilip Kumar’s autobiography have been livelier and more scintillating?
Few actors in India, indeed anywhere in the world, have lent the profession the amount of prestige and lustre that Dilip Kumar has. The gravitas in his autobiography is but natural. It simply wouldn’t be a Dilip Kumar book if it were a tell-all, bare-all confessional masquerading as a memoir.
Like the man himself, The Substance and the Shadow is sharp and stylish yet subdued.
The book might feel a touch circumspect at times, but is none the worse for it. Dilip Kumar’s reminiscences, as narrated to veteran journalist Udayatara Nayar, are low-key, matter-of-fact and measured.
The actor writes: “…as Yousuf Khan, I am entitled to my privacy and the right to keep certain events in my life away from prying intruders… I do not revel in talking about my private life.”
Considering that his natural impulse is to hold himself back a little, this autobiography yields much more than his fans would have bargained for. With many a delightful nugget, no matter what a reader is seeking, it presents a wide-ranging narrative that covers plenty of ground.
Yousuf Khan’s formative years in Peshawar, his relationship with his family, his passion for football and other sports, his first job in a British Army canteen in Pune, his transformation into Dilip Kumar, his initial breakthroughs under the eyes of Devika Rani, Shashadhar Mukherjee and Ashok Kumar at Bombay Talkies, and his emergence as a path-breaking actor — the book devotes ample space to all this and more.
His many lifelong friendships (with Raj Kapoor, Pran, Naushad), his equations with his frequent co-stars (Nargis, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Vyjayanthimala) and his occasional brushes with people who let him down also find mention here. One thing that this book eschews is rancour and pettiness — again, a reflection of the man.
He spells out why he did not marry the “sprightly and vivacious” Madhubala despite being “attracted to her both as a fine co-star and as a person who had some of the attributes I hoped to find in a woman at that age and time”.
He reveals that “matters began to sour between us, thanks to her father’s attempt to make the proposed marriage a business venture” and then devotes a full, if brief, chapter to the details of that development.
The Dilip Kumar-Saira Banu love story, which culminated in marriage in 1966 and is now poised on the cusp of a glorious golden jubilee, understandably receives detailed play in the book.
Saira was 22, exactly half his age, when Dilip Kumar, India’s most eligible bachelor, decided to marry her despite having, until that juncture, resisted sharing screen space with her on the grounds that she was too young to be cast opposite him.
These chapters dealing with “the woman in my life” provide the clearest peeks into Dilip Kumar’s mind. They also help readers understand Saira’s enduring, unshakeable attachment to the “simple, child-like, trusting and genial man called Yousuf Khan”.
The marriage not only survived but also grew stronger after a development that Dilip Kumar describes as “the one episode in my life that I would like to forget”. It involved a lady named Asma Rehman.
Dilip Kumar confesses that when, in 1982, the news of his marriage with Asma spread, “it was very painful for me to console her (Saira) as she trusted me and loved me unconditionally”.
He writes: “I can never forgive myself for the hurt I caused to Saira… even in that situation when a self-respecting woman cannot but hate the man who has humiliated her, my wife Saira stood by me when I admitted the grave mistake and asked her to give me some time to undo the wrong through proper legal processes.”
Illuminating as these passages are, Dilip Kumar is at his best when he discusses the craft of acting and how he devised his own signature approach to it and sorting out “the duality between the real and the unreal”. He acknowledges a debt to Ashok Kumar. “Ashok Bhaiyya had hit upon the secret of ‘non-acting’ but he had a definite calculation in his mind when he performed and the arithmetic of that calculation was entirely his. I began to understand I would have to arrive at my own approach.”
It was fortuitous that Dilip Kumar began early. He was only 22 when Devika Rani cast him in Jwar Bhata (1944).
But while he matured quickly, it also led to an unforeseen problem. Too many tragic screen roles early in his career took a toll on him. “I had been playing characters who were ill-fated and a morbid outlook had seized me as a result of my extreme involvement…,” he recalls.
He had to seek psychiatric help to tide over the condition and one eminent practitioner “suggested a quick change of the genre of films I was doing”. The result was 1955’s Azaad, which, in Dilip Kumar’s words, “was the first film that gave me the much–needed confidence to forge ahead with a feeling of emancipation”.
Dilip Kumar delivered his first certified hit, Jugnu, in 1947. Having grown up on a steady diet of Urdu and Persian poetry, world literature and education and culture, he was a quick learner. By the time the decade ended, he had become a household name, having delivered hit after hit.
Although he has acted in less than 60 features — he never compromised with a self-enforced one-film-at-a-time norm — he has observed and understood the ways of the Mumbai movie industry with a level of acuity rare among showbiz personalities. So, every thought that he articulates, every piece of information that he shares and every anecdote that he narrates is worth hanging on to and mulling over, whether one is an aspiring actor or simply a lay moviegoer.
The Substance and the Shadow is a goldmine of information and insight on a luminous career that, more than two decades after it wound up, remains the benchmark for all serious actors seeking to bring characters alive on the big screen.