His overarching presence in Indian cinema spanned more than half a century. While most actors and artists fade away after retiring from the profession, Dilip Kumar remained a praiseworthy presence in the hearts of billions of his fans in India, Pakistan and in the desi diaspora.
I grew up in Peshawar hearing the stories of Dilip Kumar and seeing his movies. Each of his movies resonated with people across India and Pakistan, but even more so in Peshawar. His on-screen demeanor, his inflections and his dress and hairstyle became a trend for millions of his fans. We, in Peshawar, felt a special kinship with him.
He was born in 1922 within the walled city of Peshawar into a large family of 12 brothers and sisters. His father Ghulam Sarwar Khan supplied seasonal fruit from Peshawar to the British Indian Army as far away as Calcutta. In 1928, his father went to Mumbai to expand his business. Train loads of semi-ripened Peshawari fruits would travel by train across India to the British garrisons. However, it all came to a stop when British India joined the war effort during WWII. The family fell on hard times, forcing young Yousaf Khan to seek work to help support the large family.
At age 18, he left home for Poona (now Pune) and worked in the British Club where he sold sandwiches and fruit to the English Sahibs and their wives. He made good money and returned home with savings of some ten thousand rupees. His mother was curious about the large sum, but the son assured her that he had earned the money working very hard as an independent contractor at the British Club.
The trajectory of his life after his first movie Jawar Bhata in 1944 is well-documented. He acted in over 70 movies that garnered him seven Filmfare Awards (the Indian version of American Oscars) and numerous other awards.
An unexpected invitation
My wish to meet Yousaf Khan came true in June 1993 (and again in 1995) when Dr. Abida Usman, his grandniece, called to ask if I would have time to come to Toronto to meet him. Yousaf Khan had come to Canada to raise funds for Bosnian Muslims.
Upon my arrival, the hosts Abida and Khalid Usman made the introduction. It seems that the hosts had already introduced me to him – and he showed a genuine pleasure in meeting a fellow Peshawari.
I gave him a hand-drawn map of the old walled city of Peshawar and a monograph on the history of the city. On seeing the map, he got excited and took time to trace his finger across various neighbourhoods, and finally, the location of his ancestral home. He wanted to know the location of three cinemas on the map. He was surprised that I had labeled them not by their original names of Tasveer Mahal, Picture House and Novelties Talkies but as Urli, Wichkarli and Perli. I reminded him, to his great amusement, that Peshawaris had always referred to the three cinemas as the near one (to the city), the middle one and the farther one.
After the pleasantries, I asked him what he remembered about his youth in Peshawar. He said that perhaps the only significant part of his life is his childhood. I noticed that he brushed off his myriad accomplishments as an actor, philanthropist and community leader as if they were not that important. Following are some of the incidents he shared with me.
When bullets started flying, Yousaf ducked under a storefront with “my one foot in the gutter and the other foot on the pavement”. A native policeman pulled him out from under the storefront, gave him a not-too-gentle slap to his neck and asked him to ‘get lost’
Qissa Khani Massacre
On April 23, 1930, there was a huge demonstration against the British rule. Tens of thousands of people had gathered in the bazaar. Among them was 8-year-old Yousaf, who out of curiosity, had walked from his home in a nearby alley to witness the commotion. Soon the situation deteriorated and the police opened fire on the crowd. When bullets started flying, Yousaf ducked under a storefront with “my one foot in the gutter and the other foot on the pavement”. A native policeman pulled him out from under the storefront, gave him a not-too-gentle slap to his neck and asked him to ‘get lost.’ Yousaf ran for his life, taking the back alley along the main sewer (shahi katha) to reach home, only to be scolded by his father. That day hundreds of people lay dead in the bazaar. Just imagine if a stray bullet would have found its way to the boy!
Conflict with Father
Ghulam Sarwar Khan Was a man deeply steeped in Peshawari culture and he had a strong sense of right and wrong. When Prithivi Raj, the son of his good friend from Peshawar Diwan Basherer Nath, started working in the movies, Sarwar Khan warned his friend that he should not allow his son to work as an actor. According to Dilip Kumar he told Basherer Nath that “we are from Peshawar and acting is a profession for the low-class people.” Yet, continued Dilip Kumar, “Little did he know that his own son had also become an actor!” To the question as to whether his father eventually accepted him as an actor, he said “No, he did not.” While he was relating this half a century later, I could see the pain on his face and the moisture in his eyes.
Naushad Ali comes calling
He also related a story when Naushad Ali, already a famous composer, came to visit Yousaf’s family. During the visit, Naushad expressed his desire to offer his afternoon prayers. Sarwar Khan, visibly pleased and impressed, asked Yousaf to bring him a prayer mat and water pitcher for ablution. After Naushad left, Sarwar Khan told his wife that Naushad had a beautiful face that was splashed in spiritual light. Then he pointed towards his son and said “Look at his face. It always looks dark and ugly.”
“If truth be known”, Yousaf Khan said, “Naushad Sahib was of dark complexion and had a pox-marked face. And furthermore, he was not a regular Namazi. He just wanted to impress my father at my expense.”
Allergic rash misdiagnosed as venereal disease
Once while away from Mumbai, he returned home with a body rash. The father had a native doctor or hakim examine him. The hakim prescribed some medicines but told Yousaf’s father that the rash was most likely due to some venereal disease. The father got very upset and ordered the son’s bed to be removed to the courtyard. As it turned out, the rash was due to some allergic reaction and not due to venereal disease. The son felt humiliated.
Annual visits to Peshawar
The family returned to Peshawar every summer to keep in touch with the extended family. These visits reinforced Yousaf’s love for the city – and he recalls being caught in the melee during police firing was during one of those visits. The family continued to visit Peshawar annually until the Partition and independence of India. When Yousaf’s grandfather (Baa-Ji) died in Peshawar, the family made an emergency 3-day rail journey on the Frontier Mail from Bombay to Peshawar. While the family was on its way, the body of the patriarch was placed in the grave as ‘amanat,’ and after Ghulam Sarwar and his family reached Peshawar and had said final goodbyes, the grave was closed. This incident left a deep impression on him.
Was Yousaf Khan a Pashtun?
Yousaf Khan was not ethnic Pashtun but Hindko-speaking or Hindkowan. Most people across India and even in Pakistan think that everyone living in the northwestern Pakistani province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is a Pashtun. After Pashto, Hindko is the second dominant language in the province, followed by a number of small languages spoken in the northern mountain areas. During my meeting with him in 1993 and then in 1995, we discussed ways to promote the Hindko language. He gave me a letter of endorsement for the establishment of a Hindko Academy in Peshawar. While we were discussing the subject, he emphasized that we should not do anything that would upset “our Pashtun brothers.” Historically there was a deep dislike of Hindko language among some nationalist Pashtuns and Yousaf Khan was reminding me of the mindset that has always looked down upon Hindkowans.
“Childhood memories are the most important part of my life”
Henry Troyat, the Russian-French writer, said that (in our lives) childhood experiences are always the most important. Those memories are the building blocks of our personalities. Looking at the fascinating life of Yousaf Khan, it is apparent that he kept those memories and Peshawari traits close to his heart.
One of those traits was hospitality. There were stories about Peshawaris showing up at his door on Pali Hill in Bombay and he would welcome them and entertain them.
However most of his biographers have concentrated on his cinematic accomplishments and have skipped over his childhood.
I asked him if he had considered having an account of his childhood written for publication. In fact, I offered to go to Mumbai and do the job. He said a girl had come to see him and she was going to do it, but she had not done anything. He agreed with the necessity of documenting his upbringing but said that of late he had been under tremendous pressure. Two of his movies were held up by the censor Board of India for the flimsiest of reasons. The Hindu fundamentalists had accused him of being a Pakistani spy and had discredited him as an Indian.
Begaani Shadi mein Abdullah diwana
When I asked for permission to leave, he invited me to accompany them to a wedding anniversary that they were going to attend that evening. I told him that I would have if my name were Abdullah – a reference to a funny song in the movie Jis Des Mein Ganga Behti Hai. That elicited a hearty laugh from him.
He asked me to pray for his health so he could do the things that he wanted to accomplish. He gave me an affectionate hug and wished me well in my travels.
Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and an emeritus professor of humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. His is also an op-ed columnist for the daily Toledo Blade and daily Aaj of Peshawar. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org