Brief encounters with people sometimes find a special place in our memory. Ones so special, that we store them away, nicely locked up, only to pull them out occasionally and marvel at the treasure. A treasure fine enough to make us realize that experiences are what make us truly rich.
One such occasion for me was in 2004. A meeting with one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, tragedy King – Dilip Kumar and his actor-wife, Saira Banu.
I had grown up among elders - grandparents, parents and their cousins – virtually a whole generation that was in awe of actor Dilip Kumar. My sisters, who had once taken a fancy to Mughal-e-Azam would often practice its dialogues, leaving me most amused. So when in 2004, as a young reporter I was asked to go an interview him and Saira Banu, I was most thrilled and naturally nervous.
Veteran actor and comedian, Mehmood had passed away that day. Saira Banu in particular had shared the silver screen with Mehmood in some hit films like Padosan. Dilip Kumar hadn’t worked alongside Mehmood but of course knew him as an industry colleague and so my organization wanted me to record their memories of him.
As I reached the hotel and took the lift up to their suite I realized there was a queue of very senior reporters to interview them. I waited my turn patiently and it took quite a while. Finally, it was time for us to shoot. The two were exhausted and requested us to give them a break.
When we started rolling, Saira Banu could most vividly remember moments of her film career with Mehmood. Dilip sahib spoke softly and slowly, sometimes struggling to recall some of his own encounters and Saira Banu prompted and helped him. He would’ve been around 81 years old by then and so obviously not all memories seemed readily available for narration.
After I recorded short chunks with them, my office called to communicate that they wanted me to record longer segments as it’s not every day that one gets to speak to Dilip Kumar. I sheepishly went back to them and made a request. It wasn’t turned down. But we took a break.
It was during this break that Dilip sahib looked at me as if trying to recall something. He turned around and look at Saira Banu and then said something which I’ll cherish forever. He said in that in the moment as I stood there, I looked like Saira Banu, just the way she looked the first time ever he saw her. He then looked at his wife, they smiled and then Saira Banu laughed and warned me that I run the risk of putting on as much weight as her after marriage.
At that time I was too overwhelmed with the compliment. I don’t clearly remember what I said. Perhaps I just smiled as I usually do when I am at a loss for words. I knew the observation, which of course I took as a compliment, was genuine since the words were interspersed with expressions of thought.
Through the subsequent shoot, the couple was most accommodating to our needs, mostly Saira Banu who made adjustments in seating positions and helping us record what we wanted. The shoot went well, we said our byes and left but just as I reached the lobby of the hotel, the office made another demand. They wanted Dilip sahib live on the prime time band in the evening.
I checked the live cable and it was virtually impossible to take it all the way up to their suite, which meant I would have to request the octogenarian to come down to a portion on the ground floor. I was most certain the request would be turned down. But it wasn’t. He agreed to come down after a few hours for the evening show.
The office was intent on making the most of the popular star, a thespian and a national icon. The anchor on the other side held on to him for a good 20 minutes. He spoke on varied subjects – from Mehmood to cinema and the changes over the years. Finally, it was time to call it a day.
I profusely thanked him for being so kind and giving us so much of his time. He then told me, that if I really do think he did a good job, he should have his remuneration. And even before I could react he said he wanted a plate of cutlets.
Just as I was about to order it for him, I saw Saira Banu walking down. It seemed much like telepathy, when she told me to not order anything deep fried for him if he asked for it. He wasn’t allowed to have it. I looked at Dilip sahab and chuckled and shrugged my shoulders. He smiled naughtily and said he needs to obey orders.
Before leaving he added, “Itna kaam karti ho, subah se sham idhar udhar bhagti rahti ho, khana bhi khati ho? Apna khayal rakhna chahiye.” (You work so hard, you have been running around all day. Do you even get time to eat? You must take care of yourself). Saira Banu smiled in agreement. After our final goodbyes the couple walked slowly towards the lift and went back upstairs.
They disappeared from my vision leaving behind beautiful memories, a most cherished compliment and a very important lesson of what a true star is made of - not fame and riches but grace and humility.