Despite his known leanings towards the Congress, Dilip Kumar also shared a good rapport with Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. Their friendship remained steadfast throughout, except between 1998 and 1999, when there was a souring of relations. At the time, the Government of Pakistan had announced its intention of conferring the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, the country’s highest civilian award, on Dilip Kumar.
Known for his strong anti-Pakistan stand, Thackeray objected to the actor’s planned visit to Pakistan to receive the award. His opposition kicked off a massive political row. What seems to have upset Dilip Kumar deeply was the fact that his cartoonist-turned-politician friend of three decades had ‘cast aspersions on my integrity and patriotism’, a fact he mentions in his autobiography.
The then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose advice he would seek, ‘categorically declared that I should receive the award. As he eloquently put it, “You are an artist and as such you are not restrained by political or geographical barriers. You have been chosen for the humanitarian work you have done and your efforts to improve the relations between the two nations is well known.”’ The row over Nishan-e-Imtiaz also prompted a section of the media to target Dilip Kumar. Mohan Deep (a film journalist and a Feng Shui master, now dead) wrote in the Daily, ‘Well, I can’t understand why Dilip Kumar is being given the Nishan-e-Imtiaz… I’ll never understand… unless it is for services rendered to the state of Pakistan that we know nothing about. Only Dilip Kumar can enlighten us on the same.’
It was not as if the actor had not been targeted earlier for his religious affiliation. Way back in the early 1960s, soon after Ganga Jumna was cleared by the censors, a police team from Calcutta (now Kolkata) conducted a surprise raid on Dilip Kumar’s home in Bombay. The actor was accused of being a Pakistani spy and threatened with arrest.
Eventually, it came to light that the Calcutta Police had arrested a suspected Pakistani spy and found the names of several celebrities in his diary. Proving this case to be one of the shoddiest examples of police investigation, they concluded that the Hindus mentioned in the list were contacts, while the Muslims must be enemy agents.
While the entire reasoning and argument behind the case was on a precarious footing, they did cause a huge storm to erupt in the actor’s life. Expressing his disgust over this incident, Vir Sanghvi lamented in his article, ‘It is a measure of how deep prejudice runs in our society that India’s top star – a friend of Nehru who was then still prime minister – was accused of espionage on the basis of such flimsy evidence only because he was a Muslim. If Dev Anand’s name had been in the diary, it is extremely unlikely that anyone would have bothered to raid him. ‘After several traumatic months, the police gave up for lack of evidence. But rumours swept the tinsel city. Dilip Kumar had confessed. That the police had recovered a radio transmitter under his floorboards. That he was a leader of a gang of Muslim spies within the film industry.
‘Dilip Kumar a spy? How could that make sense? And, anyway, what secret information was he in a position to communicate to the Pakistanis? The vital statistics of Vyjayanthimala?’ Sanghvi added in his Rediff article that it was to the actor’s credit that he neither harboured bitterness nor bore any ill will towards anyone, despite such appalling mistreatment. ‘Instead he was there, as always, ready to support our troops in the war against Pakistan in 1965.
‘I mention all this lest you think – as many people with short memories or of a certain age do – that Dilip Kumar is being absurdly sensitive about Bal Thackeray’s campaign against him,’ the journalist continues. ‘To understand why Dilip Kumar has reacted with such passion and force, you need to understand that he feels that no matter what he does to prove his patriotism, there will always be those who believe that it is not enough.’
No wonder the actor felt deeply hurt and offended that people, especially those he had regarded as friends, would question his patriotism. Throughout his career, the adulation of the masses he was accustomed to enjoying had been peppered with unpalatable situations that he might not have faced at all but for the fact that he practiced a certain religion. Perhaps, it was because of the painful memories from these past experiences that the furor over being awarded the Nishan-e-Imtiaz hit him so badly.
But support came from unexpected quarters. The then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee suggested that he ignore Thackeray and follow his own conscience. The actor went ahead with his plan to receive the award in 1998 and took Sunil Dutt along with him. Thackeray’s anger remained unappeased and, at the time of the Kargil War, he demanded that Dilip Kumar return his Nishan-e-Imtiaz.
But the actor refused. ‘This award was given to me for the humane activities to which I have dedicated myself,’ he stated. ‘I have worked for the poor, I have worked for many years to bridge the cultural and communal gaps between India and Pakistan. Politics and religion have created these boundaries. I have striven to bring the two people together in whatever way I could. Tell me, what does any of this have to do with the Kargil conflict?’
Despite the ongoing friction, the bitterness between the two men did not last long. Common friends intervened to bring about a reconciliation between the actor and the political leader. ‘We forgot our differences and re-established our relations without much ado, since neither he nor I believed in making ourselves and others around us miserable,’ the actor would say in retrospect. ‘When we met at his home in Bombay to iron out the differences that arose between us, it did not take more than a second for us to overcome past differences and to put aside everything to renew our respect and affection for each other.’
Dilip Kumar had met Balasaheb Thackeray long before the latter founded the Shiv Sena in June 1966. They respected and liked each other’s work. ‘He liked my output as an actor and I admired his sharp incisive cartoons,’ Dilip Kumar recalls in his autobiography. ‘He was witty and entertaining when he was in his element.’ What helped them to resume their friendship again was the warmth and hospitality of the Shiv Sena chief’s wife Meena Tai. Dilip Kumar, who would savour many a simple meal at Matoshree, the Thackeray residence, reminisced that it was Meena Tai who had kept her husband grounded. And on the demise of the supremo in 2012, the actor paid him a glowing tribute. ‘To his followers and the political world he dominated, he was known as the tiger,’ he said. ‘But I always felt that he had led life more like a lion – inspiring trust, loyalty and admiration.’