The year was 1960 and a 16-year-old girl, in love with the man who played Salim in Mughal-e-Azam, went for the premiere in the hope of catching a glimpse of the man she had begun dreaming of as her prince in real life. The man didn’t turn up but the girl refused to give up because she believed in fairy tale romances and perfect endings.
Six years later, the girl married the man and despite the huge age gap of 22 years between the two. It was a perfect ending to the love story: Saira Banu married Dilip Kumar in October 1966.
It was also the time when Dilip Kumar — born Yusuf Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan — was in Chennai (then called Madras) for the shooting of Ram Aur Shyam which was a remake of Ramudu Bheemudu (Telugu) and also Enga Veetu Pillai (Tamil). The film, directed by the legendary Tapi Chanakya, became the benchmark for subsequent films based on “double roles” like Seeta Aur Geeta and Chaalbaaz.
According to actor and film historian Mohan Raman, Dilip Kumar fell instantly in love with Chennai after the welcome he and his new bride were accorded on their arrival in the city. The entire route that the couple took was teeming with people who showered their car with flowers and cheered them loudly. It was as if the myth of the “north-south divide” was being exploded and rather vociferously. Dilip and Saira were in for more surprises — the food became yet another reason for them to celebrate the city. The couple would wait for the legendary south Indian coffee and food and soon forgot all about the food they were routinely accustomed to back home.
While shooting for Ram Aur Shyam, Dilip Kumar developed an abiding friendship with MGR (Maruthur Gopala Menon Ramachandran — founder of the AIADMK and a former chief minister of Tamil Nadu), who had essayed the same double role for the Tamil, Enga Veetu Pillai. Although the Hindi version followed the same script, there was one difference, said Mohan Raman. In the Tamil version, the street-smart twin, Lakshmanan/Ilango while whipping the evil zamindar, Gajendran, played by M N Nambiar, breaks into a song: Naan aanaiyittal Adhu nadanthu vittal Ingu ezhaigal Vethanai padamaatar (if I take a vow, And if it comes true, Then the poor, Shall never ever suffer).
This song, which is now a classic, according to Mohan Raman was more than just a film song — it catapulted MGR to the centre stage of Tamil Nadu’s politics and helped firm up his image as a people’s leader. A leader who in subsequent years was feted as Puratchi Thalaivar or Revolutionary Leader and also as Vadiyar or Teacher.
When the director (Tapi Chanakya) suggested that Dilip Kumar also perform the same in Ram Aur Shyam and whip the cruel zamindar played by Pran accompanied with a song, it was politely declined by the actor.
Mohan Raman recalled Dilip’s reasoning for agreeing to whip the villain but sans the song— he said that he was an actor first and not the star that MGR was. He convinced the director that while it was perfect for MGR to sing and punish the evil character, as he was a much revered star in Tamil cinema, he couldn’t perhaps do justice to a song as he was not the star that MGR definitely was.
Therefore, while Dilip asserted his discomfort with the scene, he also showed great admiration for his friend and contemporary, MGR.
Dilip Kumar’s unconditional love and admiration also extended towards yet another great actor of Tamil cinema, Sivaji Ganesan, and despite the long distance between Mumbai and Chennai, his enduring love for Tamil cinema and people was yet another endearing aspect of a man who leaves behind an unmatched legacy.