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Vol. XXXI No.7, July 16-31, 2021

Lost Landmarks

- Sriram V


Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala in Gemini’s Paigam (1957).

Panditji, Papa, Yousuf, and many lost landmarks

The great thespian died last week after what can only be described as a full life, replete with all honours. Born in Peshawar in today’s Pakistan, Yousuf ran away to Bombay where having begun life running a food stall he got into movies and became a star under the name of Dilip Kumar. His fame spanned the subcontinent. But ask him about his favourite city and he would have undoubtedly stated it was Madras. In his autobiography, Dilip Kumar, the Substance and the Shadow, he pays glowing tributes to Madras and calls it the most erudite and culturally wealthy city of India.

Dilip Kumar’s romance with the city began in 1955 when desperate for a change from being typecast as a tragic hero, he accepted an invite from S.M. Sriramulu Naidu’s Pakshiraja Studios, Coimbatore, to act in the remake of the Tamil hit Malaikallan. This was essentially shot at location around Coimbatore and so his Chennai experience may have been limited. But the film’s success brought him to the attention of S.S Vasan who immediately signed him on for his Insaniyat (1955). While the film’s publicity may have focused more on the chimp Zippy, it did make waves for Vasan had moved away from local actors and studio hands and engaged an entire cast from Bombay. Apart from Dilip Kumar there were Dev Anand and Bina Rai, with music by C. Ramchandra. The film was a moderate success, but it cemented a friendship between Vasan and the actor. They were Vasan Sahab and Yousuf to each other.

“He took me with him everywhere he went and it was a great pleasure to be in his company because he had so much knowledge about Madras Presidency and the history of the temples we passed by,” wrote Dilip Kumar of Vasan. “We drove around in the early hours of the day or in the evenings when the streets would be filled with working people returning home with their purchases for their households like vegetables, groceries and so on. Vasan Sahab enjoyed talking and I enjoyed listening to him. He had immense respect for writers and good writing. He was a writer himself and wrote short stories and novels. He was the chief editor of a Tamil magazine (Ananda Vikatan), which had a huge readership. It was thanks to him that I took a liking to Madras, where I desired to move and settle in later years.”

Dilip Kumar acted in Vasan’s Paigam (1957) which became a huge success. It was later remade as Irumbu Thirai in Tamil starring Sivaji Ganesan. The heroine in both movies was Vyjayanthimala. She had earlier acted with Dilip Kumar in Naya Daur and the two would go on to be a hit pair with several other successes to their credit such as Madhumati, Devdas, Ganga Jamuna and Sunghursh. Dilip Kumar lavishes praise on this lady from Madras in his book but he also pokes fun at her starry ways and the manner in which her grandmother and chaperone Yadugiri Devi dominated over her life. Gemini was known for its canteen and Dilip Kumar was a fan of its fare like just about everyone else who ate there. “The table was laid out for tiffin,” he writes, “which usually consisted of South Indian snacks like medu vada, upma and chundal. The last-mentioned item always interested me. It was boiled chickpeas garnished with finely chopped onions, curry leaves and mustard seeds that had crackled in the hot oil that was used. For Vyjayanthi there was always seasonal fruits and of course milk. Her grandmother sat by her side on such occasions and urged her to eat the oranges she would peel for her while she talked about Madras and the great culture of the city. Vyjayanthi spoke only when she managed to get a word in.”

One evening Vasan announced to the entire crew of Paigam that Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru was on a visit to Madras and would be calling at the studios within the next few days. That was immediately the cue for Yadugiri Devi to get going on a long story about how ‘Papa’ (meaning Vyjayanthi) had danced in Delhi the previous week and Panditji had attended. “That evening,” as Dilip Kumar writes, “and the next evening all we heard was about Panditji and Papa and all the unit members heard the Panditji-Papa story with curiosity.”

Came the great day and S.S. Vasan summoned everyone to discuss protocol for receiving the PM. There would be a line-up of artistes and Vasan wanted Dilip Kumar to head it. He however was respectfully of the view that since Panditji knew Papa well she ought to be made to stand in front. The rest of the studio too was vociferous in its support of this suggestion and Vasan agreed. When the time came for the PM to arrive, everyone lined up, with Dilip Kumar at the tail end. What happened next is best told in his own words –

“Panditji arrived on schedule, and as is customary in Madras, he was welcomed with a rose garland and sprayed with fragrant water from a silver jar with a spout. He acknowledged it all with his wonderful simplicity. Vasan Sahab stood by his side and I think he was waiting for Panditji to greet Vyjayanthi who was right there in front of his eyes. Suddenly, Panditji’s searching eyes caught a glimpse of me at the far end of the line. He walked briskly towards me saying, “Yousuf, I heard you were here and decided to drop in.” Vasan Sahab hurried behind him and, in a second, Panditji had reached where I was standing, stretching his arm over my shoulder affectionately. I was least prepared for the recognition and it took an instant for me to realise that I was walking with the country’s most loved and admired leader.

Panditji spent a quarter of an hour in the studio, talking mostly about the potential of the medium to awaken social introspection and the desire to change stagnant customs and conventions in society. He had little time to watch new films but he came to know a lot from people he met and interacted with in his personal circle. After that, we never heard the Panditji-Papa story from Vyjayanthi’s grandmother.”

I have often re-read this anecdote in that book and chuckled over it. And to think it all happened in Gemini – a place that is today so far removed from its cinematic past. True, The Park has something of the film world in its interiors but as for the rest of the place, it is just a rabbit’s warren of the ugliest collection of buildings you can come across. But wait, there are a couple of incomplete towers that could be used in any film set and I will not be surprised if they have made it to some movie or the other.

Dilip Kumar also writes of B. Nagi Reddy with great affection. It was during the making of Ram Aur Shyam at the latter’s Vijaya Vauhini studios (another lost landmark) in 1967 that the former became engaged to and later married Saira Banu. Though the wedding happened in Bombay, Nagi Reddy and family made sure that the bride was welcomed in Madras with fanfare as well. Dilip and Saira were back in Madras for shooting A Bhim Singh’s Gopi in 1970, once again at Vijaya Vauhini, and the film starred them both. The couple rented a bungalow in the Kodambakkam area and spent several months there. Dilip Kumar recalls that it had a frontage that was filled with sand and also a badminton court with a high roof of palm leaves. He and Saira Banu drove all around the city. “Whenever I packed up early from the shooting we used the time we got to drive through the city, taking in the sight of cycle rickshaws jostling with cars and buses fearlessly on busy streets lined with flower stalls that displayed strands of jasmine and multi-hued flowers.” The observation by Dilip Kumar is significant for it was just then that the Tamil Nadu Government was replacing hand-pulled rickshaws with the mechanised ones.

I have since ascertained from my dear friend S.K. Raja that the house that Dilip Kumar rented was a large property located in what is today Valasaravakkam. The owners refused to accept any rent and in return, Dilip Kumar left behind his car as a gift. For years the family had the tradition of sending him Rumani mangoes from their orchard as he loved the fruit. The place changed hands a few years ago and has since given way to highrise.

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