Having done an article on Dilip Kumar’s love for Madras which was published in The Hindu, I was racking my brains on what to write on the same subject for Madras Musings. I then recalled this hilarious story that the star wrote in his autobiography. It happened at SS Vasan’s Gemini Studios.
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 Devdas and the two would go on to be a hit pair with several other successes to their credit such as Madhumati, 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.”