Saira Banu who'd wanted to be Mrs Dilip Kumar since she was 12, gets candid as the duo ring in 50 years of togetherness.
It's almost 9 pm on Sunday. Saira Banu is out on a drive with Dilip Kumar. The familiar routine brings a sense of companionship and contentment. "Dilip saab has always enjoyed a drive by the sea. Earlier, he'd go before sunset but now he needs to rest more, so after a stroll in the house and some light snacks, we set out around this time towards the airport, along Juhu, down Bandra-Kurla or towards the sea-link which is a favourite point, returning home to a light dinner," she informs.
Today the couple will bring in their golden anniversary quietly with close family and friends and for Saira who since she was 12 had fervently wished to be Mrs Dilip Kumar, these 50 years with the thespian have been a dream come true. As a girl living in London, she'd accompanied her mother, beauty queen-turned-actress Naseem Banu to a theatre in the Queen's city for the premiere of a Dilip Kumar starrer, probably Aan. Her angel-faced' mother was often a chief guest at such galas but what made this one different was that the minute Saira saw the dashing hero, she fell head-over- heels in love with him.
Where's my hero?
"After that whenever we were down in Mumbai on a holiday, I'd accompany my mother to Mehboob Studio or film parties where we would invariably bump into him," she laughs, recalling how heartbroken she was when Dilip Kumar didn't turn up for the premiere of K Asif's Mughal-e-Azam. She candidly confesses that those days she wasn't too familiar with the beautiful, flowery, ornate Urdu and the disappointment of not seeing her hero' spoilt the momentous occasion, but over the years she's grown to relish the dialogues and the imagery they create, penned by Amanullah Khan (Zeenat Aman's father), Wajahat Mirza, Kamaal Amrohi and Ehsaan Rizvi, some of them mouthed by her very own Shehzada Salim.
To her chagrin, Dilip Kumar who was twice her age, treated her like a kid and turned down offers to be cast opposite her after Saira Banu brought colour and youthful exuberance into Hindi cinema with Subodh Mukerjee's 1961 romance Junglee, which, she is quick to point out, was the first film in Eastmancolor to be printed in India. Junglee was followed by other hits, including Bluff Master (1963), Ayee Milan Ki Bela (1954), April Fool (1964) and Shagird (1967), yet Dilip Kumar refused to be cast opposite her in Ram Aur Shyam (1967) insisting she was too young for him. The role went to Mumtaz. Neither of them had any clue then that six months later she would be his wife.
Will you marry me?
The equation changed almost overnight when Saira turned 22. Her mother invited all her directors and co-actors like Dev Anand and Sanjay Khan to a double celebration at their new home"her birthday and a house-warming party. Dilip Kumar was living in Chennai at the time but flew down for the party. And it was on the evening of August 23, 1966, that he realised for the first time that chhoti bachchi" Saira had grown into a beautiful young lady. "He told me this as we shook hands and the next day phoned, saying Yusuf bol raha hoon.' I knew instantly who was calling but teased him saying, "Kaun Yusuf?" He laughed knowing I was pulling his leg and admitted to having enjoyed the party," Saira Banu reminisces.
After that evening, every couple of days he would fly down to spend time with Saira and her family and after a few weeks told her he wanted to marry her. Refusing to believe that he was serious she wondered how many others he had proposed to and he responded saying she was the first and he really wanted to settle down with her. The next day he came over and officially asked her grandmother and mother for her hand saying he wanted a simple nikaah. On October 2, 1966, they were engaged and the date of the wedding was fixed for November 4.
Rush rush nikaah
"But as soon as the news of our engagement broke, after the initial surprise, the overwhelmed fans started running amok on the sets of our respective films making shooting difficult for us. We were incidentally in Kolkata at the same time. When we landed in the City of Joy the fans spilled into the tarmac and when we scurried into their our car, they lifted it up. "At the hotel we had to be smuggled in through the kitchen entrance to our suites, but they soon discovered our room numbers and came pounding on our doors," flashbacks Saira.
In the wake of the madness Dilip Kumar decided to push up the date of the wedding. Naseem Banu flew back to Mumbai to find a maulvi who could perform the nikaah soon. "We left Kolkata on October 8. On October 11, just nine days after we got engaged, I became Mrs Dilip Kumar. There was no time to get cards printed, there were gatecrashers galore at the wedding, the food ran out quickly forcing my mother and brother to make SOS call to hotels, but I was in seventh heaven," she laughs.
She admits that while they are both quite different from each other, they paradoxically share a lot in common, including their love for Indian classical music (Dilip Kumar is a sitar player himself) and sports. She played net ball and was a regular swimmer. He didn't get into a pool, embarrassed by his body hair, but was a really good cricketer and football player. Later, he started playing badminton with Saira joining him and she remembers that in Chennai he had a covered court at home where he enjoyed many a sweaty game. Both of them were also keen riders.
Why copy him?
Living with Dilip Kumar, an institution in himself, educated Saira in the finer nuances of cinema. Her husband wasn't just an actor but was involved in every aspect of filmmaking and brought out the best in his co-stars. "Of course, that didn't make me any less nervous when I faced the camera with him for the first time for Gopi. I was surprised that despite giving my best, the scene wasn't coming off till dialogue writer and lyricist, Rajendra Krishanji, took me into a corner and asked me why despite being a successful artiste, I was trying to copy Dilip Kumar, particularly his dialogue delivery. My mouth fell open in surprise then but today, I can laugh at the incident and marvel at how my husband left everyone around him, including me, awe-struck," Saira raves.
She acknowledges that with him for guidance, her performances matured and became more natural. Shagird and Padosan rate high amongst the light romances but it was in more intense dramas like Bairaag and Sagina Mahato, she admits, that she emerged as a performer. She goes on to add that when Manoj Kumar approached Dilp Kumar for permission to cast her in Purab Aur Paschim which had been written with Saira in mind, insisting that if she didn't do it, he'd scrap the film, he was quick to give his nod.
Quiz her on her Dilip Kumar faves and she lists Ganga Jumna, Kohinoor, Leader, Ram Aur Shyam, Devdas and Paigaam, making a special mention of a scene in the latter where he's sitting with Vyjayanthimala and creates a fictitious character to make her jealous.
"No other actor had the kind of intensity he did. When he looked into the camera, it didn't seem like he was acting. If anyone else showed the same intensity, he was quick to salute them. That's the reason he liked Amitabh Bachchan's work so much," she says.
Cannot live without him
A golden jubilee is a dream for most couples who may not even last out the seven-year itch. How have they stayed together for 50 years? "Every marriage has its ups and downs but we were blessed with more patience in our time. Everyone knows we went through rough weather in the early 1980s (after Dilip Kumar married Asma) but the good side has outweighed the aberration and helped me forget and forgive. I love the man and cannot live without him," she says.
Opening up about that "year of distress" she says that her grandmother, mother and brother surrounded her with love and told her repeatedly that it was a mistake he had made and she should bide her time, sab theek ho jayega.
On his part, she says, her husband admitted to the mistake and assured her it would never happen again.
"In that one year we had a clear understanding not to spend even half a day away from each other and though the divorce came through only after a year because we didn't want to make a mockery of that marriage, he had given me his assurance in writing that he had done away with the mistake much earlier," she informs.
Husband comes first
She agrees that it's not easy for two people to live together and advises young girls not to rush into marriage unless they are sure, and when they do tie the knot, to exercise patience.
"It's tough to give up your career and your identity and walk five steps behind your partner, bask in his limelight rather than your own, find your happiness in his," acknowledges Saira who at the peak of her stardom consciously took a decision to give more time to her husband and family and has not regretted it even once in these years. "There's a lot to celebrate... I'd have hated to be just a famous heroine with no family life. Relationships are very important to me. M husband comes first in my life, being a star was not as important as being his wife," she avers.
She was rewarded for her patience and perseverance when the couple celebrated their silver wedding anniversary in 1991 with a big bash. Her whole family and the industry were at their home that evening and a special photograph was clicked on the occasion.
"Since then many couples visiting us have posed together before it or got themselves clicked like that. This anniversary will be a quiet celebration with just family and a few close friends but I want another photograph taken which I can place beside that one," she smiles.
She goes on to share that veteran actress Shammi had presented her 25 years ago with a silver photo frame with a photograph which when you took out revealed the message, "May silver turn to gold..."
Back in 1991 Saira had laughed at the thought of a golden anniversary because it had seemed so far away. But today, when she's celebrating a 50-year run with the man she's loved all her life, she can only thank God for all the beautiful moments and the memories they have made along the way...