Dilip Kumar: A bridge between India and Pakistan

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Mohammad Yusuf Khan, born to an Awan family in Peshawar on 11 December 1922, was a common link between the two neighbors – India and Pakistan. Khan went on to become Bollywood’s one of the most celebrated icons as Dilip Kumar, a name he took up. 

On Wednesday, 98-year-old Kumar breathed his last in Mumbai’s P. D. Hinduja Hospital after a brief illness, with his wife Saira Banu next to him. 

His career spanned over fifty years with sixty movies of what is called, the golden age of Indian cinema. In 1966, he married fellow actor Saira Banu, who was only 22 then, and Banu has remained by his side throughout his illness. In 1991, he was awarded Padma Bhushan and in 2015 Padma Vibushan.

Kumar’s house in Peshawar was named as the country’s national heritage monument in 2014. The government of Pakistan has been aiming to convert it into a museum.

From Mohammad Yusuf Khan to Dilip Kumar 

Kumar wrote in his autobiography, ‘Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow’, how producer Devika Rani told him, “Quite matter-of-factly: ‘Yousuf, I was thinking about your launch soon as an actor and I felt it would not be a bad idea if you adopted a screen name. One that will be in tune with the romantic image you are bound to acquire through your screen presence. I thought Dilip Kumar was a nice name. How does it sound to you?”

In 1944, Kumar earned a lead role in the movie ‘Jwar Bhata’. Although the movie failed to charm audiences at the box office, Kumar’s talent was eventually recognized with the breakthrough 1946 film, Milan.

Amongst his most remembered cinema performances were Mughal-e-Azam, based on the lives of the Mughal emperor, Akbar and his son, Jahangir, and Bimal Roy’s unforgettable hopeless romantic, Devdas — both are celebrated movies of Indian cinematic history.

However, it was also Kumar’s life outside film sets that inspired people.

Kumar wasn’t just an actor confined to cinema screens and vintage green rooms, he had a cultural influence and served as a bridge to the shared heritage between India and Pakistan. His films were well received in Pakistan too. 

Visit to Pakistan

Kumar went to Pakistan on various occasions. In 1988, he received a letter from Peshawar noting that the city, “had been without a blood bank for years … a social service body, Fatimid Foundation, had come forward to set up a blood donation centre.” 

The actor was invited to visit Peshawar and inaugurate the services of the blood bank. He agreed.

He later wrote in his autobiography that the invitation to inaugurate a blood bank had turned from a quiet personal visit into a big event now, with the Pakistan president declaring it a state visit by an Indian dignitary, that he said: “appalled and humbled me.” 

Kumar further expressed his vision for the day “when the two countries could have friendly ties and fruitful and productive trade relations for the mutual betterment of their economies” in an event organized by Pakistan’s President General Muhammad Zia-ul Haq.

In 1991, Kumar was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award of India. Seven years later, he received the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s highest civilian honor, in 1998.

The right-wing political parties gathered to pressure Kumar into returning the award, however, he denied saying that he had worked for many years to bridge the cultural and communal gaps between India Pakistan

Then prime minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, on consultation, told Kumar that he was “an artiste 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.”

This marked his second visit to Pakistan and was received with warmth by people on the two sides of the subcontinent. 

Pakistan’s incumbent prime minister, Imran Khan mourned the actor’s death and said that he helped in raising initial capital for Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre.

In mourning his death, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that he will be remembered as a “cinematic legend” who was “blessed with unparalleled brilliance, due to which audiences across generations were enthralled.” Modi called Kumar’s passing away as a loss to “our cultural world.”

Kumar was buried with full state honors at Juhu Qabrastan in Mumbai, where most prominent actors, friends, politicians, and others attended to pay their respects. In his passing away, India and Pakistan both remember a superstar, and as popular actor, Amitabh Bachchan said, “whenever the history of Indian Cinema will be written, it shall always be ‘before Dilip Kumar, and after Dilip Kumar’.”

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