& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Nehru’s Hero Dilip Kumar in the Life of India

Last week we moved into another apartment in the same building – it has an extra room.

My wife and son gifted me with a bookshelf. They worked for four hours to assemble it. It’s my first bookshelf in Canada; I’ve unpacked books I got from India and put them in the shelf, along with some that I bought here.

Bookshelves are like a home within a home.

I arrange my books in an order that only I understand, and when I have nothing better to do (which is most of the time), I gaze at my books longingly, occasionally pulling one out and leafing through it to relive the memory of when I had first read it, or bought it.

I pulled out Lord Meghnad Desai’s Nehru’s Hero Dilip Kumar in the Life of India – quite a cumbersome title for a thoroughly enjoyable slim volume that is a memoir and a biography of one of India’s iconic movie stars.

There are many memorable biographies of Dilip Kumar; Bunny Reuben’s biography being far more comprehensive.

But what makes Lord Desai’s book unique is the linkages it creates between the concepts of nation-building in India in the 1950s, the influence of cinema and on cinema on this process, the phenomenon of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Some factoids in the book are amazing.
For instance, Dilip Kumar played a Muslim character only once in his career – Prince Salim in Mughal-E-Azam.

The bhajan in Jogan (Ghunghat Ke Pat Khol) is actually by Sant Kabir and is often erroneously attributed to Meerabai

Published in 2004, the book’s concluding chapter From Icon to Target describes the changes that have transformed India since Nehru’s death in 1964:

“...One is no longer an India; one has to be Tamil or Punjabi-speaking Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist or belonging to Other Backward Castes (OBC). Each citizen has to belong to a vote bank, have his or her agent who will trade the vote for handouts and mobilize you for morchas and public sloganeering. Paradoxically this fragmentation has deepened democracy in India rather than threatened it.

But it has also changed the nation inevitably and not necessarily for the better. Bombay, where Dilip Kumar has lived much of his life, and which is the headquarters of Hindi films (hence Bollywood) was a cosmopolitan city in the 1940s and 1950s. No single elite dominated Bombay as the Bengali cultural elite dominated Calcutta, or the Tamils dominated Madras. Bombay had as its lingua franca a bazaar-type Hindi, a vulgar tongue, much influenced by Hindu film dialogues which the local Marathi and Gujarati speakers adopted when they talked to each other or to the hundreds of Punjabis, Telugu and Tamil and Malayalam speakers, or the Kannadigas and Konkanis. There was a lively Western and Anglo Indian culture in Colaba and in Bandra. A double decker red bus would flaunt the name of its destination as RC Church. (It took me many years when I was a teenager to decipher that as Roman Catholic Church). There would be western music concerts and tea dances at the southern tip of the islands, while Gujarati Navratri celebrations in Bhuleshwar and Marathi Ganesh puja would be rampant in Girgaum and Sewri and Dadar. I watched Kathakali dancers in Matunga past midnight during South Indian festival as well as an exhibition on Bauhaus architecture in a downtown art gallery in my teenage years.

But I, like many others, agitated and marched for Bombay to be the capital of a unilingual state of Maharashtra. That was a populist, indeed a democratic decision. But the setting up of linguistic states, which Nehru fought against, but had to concede reluctantly, changed Bombay. It also changed India. We had all thought that making Bombay the capital of Maharashtra will not change its cosmopolitan character. That all of us would belong to Bombay as Bombayites and as Indians. But in Bombay and across India, identities could not remain cosmopolitan. Very soon after the creation of Maharashtra in 1960, there was the launching of the populist Shiv Sena. It claimed that Bombay belonged to the Marathi-speaking citizens of Bombay. South Indians – so-called Madrasis – were targeted first as undesirable aliens and then Muslims and sometimes Christians and so on. Shiv Sena was able to have Bombay’s name changed to Mumbai in the 1990s."

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