They met for the first time in the early ’60s in Kolkata at an award function organised by a Bengali film magazine. Dilip Kumar was the chief guest and as he entered, singer-composer Hemant Kumar, who was well-acquainted with him, rushed to greet him. He then presented his “new hero,” Biswajit Chatterjee, who he would be introducing in his first Hindi film production, Bees Saal Baad.
“Yusuf bhai greeted me warmly, his hand on my shoulder, and when I asked for his blessings, told me, ‘Lagan se kaam karo, zaroor kuch karke dikhao ge (Work with full commitment and you will make a place for yourself).’ I walked away in a daze, finding it hard to believe that I had just come face-to-face with my matinee idol,” Biswajit reminisces.
In the hall, he bumped into Uttam Kumar, the recipient of the Best Actor Award, looking every inch the Bengali babu in dhoti-kurta. “Bishu, I’ve heard Dilip Kumar is coming,” he whispered. A beaming Biswajit told the mahanayak that he was already there. “I’ve just met him, come, I’ll take you,” he offered, and minutes later, introduced Uttam Kumar to him as Bengal’s Dilip Kumar.
Their next meeting was at the premiere of Bees Saal Baad. There were many celebrities at the show, including Satyajit Ray and Lata Mangeshkar. “I drank Coca-Cola with Yusuf sahab during the interval and later, had dinner at Lataji’s Peddar Road residence. That evening is unforgettable,” asserts the veteran actor.
After that they kept bumping into each other at award shows, film parties and cricket matches. Both were avid cricketers and Dilip Kumar would call him to Khar Gymkhana for practice, trying to bowl him out with a Vinoo Mankhad-like googly. “Ball sambhal lena (Mind the ball),” the simple, soft-spoken superstar would chortle with childlike glee.
They acted together in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1974 romantic drama, Phir Kab Milogi, which featured Biswajit and Mala Sinha in the lead with Dilip Kumar as an angry Tejaa Singh. “He rode around on a horse, wielding an axe, looking for his sister who has been abducted,” informs Biswajit, remembering how involved he was even though it was a guest appearance.
Dilip Kumar met Bimal Roy’s editor on the sets of Madhumati. Hrishikesh Mukherjee was fascinated by a house adjacent to the studio and imagining its residents, came up with three stories of birth, marriage and death revolving around it. Dilip Kumar loved the idea and coaxed him to turn director with Musafir, waving off his remuneration and even singing a duet with Lata Mangeshkar, Laage nahin chhute Raama. The film got a certificate of merit at the National Awards and the bond between the two buddies grew stronger.
“During Phir Kab Milogi, Yusuf bhai would come with full make-up by 11 am and was on the set all day. During lunch break, he’d invite Hrishda, composer Salil Chowdhury’s brother, Babu, who was assisting on the film, cinematographer Jaywant Pathare and me to his make-up room to share his dabbas full of biryani and kebabs,” Biswajit flashbacks fondly.
Earlier in 1971, he got the actor to make an appearance in the documentary, Dubar Gati Padma (There Flows Padma, The Mother), he produced for Films Division, on the determination of the common man in Bangladesh to stand up to tyranny and fight for freedom in the 1971 Liberation War. “Ritwik Ghatak, who directed the film, was close to Yusuf bhai who’d holler, ‘Ei Bangali’ while Ritwikda referred to him as ‘Pathan’. We hosted a function for which we invited many actors, including Yusuf bhai and Saira, Moushumi Chatterjee and Rajesh Khanna, and persuaded them to say a few words and wave the Bangladeshi flag. Yusuf bhai even sang a few lines with Dada (Sachin Dev) Burman while Nargis played the Mother Bengal,” Biswajit shares.
In February 2004, when he was in Sahara City for the dual weddings of Subrata Roy’s sons, Sushanto and Seemanto, he was given the responsibility of seeing that Dilip Kumar and Saira were comfortable. On the way back, he flew off to Kolkata while his wife, Ira, travelled back to Mumbai with the couple. The next morning, she raved about how on observing the pump in her hand and learning she had asthma, the thespian asked the air-hostess for a blanket for Ira, instructed her on medication and when they got off at midnight, offered to drop her home till she had pointed out their chauffeur and assured him she’d be safe.
Their last meeting was 12 years ago, at Asha Parekh’s birthday party, at Hotel Sun & Sand. “By then, Yusuf bhai was ailing, but recognised me instantly and like a child wouldn’t let go of my hand, telling me constantly to take him out which I couldn’t as it was raining heavily. After that, I got news of him from his brother Ehsaan,” he sighs.
Dilip Kumar is gone, but Biswajit believes he will live on through his films that are lessons for younger actors. “Devdas was made so many times, but he was the best Devdas and you see jhalaks of Ganga Jumna’s daku in Amjad Khan’s Gabbar in the way they say ‘Arree o Dhanno’ and ‘Arree o Samba’. Yusuf bhai is like the sun, and a sun never sets,” he concludes.