1966 : a love story
Theirs is a fairy tale come true. Just back after performing Umrah in Saudi Arabia, Saira Banu speaks about her enduring love for her "Kohinoor" Dilip Kumar and the simple joys of their life together to Udaya Tara Nayar, her long-time friend and author of a forthcoming biography on the legendary actor
When they got married in 1966, he was 44; while she was merely 22. Yet the fairy tale life that followed has proved the naysayers wrong. In a world where fidelity is fickle and keeps changing with the latest film release, Hindi filmdom's first couple has stood beside each other like a rock; growing to love each other more than ever before. "There is no greater joy in life than growing young together," says Saira Banu, 68, for whom the term 'beauty queen' was used in Bollywood for the first time ever, when she made her debut with the first Eastman colour cinemascope film, Junglee.
They're still an enviably handsome couple when they step out together in public. "Sahab is very particular about his suits and shirts and trousers, which have to be pressed to perfection and readied for wearing," she shares. "He also has a taste for varied and exquisite cuisine. I have mastered both skills like a good wife and the appreciation I get from him is bigger than any award for me. He likes to entertain friends at home and the Pathan in him surfaces in the lavish hospitality he ensures on such occasions. It is not easy even with the battery of cooks and domestic help I have, but it is a challenge I have met ungrudgingly over the years. When I am asked how I manage to be so sprightly, I reply that it is my being Mrs Yousuf Khan that makes me the lively person I am!"
Indeed, it is a challenge every day for the one-time highest-paid leading lady of Bollywood, who voluntarily retired from acting at the peak of her career to take care of the streams of visitors who drop in to meet the legend and exchange pleasantries with him. There are admirers who travel from other countries, along with their grandchildren and great grandchildren to meet Dilip Kumar, 90, and share their experiences of watching his classic films. Actors and directors, writers and technicians who have worked with him and take inspiration from his unrivalled body of work walk in every day with stars in their eyes to spend unforgettable moments with the legend. Naturally, Saira is on her toes every day playing the role she had dreamt of playing from the age of 12: Mrs Yousuf Khan.
Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu have mastered the art of growing old gracefully and youthfully. They revel in each other's company, from taking in the beauty of a gorgeous sunset from the terrace of their bungalow in Pali Hill in Mumbai, or sitting together on the laptop and dashing off emails to friends and relatives in far off lands. "People say you have to give up doing many things when you grow old," she says. "But I feel it is because you give up being lively, curious and wanting to understand and accept new things that you grow old."
EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW:
It is said that you fell in love with Dilip Sahab when you were just a 12 year-old schoolgirl.
I thank the Almighty every day in my prayers for blessing me with the man I dreamt of marrying from the age of 12, when the feminine instinct of attraction towards the opposite sex awakened in me, as it normally does in all girls. My mother and elder brother thought I would get over it. Dilip Kumar, as everybody knows, was India's biggest superstar and millions of girls were getting married to him in their fantasies. As I grew up, my mother realised from the letters I wrote to her from London, where I was schooling, that I was not just another girl smitten by Dilip Kumar. For me, it was no castle in the air because I had given my dream the strong foundation of faith-faith in myself and faith in God who has never ever let me down to this day.
When did you realise he was the man you wanted to marry?
The first time I saw Yousuf Sahab at a social gathering, I remember he was casually attired in his hallmark white trousers and crisp long-sleeved white shirt. With his entry, everything changed in the room. He was regal in his bearing and appearance. He was completely unaware of the radiance and natural magnetism he possessed, being innately unassuming and unaffected by his stardom and his growing importance as an actor. I was with my mother, who graciously acknowledged his greetings and introduced me. When he smiled at me and remarked that I was a pretty girl, I could feel my whole being taking wing and flying rapturously. I knew somewhere deep within me that I was going to be his wife. I, and no one else, my instincts whispered, was going to be this divinely blessed man's wife. The dream took root then.
On my way to school in London, I would pass by a locality that had a sizeable Asian population. There would be hoardings of Indian films. I need not tell you how thrilled I was each time a hoarding of a Dilip Kumar starrer was put up. I used to fantasise that he was in London and he was visiting our house to meet my grandmother and mother and ask for my hand in marriage. My room in the house used to be full of his photographs cut out of magazines and it used to amuse my grandmother, who would chuckle and tell me how much older he was and how countless girls in India had married him in their dreams. I listened and smiled secretly because I knew I was not one among them.
And, one day, the dream came true?
My dream came true when, as I had fantasised, our families met and he proposed marriage to me in 1966. Speculations were rife about who he would marry. There was equal curiosity about who I would marry since by then I had become a star. The announcement of our marriage created a sensation and waves of mixed emotions in his admirers. There were those who genuinely rejoiced and believed we were made for each other and there were those who worried about the age difference between us. If anybody had to worry about the age gap and compatibility, it had to be me and Yousuf Sahab, but we were least concerned. I knew, as much as he knew, that our respective ages would be the last thing to come into question in the stability or happiness of our marriage. We were wise and mature to know that there was no universal recipe for achieving success in any personal relationship. As in all relationships, there was a tough challenge for both partners when it came to attaining the goal of a happy and enduring marriage.
What is the secret of the success of your marriage?
Every kind of relationship, whether it is a couple, siblings, a parent and a child, or even friends for that matter, requires a good measure of nurturing and cherishing. I feel it takes much more to achieve stability in a marriage than happiness, because it calls for deep understanding, love and respect for each other as individuals. If my marriage is stable and happy today, itís thanks to my mother Naseem Banuji, who has guided me into evolving into the woman I am today. She taught me that itís important not just to be a loving and caring wife, but to respect my husbandís abiding love for his family, and to give him the space he needs to nurture and cherish his relationship with his family and friends. She used to point to the logs of fire in the hearth at our house in London and say, "To keep the fire burning brightly you have to keep the logs near enough to keep warm but far enough apart for breathing room. For a family to stay happily together, the same rule applies."