When Tamil author Ashokamitran’s novel mirrored Dilip Kumar’s life

Dilip Kumar and Ashokamitran could have met at Gemini studios and developed a friendship, which may have led the author to write 'Manasarovar'. The novel published in 1989 could have easily been based on the great actor

In Ashokamitran's novel Manasarovar, the character Satyan Kumar like the Bollywood actor, was born in Peshawar and left Pakistan and moved to India before the partition. Pics: Dilip Kumar Instagram

Millions of fans and admirers of ‘Tragedy King’ Dilip Kumar are mourning his death. But one of his friends, if he had been alive today, would have written a beautiful eulogy on the Bollywood actor. It was none other than the late Tamil writer, the Sahitya Akademi award-winning Ashokamitran.

Ashokamitran, who had worked as an employee at Gemini Studios –one of the biggest studios in south India in the 50s and 60s, for nearly 14 years, had many friends in the film industry. He often wove a short story or novel around the happenings in the film world, and they became bestsellers and were received well among the people when they were serialised in a magazine.

His two novels ‘Karaindha Nizhalgal’ and ‘Manasarovar’ are the best examples of his works that were set in the film industry.

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The Gemini Studios headed by veteran producer SS Vasan, produced many films in Hindi. Often, they were a remake of successful Tamil films. During the shooting of these films, many Bollywood actors used to stay for long periods in Madras.

Dilip Kumar too had acted in two films produced by the studio namely ‘Insaniyat’ (1955), where he and Dev Anand came together for the first and last time, and ‘Paigham’ (1959), in which he and Raaj Kumar acted together for first time. Both these films did well at the box office.

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It is possible that Dilip Kumar and Ashokamitran could have met in the studio and developed a friendship, which prompted the author to write a novel titled ‘Manasarovar’. The novel published in 1989 is ostensibly based on the life of Dilip Kumar.

In the novel, the character Satyan Kumar like the Bollywood actor, was born in Peshawar and left Pakistan and moved to India before the partition. He also had a Muslim name, which was changed to a Hindu one, after he entered the film industry.

“This double identity was a nuisance, reminding me of my religion over and over again”, says the character at one point in the novel. Dilip Kumar may have felt the same way and probably shared his feelings with the writer.

The novel revolves around a friendship between the actor Satyan Kumar and a scriptwriter Gopal, who works in a studio. They both share similar interests since they both like  the American novelist, Nathanael West and both want to read the acclaimed book, ‘Doctor Zhivago’ by Boris Pasternak.

The book, first written in Tamil, was later translated into English by N. Kalyan Raman. The Tamil book has eight chapters and all the odd-numbered chapters are told by Gopal in the first person, while the even-numbered are narrated by Satyan Kumar.

A rendezvous with Panditji

The novel also featured the death of former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his interactions with Satyan Kumar (read as Dilip Kumar). When a reader reads that particular chapter, they will find it difficult to separate fact from fiction. But that is the beauty of this work and Ashokamitran had the skill to blend imagination with reality in such a way that at one point, you start to believe that the incident may have happened in reality.

This is part of the conversation that happens between Nehru and Satyan Kumar in the book.

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The first time Satyan Kumar meets Nehru, it is at a special breakfast organised by the prime minister for an actress, whom Satyan Kumar refers to as ‘Rani Sahiba’.

“After five or six years, I received a special invite in my own name! The first time I met him, he would have seen me only as an escort to a distinguished old lady. However, by our second meeting, he had learnt a little more about me,” says Satyan Kumar.

Nehru says to the actor: “Everyone respects you as a world-class actor, Mr Satyan Kumar. Do you know how proud I feel when they speak so highly of an Indian actor?”.

Satyan Kumar then talks about how Nehru had a great interest in cinema, but the prime minister never had the leisure to watch many films.

Satyan Kumar says: “During a trip to the United States, he had expressed a wish to see ‘Cardinal Richelieu’, a film starring George Arliss. However, his tour managers had failed to make advance arrangements for a screening. Even though President Truman himself made an effort, it was not possible for a print to be arranged.”

“I was awestruck. The most important person of this gigantic nation was talking to me like an old friend.”

‘Look, Mr Satyan Kumar, every day, I meet and talk to people, listen to their problems, communicate my point of view and then issue instructions till about twelve or one in the night. Only after all this do I get a few minutes alone with myself.

‘At such times, I tend to recall the happy times from my childhood. I once saw a silent movie of Buster Keaton’s. It was about a railway engine driver. No, that’s not quite true. The film tries to portray all that might happen if Buster Keaton ever became an engine driver.

‘Often, I feel I am like Buster Keaton myself. Another recent movie I watched at some leisure was ‘Laila Majnu’. In the legend, both Laila and Gaius were no older than fifteen. However, both the lead actors in the film appeared to be well above forty. That apart, they performed very well indeed. When I enquired about them, I discovered that both had migrated to Pakistan. When I came across such people, I think how wonderful it would be if something like Pakistan had never come into existence!”

‘I feel the same way, Panditji.’

And, that is probably Dilip Kumar. The real Khan of Indian cinema.

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