'I live to love him': Dilip Kumar, Saira Banu's story is one of love and loss

·Columnist
·7-min read

Theirs was no less than a Mills & Boon script. He a superstar, desired by millions including his co-stars. She a ‘beauty queen’, ‘head-over-heels’ with her dream man – someone whose poster adorned her bedroom wall since she was a teen. “Like Guddi, I was infatuated with a film star,” she once said.

Saira Banu and Dilip Kumar
Saira Banu and Dilip Kumar

The two-decade difference in their age, only peppered the buzz around their whirlwind romance. After the heady high of a hi-profile wedding, Saira, who was all glamour even after marriage – in mini skirts and hot pants – took over the role she’s excelled in.

As the steadfast wife of a superstar, merging her dreams with his world and wellbeing. “Life’s not about how many awards I’ve received. It’s about the love that I’ve received,” she once said referring to the abundance she’s received from her husband.

Patiently weeding out the thorns in her garden path, she went through the highs and the lonely lows of being a wife of a luminary with quiet dignity. In fact, she even took on the threat of a second wife… only to be granted poetic justice in the end.

“I was born with a silver spoon, but life’s not been a fairy tale,” she once said recalling the upheavals including the loss of a baby, her health scare and the long-drawn illness of the thespian.

“While still a teenager, I wanted to be his wife. I’m headstrong and once I made up my mind, there was no stopping me. I knew many beautiful women wanted to marry Saab. But he chose me. It was my dream come true,” she was quoted saying (Hindustan Times).

Truly, Saira’s dream was her destiny, her select calling. “Today, the realisation that I’m indispensable to Saab is my success. I’ve reaped the fruits of persistence,” said Saira who’s only grown more beautiful with time.

At the sad demise of Dilip Kumar today, we revisit their beautiful bond...

THE CRUSH

Saira Banu was born on 23 August 1944 in India to legendary beauty and actor Naseem Banu and film producer Mian Ehsan-ul-Haq. Her maternal grandmother was singer Shamshad Begum of Delhi (not to be mistaken for playback singer Shamshad Begum).

Saira Banu spent a large part of her childhood in London with brother Sultan, where she attended a finishing school. The family visited Mumbai during the vacations.

Saira watched Dilip’s Aan (1952) in London and was instantly mesmerized. She saw him in person for the first time at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studio at a party thrown by filmmaker Mehboob Khan.

Gopi
Gopi

“My God! He had such lovely free-flowing hair, just in sync with his song Ude jab jab zulfein teri from Naya Daur (1957). He looked so polished and sophisticated… I fell in love with him instantly; I was just 12 then… you could easily make out that this is a man of different fibre…,” she recalled (TOI).

A besotted Saira, prepared days ahead before attending the premiere of Dilip’s Ganga Jamuna (1961). Wanting to look her best, she’d selected a saree specially for the occasion. But to her disappointment the star didn’t turn up. The same had happened during the premiere of Mughal-E-Azam (1960).

Meanwhile, Saira made her debut with the hit Junglee (1961). The makers of Ram Aur Shyam (1967) and Sanghursh (1968) were keen to cast her but Dilip wasn’t finding her ‘too young and shy’.

THE ROMANCE

Of course, it upset Saira who was more than eager to be cast opposite her dream man. Incidentally, Saira’s family built a bungalow close to Dilip’s at Pali Hill. A housewarming party was thrown on her birthday in 1966. Dilip being a family friend was invited. As though straight from a fairy-tale, Saira saw Dilip, prince like emerge from his car.

In his memoir titled Dilip Kumar: The Substance And The Shadow, Dilip narrated that moment thus, “Saira standing in the foyer of her new house looking breathtakingly beautiful in a brocade sari. I was taken aback... She had indeed grown to full womanhood and was, in reality, more beautiful... I shook her hand and for us, time stood still.”

Saira too relived that moment in an interview saying, “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.”

A telephone call from Dilip, the next morning set their romance rolling. Saira was shooting for Pyar Mohabbat (1966) and Jhuk Gaya Aasman (1968) those days, while Dilip was shooting for Ram Aur Shyam and Aadmi (1968) in Madras. He’d fly down to Mumbai every evening, have dinner with Saira and the family and go back the next morning.

In his memoir, Dilip recalled how he proposed to her, “Saira, you are not the kind of girl I want to drive around with, or be seen around with… I would like to marry you… Will you be my wife?” he asked. “…And how many girls have you said this to?” was Saira’s impish retort before giving her nod.

After the approval of her family, the couple tied the knot on October 11, 1966. She was 22 to his 44. Saira was not new to the female ardour Dilip enjoyed. 

Naseem Banu with daughter Saira Banu and son-in-law Dilip Kumar
Naseem Banu with daughter Saira Banu and son-in-law Dilip Kumar

“Even the day we got engaged, one girl - not from the industry - who was supposedly his girlfriend… took sleeping pills. Dilip saab had to rush to her… He pacified her and came back to the engagement ceremony,” said Saira in a recent interview to TOI.

ACTRESS WIFE

Saira was encouraged by Dilip to continue acting after he saw the rushes of Shagird (1966). He believed it would be ‘criminal’ to curb her talent.

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The 1968 superhit Padosan and  Manoj Kumar’s Purab Aur Paschim and Brij Sadanah’s Victoria No. 203 put her in the top league in the early '70s . Zameer and Hera Pheri with Amitabh Bachchan, Aadmi Aur Insaan (1969) and Jwar Bhata with Dharmendra and Nehle Pe Dehla with Sunil Dutt marked her popular films through the ‘70s.

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She acted in three films - Gopi, Sagina and Bairaag with her husband during the same period. Her cameo opposite her husband in Duniya (1984) is remembered for the song Teri meri zindagi. Eventually, she weaned away from films to look after her husband and family.

THE MISHAPS

In his biography, Dilip mentioned that the marriage went through its ups and downs. The initial glitches arose from the actor’s huge family of brothers and sisters, who found it difficult to share him with Saira.

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The premature termination of her pregnancy in 1972 was also a setback. “Saira had borne a child, a boy (as we came to know later) … We lost the baby in the eighth month of pregnancy,” he wrote. Years later when Saira was asked whether she missed having a child, she remarked, “I have 10 at home in my husband.”

Asma Rehman and Dilip Kumar
Asma Rehman and Dilip Kumar

There was yet another eclipse in their marriage. Dilip married Hyderabadi socialite Asma Rehman in 1982, 16-years after he tied the knot with Saira. “The one episode in my life that I’d like to forget and which Saira, and I, have pushed into eternal oblivion is a grave mistake I made under pressure of getting involved with a lady named Asma Rehman, whom I’d met at a cricket match in Hyderabad,” he wrote in his biography.

Saira was naturally left hurt when the incident (second marriage) happened. “My love - a junoon (obsession) and ibadat (worship) couldn’t accept it. It went against my self-respect,” she said years later in an interview (DNA).

“My mother (the late Naseem Banu) said, ‘When you were ill, he looked after you. A lot happens in life. But Yousuf (Dilip’s real name) loves you’... My mother said, ‘If he’s faltered, you’ve to stand by him’. Saab admitted it was a gross mistake and assured me, ‘Main sab theek kardoonga’,” maintained Saira (DNA). 

The years and the challenges couldn’t dull her ardour for him. “I’m still head over heels in love with my Kohinoor, Yousuf Saab, the way I was when I first felt attracted to him as a 12-year-old. Ours has been a marriage… that has survived the ups and downs... No marriage is perfect… It is mutual love, respect and adoration that keep a marriage ticking,” she was quoted saying in 2014.

BETTER HALF

Through time, Dilip, grew more and more dependent on Saira, something which she took pride in. Her presence and care kept him reassured and rejuvenated every time his health took a dip given the advancing years. Each time, he was discharged from hospital having suffered several ailments, the joy on her face was unmistakable.

Devoted wife Saira with Dilip Kumar
Devoted wife Saira with Dilip Kumar

In fact, in 2017, during his stay in a hospital, the doctor, seeing her devotion to Dilip, reportedly called Saira a ‘Sati-Savitri’. “Whatever I am doing… it’s my love for him and I am ready to do it 100 times more for him,” she reportedly said adding she was no martyr.

She once shared a compliment from Dilip, which she cherishes the most. “The care you have given me, not even my mother was able to,” he once confessed to her. 

“It’s out of love and not duress that I look after Dilip saab. I’m not looking for praises to be called a devoted wife. Just to touch him and cuddle him is the world’s best thing... I adore him and he is my breath itself,” she told TOI.

Dilip Kumar was hospitalised twice in June 2021. He was rushed to the Hinduja hospital in Khar on June 6, when he complained of breathing issues. He was discharged on June 11 only to be admitted on June 30 again. Reportedly, he suffered from advanced prostate cancer. He also developed pleural effusion and kidney failure. The 98-year-old thespian passed away early today at 7.30 am. Through this period Saira never left his side for a single moment. 

Years ago, Saira had declared, “I live to love him.” She has proved that.

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