Remembering Dilip Kumar on his 97th birthday
Dilip Kumar has always conducted himself with poise, elegance, and honesty—a far cry from the pretence and plastic that rules Bollywood now.
The thespian Dilip Kumar, who turns 97 today, is often called the “Marlon Brando of India”—a description, I believe, he deserves fully. Some, like Javed Akhtar, have argued that Dilip Kumar was using “method acting” even before Marlon Brando—who is usually credited with it—did in the 50s. In his long career, spanning six decades, Dilip Kumar acted in a surprisingly few films, only 66, but was able to leave an indelible mark on the history of cinema. His impressive repertoire includes classics such as Mughal-e-Azam, Ganga-Jumna, Devdas, Madhumati, Sagina and Aan—enough on their own to secure his place as, perhaps, the greatest actor Hindi cinema has ever seen.
It is not without reason that Dilip Kumar is considered to be an institution in himself, a “school of acting” that most actors following in his wake have drawn inspiration from, ever since. In Amitabh Bachhan’s words, who deeply admires Dilip Kumar, and proudly acknowledges that he has borrowed liberally from his oeuvre: “Whenever the history of Indian cinema is written, its periodisation can only be before Dilip Kumar and after Dilip Kumar.”
Born as Yusuf Khan, in Peshawar on 11th December in 1922, Dilip Kumar’s family came to Nasik, before the partition of India, where his father set up a roaring fruit business. However, the second world war disrupted the business and the young Yusuf Khan took up a job in a military canteen in Pune to supplement the family income. His entry into the motion picture business was accidental. He was introduced to Devika Rani, the owner of Bombay Talkies, by a Dr Masani. It was Devika Rani—impressed as she was by this strapping young Pathan—who convinced him to chance his luck in acting; she cast him in his debut film, Jwar bhata (1944) and gave him the screen name of Dilip Kumar.
Dilip Kumar brought a quiet revolution in the industry because of his studied approach to acting. One of his early influences was the veteran actor Ashok Kumar who encouraged him to be “natural” on the screen. Dilip Kumar has, more than anyone else, redefined on-screen histrionics in Hindi cinema—weaning it away from the melodramatic theatre mode of the 30s and 40s to a more modern, understated, and believable terrain. His first commercial success was Jugnu (1947), opposite Noorjahan, which made Dilip Kumar a household name in India.
In the 50s, Dilip Kumar was a member of the formidable triumvirate which ruled the industry along with Raj Kapoor—his childhood friend—and Devanand, but without a doubt, he was the best actor out of all the three. His understated style, meaningful pauses, impeccable diction, sensitive voice modulation, a deep understanding of the character and the script gave his performances an authenticity which no one could match. In many ways, he was a perfectionist and spoke his mind to directors if he didn’t like some aspect of the film, and he never cringed from contributing to the project once he was convinced of its merit. He gave his all and worked rather selectively—never more than one film a year—when his contemporaries were busy doing more than 3 films a year.
One of his iconic films, Mughal-e-Azam released in 1960, arguably, yet remains the grandest story ever painted on the canvas of Indian cinema—even after six decades of its release. It is poetry in motion, and honestly, there is no better way to describe it. The opulence of its sets is only matched by the intensity of Salim-Anarkali's unrequited love story. Which movie aficionado can ever forget the tender, candle-lit, feather caressing love-scene between Madhubala and Dilip Kumar? Rarely, if ever, the magic of love is translated on cinema with all its throbbing sensuality, and Dilip Kumar managed to do it with unparalleled aesthetic excellence. Dilip Kumar is the epitome of regal elegance, of understated magnificence, and Prince Salim finds character and layers of depth in the thespian's emotive universe. To the connoisseur, Dilip Kumar's performance in the movie is the ultimate delight—his perfected royal gait, his brooding eyes, spotless dialogue delivery—everything is just so immaculate that it looks timeless.
His tragic roles earned Dilip Kumar the epithet of “tragedy king”; the conviction with which he carried the burden of living these characters—in Devadas, Madhumati, Ganga Jumna and many other movies—took a psychological toll, so much so that he had to seek medical help. He was advised to switch over to light-hearted roles, comedies, which he performed with equal panache in films like Kohinoor (1960), and Ram Aur Shyam (1967). His versatility was supreme.
In the 70s, his career took a beating and some of his films bombed at the box office, though his performance was always critically acclaimed. He made a comeback in the 80s as a character artist and gave compelling performances in many films like Kranti (1981), Shakti (1982), Mashaal (1984) Vidhata (1982), and Karma (1986). These were ensemble films with multiple stars in the cast, and yet Dilip Kumar remained central to the story; indeed, many of these films were written keeping Dilip Kumar in mind.
Lata was once asked for whom she loved singing the most, and she cryptically answered that she would love to sing for Dilip Kumar because he renders a song like none other, and makes it look real. An example of what Lata was perhaps referring to is this famous song “Madhuban me Radhika Naache re” from the film Kohinoor. This one is for all those true movie aficionados out there. Look at how Dilip Kumar enacts this song. Notice the perfect lip-sync he manages on a classical number. How on earth did he even manage to play the sitar like that? Watch closely. There are close-up shots of his fingers working the instrument like a musician—and we now know that he devoted a couple of months to learn the sitar, just so that he could do justice to a two-minute shot. That is Dilip Kumar for you. I might add, I guess it is relevant in today’s political climate, that this song is a fine example of syncretism with Naushad composing it, Shakeel Badayuni writing it, Dilip Kumar performing it, Kumkum dancing on it, and the great Mohammad Rafi singing it—five Muslims coming together to create a beautiful Hindu Bhajan.
Lord Meghnad Desai in his book “Nehru’s Hero: Dilip Kumar”, argues that Dilip Kumar through his films portrayed Nehru’s India—an India of transition, one which was struggling to find meaning in the new social and economic challenges of the time. Films like Naya Daur (1957) and Paigham (1959) clearly bring forth the pangs of this transition from an agrarian economy to industrialisation. Nehru’s hero, however, retains dignity and moral fibre in everything he does. Dilip Kumar brings that quality to his characters effortlessly.
In his private and public life too, Dilip Kumar has been a symbol of Nehruvian values. He has always conducted himself with poise, elegance, and honesty—a far cry from the pretence and plastic that rules Bollywood now. In recognition of his services, Dilip Kumar was named the Sheriff of Bombay in 1979 and later nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 2000. His decency earned him respect across the political spectrum. Apart from Nehru himself, he was admired by the likes of Vajpayee and Balasaheb Thakray, although the Shiv Sena did not take kindly to his acceptance of Pakistan’s highest civilian honour the Nishan-e-Imtiaz in 1998.
Dilip Kumar is the last of his tribe. He is a reminder of the best that syncretism can offer. He should be celebrated a lot more perhaps than he currently is.