For younger moviegoers Dilip Kumar, who turns 94 today, may appear as a relic from the past, a great icon of an earlier era leading a retired life. For a star who’s forced to stay mostly indoors and away from the limelight, his frequent hospital visits due to old-age related complications are an attractive photo-op for the mainstream media. From time to time Saira Banu, the thespian’s image-conscious wife, former actress and no. 1 Dilip Kumar fan, feeds health bulletins to the news-hungry press which have more things on its mind than just an ageing superstar’s illness. The pertinent question, then, is not the media’s interest in Dilip Kumar but if we would be interested at all if it was not Dilip Kumar. There are only two living figures that Bollywood worships: one is Kumar and the other, his “chhoti behen” Lata Mangeshkar.
Truly, the first Khan of Indian cinema if only he hadn’t adopted the screen name ‘Dilip Kumar’, Yousuf Khan was an original in every sense of the word. Born in Peshawar, in what is now Pakistan, Kumar comes from the same neighbourhood as Raj Kapoor. It was appropriate that the two childhood friends from Qissa Khwani Bazaar where wandering traders would stop by to exchange colourful tales would enter the world of storytelling. Although it was Raj Kapoor who best articulated the Nehruvian dreams through socialistic-themed classics such as Awara, Shree 420 and Jaagte Raho it was Dilip Kumar who came to be known as ‘Nehru’s hero.’ Soon, he became India’s hero.
Hired by Bombay Talkies – the top studio of its time founded by Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai – at a monthly salary of Rs 1,250 (way more than childhood buddy Raj Kapoor’s monthly pay), Kumar made his debut in Jwar Bhata in 1944. He had to wait for another three years for his first hit, 1947’s Jugnu. Describing his nascent stint at Bombay Talkies, Kumar recalls in his recent memoirs The Substance and the Shadow, “I had no clue what acting in front of a camera was. It was something to be studied and learned and practiced.” It was at Bombay Talkies that he met Ashok Kumar, a huge star in his day and learnt that acting isn’t all about being bombastic and theatrical, a trend that was popular those days thanks to the prevalent Parsi theatre. The young Dilip was heavily influenced by Ashok Kumar’s naturalistic style of acting.
Known for his careful selection of scripts and roles, it’s easy to see why Dilip Kumar was more than just an actor. Writer, filmmaker, philosopher and poet. He was everything rolled into one. Kumar’s erudition and vast learning helped him crack a new code for acting in Indian cinema. The thoughtful pauses, dignified silences and the poetic dialogue delivery (what the Urdu speakers would call ‘lehza’) became the hallmark of his understated style. Satyajit Ray hailed him as the “ultimate method actor.” Lyricist and writer Javed Akhtar has pointed out that even before Marlon Brando, considered the godfather of method acting, came on the scene Kumar was already quietly pioneering it, unknown to the Western world. Method acting refers to a technique wherein an actor completely inhabits the world of his character and story for an emotionally expressive performance. At one time, Kumar, renowned for portraying tragic roles through the 1940s, 50s and 60s in such films as Mela, Devdas and Dil Diya Dard Liya was so immersed in the psychologically disturbed milieu of his onscreen characters that he was advised by a psychiatrist to stay away from playing depressing characters. This marked a shift in Kumar’s health, life and career. Lighter roles in films like Ram Aur Shyam, Tarana and Kohinoor revealed another facet to the man, one who excelled equally at comedy.
Along with fellow travellers and friends Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, Kumar ruled Hindi cinema till the late 1960s. By the 1970s, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan had burst on the scene, displacing older stars like Kumar and his colleagues. The writers Salim-Javed who were huge fans of the tragedy king persuaded him to make a comeback in the 1980s. The result was Shakti, a father-son saga about an idealistic cop played by Kumar and his wayward son (Amitabh Bachchan) who is shot dead by his own dad in the film’s tragic ending. Later, Kumar appeared in a batch of commercial hits with the then-emerging Subhash Ghai, with rumours abound of his ghost-direction. What gives further grist to the mill is that Kumar always took an unnatural interest in more than just his roles. He was reported to rewrite scenes, much to the chagrin of the makers, be it the mighty K Asif, Salim-Javed or Yash Chopra.
It won’t be wildly inaccurate to suggest that Kumar has influenced not just a generation of actors but even writers and filmmakers. “Even we, the writers and the intellectuals, have learnt from him,” Javed Akhtar once declared. His performances have left a wound on the soul and bodies of each one of our actors, from Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan. Bachchan is on record to say that he has watched Ganga Jumna repeatedly and is still amazed how Kumar, who never stayed in Uttar Pradesh, could get the Awadhi nuances right. “That has been the ultimate performance for me,” proclaimed Big B at the launch of The Substance and the Shadow. When asked to demystify Kumar’s appeal, Bachchan said, “When you see a particular scene enacted by Dilip Kumar you are convinced that there can never be an alternative to it.” When the younger generation thinks of Kumar, the image conjured is that of Prince Salim from Mughal-E- Azam – which is a tragedy because Mughal-E- Azam belongs more to Prithviraj Kapoor and Madhubala than Kumar. For a better understanding of his work, we must turn to Ganga Jumna, Devdas, Andaz, Babul, Aan, Amar, Shaheed, Naya Daur, Madhumati, Ram Aur Shyam, Shakti and Mashaal.
The other tragedy is to reduce Kumar’s greatness to just acting. Like Brando and Orson Welles in Western cinema, Kumar is a polymath. And in that he’s no different from his own contemporaries like Ashok Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Balraj Sahni. A voracious reader with a special interest in poetry, many of his earlier interviews paint the picture of a man who also knows his politics, arts and society intimately.
For Kumar, poetry and poise go hand in hand. It is difficult to imagine another actor who has spent as long a time in public life as Kumar and still managed to retain a largely positive image in the minds of the audience. Whether it was his alleged love affairs (Madhubala, Kamini Kaushal), his first marriage or other controversies like the Nishan-E- Imtiaz award (Pakistan’s highest civilian award) in 1993 with questions raised over his patriotism, he handled it all with poise and maturity. As Javed Akhtar rightly said, “The meaning of Dilip Kumar is dignity.” With all due respect to Mr Akhtar, the titanic reputation of Dilip Kumar suggests more divinity than dignity.