On Google, you will find plenty of vintage images of Dilip Kumar (he turns 96 today), Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, the ruling triumvirate from the golden era of Bollywood. In most of them, viewers can notice their magical chemistry. The images belie their intense screen rivalry. In one black and white photo, an impish Dev Anand is digging in from Dilip Kumar’s plate while in another the evergreen star has his arm around Kumar (as BR Chopra looks on) as though he were Kumar’s kid brother. In another, Dilip Kumar, clad in the trademark whites of his later years, is affectionately pulling childhood friend Raj Kapoor’s cheeks. There are also images of Kapoor and Kumar playing cricket. (Kumar’s father was thick friends with Prithviraj Kapoor’s dad Basheswarnath Kapoor from their Peshawar days). In nearly all of them, there is an unspoken acknowledgement of Kumar’s status as the Big Brother of this 1950s club. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Bollywood’s thespian and the original Khan, Dilip Kumar was the eldest among the three. Together, they formed the holy trinity of the 50s Hindi cinema and yet, it was Kumar alone who went on to develop the blueprint that all future Hindi film heroes would borrow.
Consider the decade 1950s. Raj Kapoor who usually directed his own films had modelled himself on Chaplin’s Tramp. As the star of a young and independent nation, his cinema, helped by the poetic vision of Shailendra, Shankar-Jaikishan and KA Abbas, was seeped in socialistic ideology. Dev Anand, on the other hand, was an urbane star, known for his Gregory Peck-Cary Grant sophistication and jovial approach to acting. His urban noirs, stylish persona and breezy comedies made ladies swoon. Meanwhile, Dilip Kumar stuck to serious and tragic, even weepy, roles and was a proponent of understated and naturalistic style of acting. The original source for this inspiration may have been Ashok Kumar, who had a lasting influence on the young and upcoming star. The Tragedy King, as Kumar came to be known, was unconsciously developing method acting. Javed Akhtar once claimed that Kumar was the first method actor in the world. According to Akhtar, he was doing method acting much before Marlon Brando, the monarch of method, redefined Hollywood histrionics and even before the term itself was coined by a Russian acting teacher.
In Bollywood, you cannot become a star if you don’t have a bit of Dilip Kumar in you. From Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan down to Aamir Khan, Govinda and Shah Rukh Khan, Kumar’s influence can be felt in every generation of stars who came after him. An ardent admirer, Amitabh used to study Kumar’s performances, especially the one in Gunga Jumna in which Kumar’s character Gunga spoke Awadhi with such fluency that a stunned Bachchan, himself a Awadhi and Bhojpuri speaker from Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, was forced to conjecture, “It was very difficult for me imagine how someone that did not come from Uttar Pradesh was able to pronounce, enact all the nuances of the Awadha language.” In a blog that he wrote on Kumar’s 89th birthday, Big B said, “His presence his aura and his dedication to film shall be documented as ‘before Dilip Kumar and after Dilip Kumar.’”
A small-town boy, Dharmendra was so inspired by his matinee idol that he decided to leave his village in Punjab and rush to Bombay to become an actor. Years later, he would reflect poetically, “Dilip Kumar is that the brightest star whose shine I stole to light my desires.”
The Tragedy King may have unwittingly become a paragon and an institution in a career that began with Jwar Bhata in 1944 but the surprising fact is that he never wanted to become an actor in the first place. He has called himself an “accidental” actor. Born as Yusuf Khan in Peshawar’s Qissa Khawana Bazaar (the Kapoor clan also hailed from there and so does Shah Rukh Khan’s family), his father was a fruit merchant. Yusuf was educated in Nashik but ultimately the family relocated to Bombay. Kumar’s father, called “Aghaji” at home, had no love lost for the “louche” film world. When he got to know that his friend Dewan Basheshwarnath Kapoor’s son Prithviraj (Raj Kapoor’s father) was acting in films, he is believed to have chided Basheshwarnath, “Respectable families like us don’t send our kids to cinema.” Imagine the young Yusuf’s trauma when Devika Rani of Bombay Talkies offered him the job of an actor at a monthly salary that was way more than what Raj Kapoor was earning. The studio had come up with screen names for the upcoming star. These included Yusuf Khan, Basudev and Dilip Kumar. The young man finally read his name in the film’s advertisement in a newspaper. He had been christened Dilip Kumar. A popular story goes that Basheshwarnath Kapoor tried to pacify Aghaji by showing him a poster of Jugnu (1947). “Don’t be upset,” he said. “Your son has adopted another name to keep the family honour intact.”
And so, Yusuf Khan became Dilip Kumar. Jugnu was his first major hit. Soon followed Shaheed, Mela and Andaz, promptly turning him into a superstar and box-office draw. For a true appreciation of his work, most critics and viewers turn to classics like Devdas, Yahudi, Naya Daur and Aan. During the launch of Kumar’s autobiography The Substance and the Shadow, Javed Akhtar said, “With time, we are realising how right we were right from the beginning. We are understanding the nuances of his work. His greatest is still dawning upon us.” That is true of Mughal-E-Azam, which is often seen as a Madhubala-Prithviraj Kapoor vehicle. But watch it again and perhaps, you will realise how spectacularly and consciously understated Kumar, as Prince Salim, is. While the rest of Bollywood of the time was hamming and screaming, here was a man who kept it subtle. Because of Kumar’s understated elegance that Madhubala’s demure courtesan and Prithviraj Kapoor’s bombastic emperor find their perfect balance.
Kumar’s flair for tragic roles in which he suffered for the cause of the character sent him into depression and to seek psychiatric help. He was advised to cut down on fully immersing himself into his roles. The gloom had to be lifted. For the sake of his health, he started doing comedies. Here, too, he excelled, revealing a comic side that mainstream actors even today are discovering new facets. Lighter roles in films like Shabnam, Azaad, Kohinoor and Ram Aur Shyam brought the house down and proved that he could be just as versatile in comedy as serious and meaningful roles. Writers Salim-Javed, who all their life desired to work with Kumar, finally gave the thespian a parting shot in Shakti (1982). At a film award ceremony in 2001, Shah Rukh Khan asked Kumar about the quality that makes his films so enduring. “No actor can be bigger than the substance which he portrays,” Kumar replied. Then, he held Khan’s hand.
“For any good or an enduring performance, Shah Rukh,” the thespian went on, “you have to have a good story, good character equations, sound conflict, and enough opportunity for you to then wade through it. Because then you have substance to deal with, not just shadows.” It’s tempting to wonder if the title of superstar’s autobiography came from there. Meanwhile, those are words of wisdom that many future stars can swear by.
Erudite, a man of culture, tehzeeb and poetry and ultimate sophistication, Dilip Kumar is the last of the mogul with old school values. May this be a healthy birthday for the ailing Yusufsaab.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)