At a time when acting was highly melodramatic, Dilip Kumar underplayed as opposed to other stars who overplayed. No wonder, he was labelled a ‘master of understatement.’ Actor and dancer, Jaaved Jaaferi shares his memories of spending time with Kumar in the 1990s and what makes the Devdas star a benchmark in Hindi cinema.
“They say that you can either be a ‘star’ or an ‘actor.’ One of the great things about Dilip Kumar is that he’s that rare legend who is both. For me, he’s a trendsetter as far as acting style goes and also a huge and beloved star of his time who commanded critical and commercial attention in equal measure. When Dilip saab started his career in 1944 with Jwar Bhata, the form of acting that the masses best appreciated was highly theatrical and stylised. He broke the mould with a more naturalistic approach to acting. He just came in and it was like a whiff of fresh air. Obviously, I wasn’t even born when he gave some of his best early performances. But as a kid, I remember watching Gopi, Dastaan, Bairaag and Sagina. These were his 1970s films. We saw many of them on VHS those days. Later came Kranti, Vidhaata, Shakti and Mashaal. Dilip saab was in his 60s by then and still, there was a lot of acting left in him. Yash Chopra’s Mashaal (1984) had that famous scene in which he’s crying for help, stopping every car that comes his way, as his wife (Waheeda Rehman) lies dying. It’s an incredible cinematic moment that has become THE Dilip Kumar moment. If comedians want to parody Dilip saab, this scene is usually the first that comes to their rescue!
Method in the madness
“Only when I grew up and became an actor myself did I realise that here’s a man who was all about craft. Gunga Jumna (1961) is my favourite Dilip Kumar film. When I first saw it — as an adult and thank god for that — I was totally blown over by it. The film is about two brothers, one goes on to become a dacoit and the other, a police officer. Dilip saab’s performance as Gunga is a milestone in Indian cinema. There are a lot of emotional and tragic moments in the film which, in Dilip saab’s rendition, reaches its powerful and explosive dimension. This is the kind of performance that every actor lives for. I remember Dilip saab’s bittersweet scenes with Vyjayanthimala. Then, there’s the emotional moment when he’s arrested by his own brother. What I love most about the film is its realism and attention to detail. How the characters spoke Bhojpuri/Awadhi and also sang in the same language they spoke. Usually, in a Hindi film, a character may speak Awadhi but when he/she has to break into a song, the language changes to Urdu or Hindustani. But Gunga Jumna stays true to its script. Of course, it’s unbelievable how authentically Dilip saab played the character of Gunga, completely immersing himself into the rhythm of village life, the motivations and the body language of his character. People call him ‘method’ actor. You have to watch Gunga Jumna to know how he could live his role and make it his own.”
More than just a ‘Tragedy King’
“Dilip Kumar is often typecast as a ‘Tragedy King.’ It’s true that he earned that nickname after doing many dramatic and serious films. One story goes that emotionally-charged films like Jugnu, Deedar, Devdas and several others were taking a toll on his mental health and he was advised by a psychiatrist to switch to lighter roles. Jugnu was his first major hit. I think he was offered Pyaasa after Devdas and he refused it for the same reason. After Devdas (1955), he jumped straight to Azaad (1955) where he got to take a little easy playing various roles, including one of a bearded gentleman called Khan Sahib. He had a knack for comedy. In Kohinoor (1960), he created magic with that funny mirror scene. Amitabh Bachchan and Prem Chopra did a similar scene in Mard (1985). Obviously, the original mirror scene was done by the Marx Brothers. One of Dilip saab’s popular and most-loved roles is in Ram Aur Shyam (1967) which shows his amazing flair for comedy. Anyone who does comedy will tell you how difficult it is to make people laugh. Drama is comparatively easier. But it takes only one false note or wrong timing to ruin comedy. Comedy is not everybody’s cup of tea. But by pulling off the fun stuff Dilip saab proved that he had more to him than just tragedy. And he had a very endearing way of doing comedy, which he did while retaining his typical pose and grace. It’s unfortunate he didn’t get more opportunities at comic roles. Perhaps, directors gave him more dramatic roles because they felt comedy was not serious enough for an actor of his calibre. People think the comedy genre lacks gravitas and it’s often dismissed as trivial. Whatever the case, him not doing more comic roles is our loss.”
Master of understatement
“To be a superstar in India is a very tough task. We are a complex country. The kind of cultures, regions and languages we have makes us the most diverse nation in the world. It encompasses not just India but the whole world, in a way. So, to appease and appeal to a cross-section of this amazingly diverse country for any actor is a difficult job. I always say it’s easy in Hollywood because they are one culture, one people. They have more or less similar educational and social systems. But Hindi cinema is a tricky animal. Actors like Dilip Kumar or Raj Kapoor epitomise the very best that our movie culture has to offer. They could become stars because they were above religious or political divide. I remember Shah Rukh Khan telling me way back in 1995, on the sets of Oh Darling Yeh Hai India, “Yaar, Jaaved, ‘India mein star banne ke liye style chahiye.” Style is what makes people remember you. Look at Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand or Rajesh Khanna. They all had their unique style. People remember them even by their smallest of gestures. If I put up my hands and dance, people will immediately say, ‘Rajesh Khanna.’ If I wear a scarf and nod my head, it’s Dev Anand. I have done Dilip Kumar’s impersonation on my TV shows. If comes easy to me. On the other hand, I can’t do Sanjeev Kumar very well. I can do 50 per cent. I don’t know why. If I get it, I nail it. I don’t sit and do homework. With Dilip saab, the key is to understand his poetic silence. See the way he pauses, his pronunciations and enunciations. Golden silences are typical to him. He expresses himself in the most understated way possible. A lot of his acting is in his pauses and silences. It’s his method. Because, I think, he underlines certain things, which makes you want to pay attention to him. It’s like, ‘How do I hold the audience’s attention? Let me do it this way.'”
Wise and learned
“I think every actor has to be a mimic in some way. He has to mimic life, he has to mimic real people, what he has seen, absorbed and observed. Where do characters come from? They come from real life. The data you collect from looking and observing people is crucial to the study of any actor. That’s how you go into a character. As the host of Is Duniya Ke Sitare, a TV show produced by Saira Banu, I got a chance to spend time with Dilip saab and understood how learned and wise he was about life. He could play all those characters because he had lived a certain kind of life and had those experiences that you must have to be able to perform. You feel like collecting all his pearls of wisdom when you are with him. With him, it was never frivolous chatter though he had a great sense of humour. But generally, when he’s around you are in awe of him.
Unfortunately, I never got to work with him. Neither did my father, Jagdeep. But dad always talks of the time when he was a child artiste in Foothpath in 1953. Dilip Kumar had given the mahurat shot. Dad could cry without glycerine. He was only 13-14 during Footpath and Dilip saab was impressed by this young boy who could pull off this powerful scene. Dilip saab decided to drop my dad to Mahim where he used to stay then. On the way, they stopped by at a petrol pump. Naturally, a crowd of autograph-hunters mobbed Dilip Kumar. He passed the autograph book of one fan to Jagdeep and said to him, “Yeh ladka kal ka Dilip Kumar hai.” For my dad, it was the ultimate compliment. Dad doesn’t remember the exact amount but Dilip Kumar later gave him a 10 rupee note or something. It was a big deal for a boy that age.”