Updated: July 10, 2021 6:31:37 pm
Nainital, 1954. Escorted by two maternal aunts, four-year-old me was walking home, having just watched Insaniyat, starring Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Tarzan’s chimp from Hollywood, Zippy, who upstaged all the human actors in the film, puzzling over the tongue-clicking by the two ladies. “Why does he always die in the end?” they lamented. Some years on, the younger, more smitten aunt was complaining about Kohinoor, a swashbuckling caper which I loved, and later still went completely ballistic on seeing Leader, a satirical attempt that didn’t quite come off. “Why does he clown like that all the time?” was now the gripe. Obviously, Dilip Kumar was better off dying in movies than having a good time in them.
Now that the great man has in reality “melted into the sun and mingled with the wind”, the aunts who, had they not faded away themselves, would have shed bitter tears. As did I, but more at the thought of how much more Dilip Kumar sahab could and should have achieved while he lived. “Death is not half as important as what you do with your life” is an aphorism that has stayed with me a long time. So, the reader will forgive me if instead of lamenting his passing, I dwell on his contribution while he lived.
The holy grail of acting that he is in commercial Hindi cinema, his achievements supposedly unsurpassable, I trust that, now that all the tributes have been paid, I will not be putting my foot in my mouth if I talk not only of the undoubted greatness of some of his performances but raise a question – perhaps, provoke a debate — on whether his example as a star was worthy of emulation and whether he helped push the envelope toward progress or whether he facilitated the downward spiral of popular Hindi cinema into the total star-centricity in which it wallows today.
There can be absolutely no dispute about the fact that, at least until Gunga Jamuna, the consummate characterisations, the dignified deportment, the mellifluous diction, the controlled but roiling emotionality in his performances were all unique. In the time of actors insistently sawing the air as if conducting a tune composed of words, his mesmeric stillness and impeccable poise established a paradigm for good acting in Indian films, when fake theatricality, arch voice-intonations, clenched jaw muscles, quivering lips, caterpillar eyebrows and, of course, constantly wagging hands were the accepted modes of expression. His economy of movement and gesture seemed to be little understood by his peers and even by those who came after, though many superficially mimicked his style.
Clearly no multi-tasker, his total output of perhaps 50 films is, even by yesteryears’ standards, absurdly small. Some of those works doubtless will survive the test of time but, given the position he was in, it is more than evident he didn’t do enough apart from acting and being involved in social causes close to his heart. He produced only one film, didn’t direct any (officially at least), never passed on the benefit of his experience, didn’t bother to groom anyone, and apart from his pre-1970s performances, left behind no significant lessons for future actors; even his autobiography is but a rehash of old interviews. It’s baffling why a man as conscious of his place in history as he was should be reluctant to record his interaction with some of the admittedly great filmmakers of his time or say anything really informative about the nature of his work and technique. I wish, at some point, he had at least been forthright about the travails involved in retaining legions of devoted fans.
What he was truly matchless at was in creating a demand for himself, sometimes at the cost of the film he was in — a legacy that weighs heavier on the Hindi film fraternity than his finely nuanced performances. While other stars of his time appeared in two or more films annually, one project in two years was Dilip sahab’s average for a couple of decades. Each of these breathlessly anticipated appearances, meticulously crafted to create an aura of studiousness and sensitivity around him, were masterstrokes of strategy designed to place him above his peers, to distance but not alienate him from them. And his stock in trade — the poetic turns of phrase, the thoughtful pauses, the carefully cultivated image of refinement in his acting and his life — had not, a la some of his contemporaries, been modelled on a mere actor but on Jawaharlal Nehru, Mr Sophistication himself. It’s ironic, however, that Panditji despite asking him to be a spokesman for Hindu-Muslim unity did not stand by him at perhaps the most trying time in his life, when he was facing the ludicrous accusations of being a Pakistani spy.
Whether his later attempts at an image makeover were deployed to extend his range or test his acting prowess or further ingratiate himself with an already adoring public no one will ever know, he himself reportedly claimed it was on a psychoanalyst’s advice. It is, however, a moot point at what time in his career, and why, his commitment to meaningful cinema, which had resulted in such significant work with Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan, K Asif and B R Chopra, deserted him, and the self-congratulatory phase took over. I believe it was post Gunga Jamuna — a performance which it seems he continuously and unsuccessfully strove to outdo. I could be wrong but three generations of Dilip Kumar fans each have their own theory, and this is mine.
Given the transitory nature of stardom in showbiz and particularly in our little pond, it’s incomprehensible why an actor of such immaculate craft, one whose very presence elevated any film he was in, one who just had to nod his head to set any project he fancied into motion, one justly acclaimed as the finest in the country, one financially secure for several generations, chose to play safe the way he did. Anyone who doubts that massive insecurity and insularity is the lot of stars of Dilip sahab’s magnitude should read between the lines while perusing the description of his chance encounter with J R D Tata aboard a (presumably) Air India flight. That JRD did not recognise him is not as telling as the fact that the non-recognition was mutual. It is also no mystery why, instead of using his clout to encourage filmmakers deviating from the norm, to scripts depicting the truth of their times, and thus to films which may have altered his understanding of the actor’s contribution, he opted instead for a series of indulgent, clunky embarrassments some of which did set the box-office on fire, but also compelled many ardent admirers, myself very much included, to perceive him anew.
If being a star does curious things to people, being resident legend does even curiouser things I suppose.
Nothing quite matches the paradoxes of this acting business. You must simultaneously be totally oblivious to and keenly aware of your audience. You must pretend they are not there, yet they must be catered to. You must believe you are the character you are playing but remember that you are not. And strangest of all, the moment you become convinced you are a great actor, you cease to be one.
Be all that as it may, I am merely one of the millions who will remain eternally grateful to him for the magic.
“Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”, sir. May the earth lie light upon thee.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 10, 2021 under the title ‘Requiem for Dilip Kumar and a small complaint’. Shah is an actor.