Dilip Kumar: Unparalleled legacy that shaped Indian cinema

He handled with ease intensity of tragedy, lightness of humour and depth of romance


In the early 1940s, legendary actor Ashok Kumar was in the heydays of his career and his monumental stardom and cachet flabbergasted many of the cinema aspirants. One among them was Yousuf Khan, a shy budding actor in his early twenties, who wondered how the mere presence of Ashok drew huge crowds on the streets of Mumbai. The star-struck boy once shared his adoration for the actor with Sashadhar Mukherjee, a leading producer of those days. The response, however, came from the thespian.

“It is a preview of what you are going to experience on a much bigger scale in the future. A handsome man like you will have trouble keeping the women away,” Ashok told Khan. His words bore a prophetic charm. The following decades saw the same skittish lad ascending into an indisputable star of Bollywood and one of the greatest naturalistic actors of Indian cinema.

From a modest street of Kissa Khwani Bazar in Peshawar to the glittering corridors of Bollywood, Yousuf Khan alias Dilip Kumar's journey was queerly cinematic and peppered with a series of serendipitous moments. The biggest turning point was his meeting with Devika Rani, the 'queen' of Bombay Talkies, who rightly envisaged that the “divinely conferred charisma” of this young chap would ensure him a long and successful career on the silver screen. Rani offered him an astronomical remuneration—higher than that of many established actors of those days—and took him to the coruscant world of cinema with a comely screen name which, as she had predicted, became the most sought-after moniker in the industry.

Born as the fourth child of Mohammad Sarwar Khan, a fruit vendor, and Ayesha Bibi, Dilip Kumar was not prepared for the camera until he entered the campus of Bombay Talkies, nor was he interested in law or civil service which his father wanted him to pursue. His sole aim was to become a national-level football player. But destiny made him innately prepare for what was in store and nurture the talent he was bestowed with. For a boy who showed keen interest in enacting characters of the fascinating stories recounted by family elders and traders in the neighbouring street, his forte was indubitably inborn.

Cinema was totally Greek to Dilip Kumar when he first faced camera for the film Jwar Bhata (1944) directed by Amiya Chakravarty. His very first scene—a man running to save a girl who is going to commit suicide—taught him that acting was not piece of cake as he had thought of. At the vast campus of Bombay Talkies, in close companionship with S. Mukherjee and Ashok Kumar, Dilip understood the grammar of cinema. He gives the credit of teaching him the basic lessons of screen histrionics to director Nitin Bose who cast him in Milan (1946) and helped him overcome his initial struggle in switching over from real to reel. Mukherjee had a word of caution for the young boy: “The actor is more important than the star. The star is a creation of marketing and stardom is the result of the hard work of the actor.” Dilip Kumar held onto these words through his career and never allowed the stardom to overshadow the actor in him.

Dilip Kumar shot to fame in the 1950s with a string of films which established him as the 'Tragedy King' of Bollywood. He has admitted that the pain he endured as an alienated child helped him express the mental agony of his early tragic roles in films like Mela, Andaz, Babul, Deedar, Daag and Shikast. But when it dawned on him that playing a number of ill-fated and tragic roles in his twenties was hurting his real persona, he wanted to get out of the world of 'tragedies'. It was Dr W.D. Nichols, an eminent psychiatrist, who advised Dilip Kumar to switch over to comedy. Azaad (1955), directed by Sriramulu Naidu, was the first film that gave him a makeover. Since then, Dilip Kumar played humorous roles in a number of films like Kohinoor (1960) and Ram Aur Rahim (1967). But the amaranthine roles he had already played were so indomitable that he could never shed the tag of 'Tragedy King'.

Dilip Kumar remained uncompromising in the perfection of the scripts throughout his career. Yash Chopra, with whom Dilip Kumar had set up a close friendship way back in the late 1950s, later revealed that he had to wait nearly three decades to approach the actor with a subject which he felt the latter would not reject. Yash and Dilip Kumar joined hands for Mashaal in 1984.

Dilip Kumar was intelligibly choosy with his roles and his choice of work was not determined by monetary gains. He did only 57 films in a career spanning more than six decades—he rejected more films than he acted in. He committed only one film at a time to avoid overlapping of thoughts and ideas. He avoided serious scripts like that of Pyaasa because he found similarity between its hero and the character he played in Devdas. He did not agree with Mehboob Khan when the latter wanted to cast him as Nargis's son in Mother India, considering the romancing they had done in earlier films.

Dilip Kumar believed that an actor should be his own inspiration and teacher, though he closely observed his seniors. His companions in the industry have certified how he had taken extensive study and umpteen rehearsals for doing every role he was given, for he believed that there are areas for an actor to go beyond what was given in the script. By giving more prominence to the expressions of feelings and thoughts than the dialogues, he gave a new dimension to the art of ‘acting’. At a time when cinema acting was loud and dramatic, Dilip Kumar manifested the potential of long pauses and deliberate silences.

Whether it is the gangster Gungaram in Gunga Jumna, the relentless police officer in Shakti, the romantic Prince, Salim in Mughal-e-Azam or the tragic lover in Devdas—each of them has left an indelible impression on the audience. With his versatile acting and flawless power-packed performance, Dilip Kumar handled with ease the intensity of tragedy, the lightness of humour and the depth of romance. In Shakti, the Dilip-Amitabh Bachchan combination made unforgettable the emotional turbulence between the onscreen father-son duo. Legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray called him 'the ultimate method actor'. But Yash Chopra differs, and says he is a 'spontaneous actor'.

Dilip Kumar is known to have brought realism in acting. Vyjayanthimala, who played maximum number of roles opposite Dilip Kumar, has once narrated how the actor had taken brisk rounds of the studio to get a look of exhaustion in the film Devdas, in which he acted as a Bengali Brahmin youth who relies on drinking to escape the emotional torments. He traversed Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra to learn the Bhojpuri dialects that he had to use in the film Gunga Jumna. A perfectionist, Dilip Kumar practised sitar under an Ustad as he had to play the instrument for a song sequence in Kohinoor.

Directed by Nitin, Gunga Jumna was considered among the best of his works. Dilip Kumar himself was the producer and script writer of the film in which he also re-launched his younger brother Nasir. Though he had done a couple of negative characters before, Gunga Jumna was the first to become a huge hit and gain accolades even from international film critics. He went ahead with the project despite warnings from several quarters against playing the role of a bandit. The film was first denied certificate by Censor Board which wanted the last words of his character—Hey Ram—cut. It was later cleared after the intervention of then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Despite having followed a principled life and high professional etiquette, he was not spared from vicious gossips. From Kamini Kaushal, one of his first leading ladies, to Madhubala, rumour mills churned out tales to fill in tabloid columns. Dilip himself has admitted that Madhubala, with whom he first paired in Tarana (1951), had strong feelings for him. It was another classic example of professional integrity that Dilip Kumar and Madhubala, who had fallen out with each other after he shot down her proposals, agreed to work in K. Asif's Mughal-e-Azam and took sensuous screen moments to perfection. Gossips flew thick and high, with many claiming Madhubala's cardiac disease, which eventually caused her death, was due to the dejection after her break up with Dilip Kumar. She died on February 23, 1969.

His marriage with Saira Banu, daughter of versatile yesteryear actor Naseem Banu, on October 11, 1966 sprang a real surprise in the cinema world, especially because the actor was determined not to marry a woman from the same profession and had also given an impression to the industry that he would prefer to be a life-long bachelor. In the initial years of Saira’s career, Dilip Kumar was quite reluctant to work with her given their age difference though there were growing demands from the industry to cast them together. But destiny had a distinct plan in store for them and it was for meeting same Saira, that Dilip Kumar flew to Mumbai from Madras every evening during the shooting of Ram Aur Shyam.

Gopi was the first film in which Dilip Kumar and Saira shared screen-space. They acted together also in Sagina) and BairaagSagina, a Bengali political film where Dilip Kumar played the role of a brave labour leader, was later remade in Hindi. He has later said in his book how Saira volunteered to play the role of Lalita, the female lead in the film, simply because she could be with him at the secluded hill locations near Darjeeling. Saira stood by him through all the summers and winters even when the reports of his marriage with a woman called Asma Rahman from Hyderabad shattered the entire family. Dilip Kumar claimed that his over confidence in friends had led to the entire controversy.

Dilip Kumar, who was more interested in travelling than leafing through scripts, took a break from films after the release of Bairaag in 1976. It was through Kranti (1981) that he staged a comeback after a sabbatical of five years.

The enduring friendship between Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor started from the streets of Peshawar and progressed through Khasla college and bloomed in the corridors of Bollywood. "Ours was not merely a friendship of two individuals in the same profession but a bonding that grew from well-placed trust and respect," Dilip Kumar wrote later about this. Rishi Kapoor, Raj Kapoor's son, remembered the heart touching scene where Dilip Kumar plaintively appealed to his dearest friend, who was lying unconscious at Apollo hospital in Delhi, 'to stop acting and wake up'. Raj Kapoor died on June 2, 1988. Despite their professional rivalry and personal bond, the duo made only one film together—Andaz (1949).

Off the camera, the veteran actor always remained Yousuf Khan—a true Pathan who held high dignity and sophisticated values, and a down to earth musalman who devotedly followed the tenets of the Quran. He was so self-esteemed and self-determined even in his childhood that he left for Pune after a minor squabble with his father and worked as a canteen assistant at an army club.

Dilip Kumar was unambiguous in his political stand and always remained a Nehruvian socialist. Impressed by his stardom and fan following, Nehru requested Dilip Kumar to campaign for V.K. Krishna Menon in North Bombay Lok Sabha seat in 1962. After the victory of Menon, campaigning for Congress became a regular exercise for him. “Dilip Kumar's career took off and rose to its peak during the time when Jawaharlal Nehru was India's prime minister: 36 of his 57 films were made in this period. And it was at this time that Dilip Kumar developed a range of highly popular characters that reflected the idealism and optimism of that period, characters that inspired Indian youth and were often imitated by them,” says Lord Meghanand Desai in his book Nehru's Hero: Dilip Kumar in the Life of India.

A compassionate philanthropist and activist, Dilip Kumar believed that actors should possess a reasonable degree of social responsibility. He actively involved in fund collection drive and relief work for the victims of natural calamities. The festive train from Bombay to Pune, started in 1960, gave an opportunity for people to travel with Dilip Kumar once a year. The project continued for 10 years and each year the fund was used for the treatment of blind students. The Nehru Centre at Worli in Mumbai to exhibit the progress of science and technology was a brainchild of Dilip Kumar.

He always campaigned for artistic freedom. “The freedom of speech is the very breath of the artists' community,” he once said in an interview. He was called a 'Pakistani' by a Rajya Sabha member when he, along with Mahesh Bhatt and Javed Akhtar, tried to approach the Supreme Court over protests against Deepa Mehta's Fire in 1998. Despite their personal rapport, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray opposed him receiving the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan's highest civilian award, and even questioned his patriotism. He received the award after then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee advised him that the artiste is not restrained by political or geographical barriers.

Indian cinema was barely 30 years old when Dilip Kumar entered this profession. Each of his roles inspired a generation of actors. He imitated none, copied none but followed his own instincts and gave new dimension to the concept of acting. With his mastery in screen histrionics, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner will remain a prized luminary for many actors—old, new and for those yet to come.