Dilip Kumar, who passed away on Wednesday in Mumbai at the age of 98, was the yardstick by which the performances of all other actors in the Sub-continent were judged — no wonder, then, that a great many of them in Urdu/Hindi cinema were influenced by the thespian. He had quite a few clones, some of whom later evolved their own individual styles. Those who didn’t were written off by cinegoers and film historians alike.
Born Mohammad Yusuf Khan in Peshawar on Dec 11, 1922, to Hindko-speaking parents, Dilip was fourth in a family of 12 children. As a child, he moved with his family to what was then Bombay where his father set up a fruit business. As he emerged from his teens in the World War II days, Yusuf Khan took up a job to support the family since his father’s business was faring badly.
Fate intervened when the shy young man ran into Devika Rani, the reigning heroine and chief executive of the prestigious movie studio, Bombay Talkies. She spotted a highly talented actor in the man who was then in his early twenties. He was baffled when she offered him a job that entailed performing in front of the camera, yet the monthly salary was very tempting – Rs 1,250, which was a princely amount in the early 1940s.
The young man was asked to choose one from the three pseudo names suggested: Jahangir, Vasudev and Dilip Kumar. He chose the third perhaps because the second was a name more popular in south India and the first would have revealed his identity. His conservative father was not to be told about his favourite son’s occupation.
His first three or four films were nothing much to write home about, but he stole the limelight in Jugnu¸ where he shared the screen with reigning singer cum actress Noor Jehan. Then came a number of movies where he played the tragedian par excellence – to name a just few, Mela, Andaz, Babul, Deedar, Dagh, and the most renowned of them all, Devdas. As a renowned critic once said he didn’t play the title role – he defined it. He had to pay a price for playing a doomed lover, though, for the image became a part of his personality. A psychiatrist in London advised him to switch to comedies and when he played lighter roles, he did so with gay abandon. In Azaad, Kohinoor, Leader and Ram aur Shyam, he was a totally different performer, delightful being a word one would use to sum up his acting.
Gunga Jumna, where Dilip Kumar played a rustic character who rebelled against the merciless feudal lord, was the only movie he produced. His performance was truly outstanding here too. No less a person than megastar Amitabh Bachchan, who calls himself an ardent Dilip Kumar fan, considers his portrayal in the movie as the ultimate in acting. The actor’s actor, as he came to be known, turned in a subdued but no less lauded performance in yet another masterpiece, Mughal-e-Azam. Compared to the theatrical Prithviraj, who played Emperor Akbar, Dilip Kumar conveyed a lot more through eloquent expressions coupled with economy of words.
After a hiatus, in the late 1970s he switched over to playing characters in their twilight years. But those were never supporting roles. He played the central characters, Shakti and Karanti being cases in point. In short, he reinvented himself brilliantly.
Dilip Kumar was romantically linked with three of his heroines, the most notable being Madhubala, but he surprised everyone by marrying Saira Bano, 22 years his junior.
When he was given the highest film award, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, belatedly in the mid-1990s, the Times of India commented editorially: “Given that the award was instituted a good 26 years ago, it defies logic that the centre should have taken this long to honour the thespian.” The Pakistan government awarded him the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, the country’s highest civilian award, a few years later. Then in 2015, he was awarded the second highest civilian award in India, the Padma Vibhushan.
Dilip Kumar’s autobiography, The Substance and the Shadow, appeared in 2014, generally considered to have been heavily doctored by his wife Saira Bano. His record of eight Filmfare awards for Best Actor has been equalled by Shahrukh Khan, but then the latter has appeared in far more movies than Dilip Kumar, who acted in merely 63 films in a career spanning 60 years.
A few years ago, Amitabh Bachchan tweeted: “The history of Indian actors will be written [in two chapters], before Dilip sahib and after Dilip sahib.” The man who turned 98 in last December may not be there anymore but his influence will most likely continue to inspire emerging actors, just as it has those who are in the top bracket today.
Original published in Dawn, July 8th, 2021