Dilip Kumar: Last of the titans from Indian cinema's 'golden age'

Dilip Kumar suffered during the phases when neighbors Pakistan and India went to war, but his popularity and the run of his films remained unaffected, on both sides of the border, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor

Mahendra Ved Jul 07, 2021
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Dilip Kumar

Dilip Kumar, real name Mohammed Yusuf Khan, was the last tall man of the 1940-1960s, called the “golden age” of Indian cinema. In political terms, it also covered an aspirational India, post-independence, and in terms of cinema, also the post-partition with the Hind-Urdu cinema, unique to the Subcontinent, being also partitioned along with India.

Much of the career span of Dilip Kumar, who passed away at 98 on July 7 morning, and his equally popular contemporaries Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, covered the Nehruvian years that blended modernity and a broad consensus in attempts at nation-building.

All three knew and met India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru personally, as also his daughter and later prime minister Indira Gandhi. Their Hindi-Urdu cinema was an integral part of the Nehruvian ethos, boosting a ‘soft’ cultural image of India abroad. It has now evolved and come to be called ‘Bollywood’ – rooted in the Indian soil, while borrowing, even stealing, from Hollywood, and wherever, but holding its own while going global.

Dilip Kumar was no politician and never dabbled in politics unlike some others of his era and thereafter. But he was astute and viewed things with a humane outlook. For one, as Peshawar-born, he refused to see Pakistan as an enemy country. He suffered during the phases when the neighbors went to war, but his popularity and the run of his films remained unaffected, on both sides of the border. He made some sober contributions to the debate on the role of cinema during his membership of the Rajya Sabha in later years.

The subcontinental bonhomie survived, at least in the last century. Dilip Kumar went to Pakistan a couple of times and was received with great adulation. ( “Dilip Kumar Saab visited Pakistan twice secretly to bring Hindus and Muslims together. I have disclosed it in my book ('Neither a Hawk nor a Dove') as well,” Geo TV quoted former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri as saying),

At the same time, the warmth with which he received legendary Pakistani singer-actress Noor Jehan, his pre-partition co-star, and the way she performed under the baton of Naushad - the composer of ‘Anmol Ghadi”(1946) - in then Bombay in 1983, is the stuff seniors among the sub-continentals have savored.  

That Pakistan is converting the havelis (traditional manor house) in Peshawar of the Khans and the Kapoors is a fitting gesture to the two and their contribution. Both India and Pakistan realize that the clock cannot be reset, but needs preserving.  

The making of a legend  

Volumes have been written on his acting and little can be added. For that matter, little can be added also to the mystique of “Mughal-e-Azam” (1961), Indian cinema’s largest grosser that took eight years in making.  Dilip Kumar was the last survivor among the big names that played their parts in the iconic film. He played Prince Salim, a performance that remains unforgettable, but arguably, not among his best. His fans and critics remain divided on this.

Of the many tragic characters he portrayed, enough to be called the “tragedy king” but also to suffer in psychological terms, Bimal Roy-directed ‘Devdas’ (1955) remains a landmark. He once stated that his aim was “to convey the sense of hopelessness that pervades the relationship between Devdas and the two women and others who are a part of his doomed life without leading ardent viewers to cynicism and despondence.”

This role was a challenge in that many other actors from K L Saigal to Akkineni Nageswara Rao have played it in films in different languages earlier and it gets compared even now. Four decades later, in 2002, he commended the depiction of the same role by Shah Rukh Khan, also with Peshawari roots. The two had a virtual father-son relationship. Dilip had then aptly said that each role, in each era, made its demands. Devdas is one of those that have transcended times.    

From tragic ‘Devdas’, Dilip Kumar moved to playing a swashbuckling hero in ‘Azad’(1955), ‘Leader (1964), ‘Koh-i-Noor’(1960), ‘Sagina’ (1974) and many others with equal aplomb. You have to recall his dance in “Ganga Jamuna” (1961) and ‘Sunghursh’ (1968) or the moving devotion, eyes-closed, with which he sings a Bhajan in ‘Gopi’ (1970) to judge his acting range.

The legendary actor once said he was influenced by Marlon Brando, Spencer Tracy and Gary Cooper. From his early days when he would self-consciously tuck his hands into the trousers pocket, Dilip Kumar developed an acting style that remains difficult to define. But he was a ‘natural’ when melodrama dominated and theatre, with long and loud dialogues, had a strong influence.  

Unless required to be loud, he always understated his presence. A gentle raising of an eyebrow, creasing of the forehead, a dismissive wave with fingers or hand sufficed for him to convey a thousand emotions. A deep, well-modulated voice in which he spoke perfect Hindi or Urdu – or Bhojpuri as in Ganga Jamuna, the only film he produced. His legendary low-pitch delivery could be missed while recording.

Although a Pathan, he was of medium height and not muscularly built. That, perhaps, helped him merge into the role. A lot has been speculated about his ‘directing’ his movies or, at least, dictating terms to the director. But that was an era when gossip was more about the person than the professional prowess, like his rumored relationship with Madhubala. The jury is out whether it was her father or Dilip’s squeamishness that prevented a marriage.

And when he married Saira Banu, after having acted opposite her mother, people had more to say about their age difference. The marriage endured for nearly six decades.

Remained glued to Indian soil 

Dilip Kumar’s best time was in Bombay (now Mumbai). Moving to the South where the money lay and people were more professional meant heavy make-up that hid his expressive face. It also took away some of his histrionics. His time ended by the last quarter of the last century when younger actors like Amitabh Bachchan took over. But he did play opposite Amitabh in Shakti (1982), triggering a generational conflict among the filmgoers’.

Quite a few emulated Dilip Kumar during his days. Akshay Kumar, the present-day biggie, has aptly said in his tribute that Dilip Kumar was ‘the’ actor for his generation to revere and emulate.  

His was an era of good actors, good people. With Raj Kapoor – both hailed from Peshawar - and Dev Anand, from Gurdaspur, he shared excellent vibes. They were undoubtedly competitors, but also good friends.

And they drew their lines. Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor never acted together after Andaaz (1949) and Dilip Kumar teamed with Dev Anand only once in Insaniyat (1955). Each one charted his own path without crossing. You read about their bonhomie today, not about any brawls.

Unlike the Kapoors (Raj and Shashi) who went global and Dev Anand who shot films abroad, though not acting, till his last day, Dilip Kumar remained glued to  Indian soil and ethos.

He famously rejected David Lean’s offer and refused to act in the cult film Lawrence of Arabia (1962). That role was destined to make Omar Sharif a Hollywood superstar. Another Indian actor I S Johar, played the minor role of Gasim, a Bedouin tribesman who Lawrence finally executes. Johar had his hour of glory and many Indian fans went to see the film for his two minutes on screen.

Imagine the reception Dilip Kumar would have got had he played it, locking his dark oriental eyes with Peter O'Toole's arctic-blue eyes through the film's nearly four hours of epic running time!

(The writer is a veteran journalist and South Asia watcher. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at mahendraved07@gmail.com)