Remembering Dilip Kumar, a peerless actor and a defining voice
The actor (December 11, 1922 - July 7, 2021) was often referred to as Hindi film’s ‘tragedy king’ for his iconic roles in tragic movies like Devdas and Mughal-e-Azam, but his most significant contribution was his effortlessly organic acting prowess that set the tone for a new era in Indian film industry, says Dr Aarti Kapur Singh
When a shy 22-year-old son of a Pathan fruit merchant was selected by Devika Rani, the doyen of Hindi cinema in the 1930s, to star in her film Jwar Bhata in 1944, it was more than just a change of name for the young man. Muhammad Yousuff Khan not only became Dilip Kumar, but it was the start of a new era in the Hindi film industry. It was the beginning of the arrival of a new legend and Hindi cinema’s first definitive method actor was born. As normally happens, this change was not very welcome. Baburao Patel, a leading film critic from the time, described the new hero as “an anaemic addition” who needed “lots of vitamins and a prolonged treatment of proteins before another picture can be risked with him … His acting effort in this picture amounts to nil”. When the young hero’s next film, Andaz released in 1949, the same Baburao Patel congratulated Dilip Kumar for his “understated performance that steals the show”.
A Defining Voice
During that time Indian cinema was facing a tough challenge – the studio system was collapsing, the World War II (1939 to 1945) and its aftermath had made film stock a rare commodity and India as a country was engulfed in many changes as it marched towards its independence from the British Raj. It was in this era of change that such talent as Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Naushad Ali, Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Meena Kumari, Madhubala and Nargis, to name just a few, began to appear and soon became the mainstay of Hindi films. Dilip Kumar, with his pre-Partition memories and post-Independence experience, epitomised the changes that were taking place in a newly-Independent India. He became the defining voice of the new nation through his films, which told the stories of rebellion, hope and love. Through his impeccable acting, he poignantly captured the dilemma and dreams of Indian society in the late 1940s and 1950s, most notably in the films Shaheed (1948) and Naya Daur (1957).
Inimitable Maestro of Method
From the wolf-whistles of frontbenchers to the accolades of critics and admiration of contemporaries (and several generations to follow), Dilip Kumar’s genre of acting led him to have fans the world over. It was perhaps this fame that led British film director and actor Sir David Lean to approach the thespian to play the titular role in his legendary movie Lawrence of Arabia (Kumar was offered the role of Prince Ali, which made Egyptian actor Omar Sharif a global name). It was also perhaps Dilip Sahab’s (as Dilip Kumar was popularly known) idiosyncratic ideal to “act in only one film at a time” that made him refuse the role, considering he had already signed Shakti (1982) at the time. A self-confessed admirer of Ingrid Bergman, one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses, and American actor James Stewart, known for his refined portrayal of morally-strong characters, Dilip Kumar developed a style of acting that was natural and minimalistic, focussing on nuances that seemed to highlight the trauma of the characters he portrayed. Often choosing to play troubled characters, the actor came to be known as the ‘tragedy king’ of Indian cinema. Immersing himself in his characters, Kumar learnt to play the sitar to do justice to a classical song in the film Kohinoor (1960), and stayed up all night when his iconic movie Devdas (1955) was being shot so that he would be ready to portray the exhausted and unshaven character the next day. In his range, depth and commitment to a role, Dilip Kumar is often compared to the likes of Hollywood great Marlon Brando, Japanese star Toshiro Mifune or Italian legend Marcello Mastroianni. Such was his commitment to his craft that his methods often took a toll on his personal life. So harsh was his immersive method, that he fell prey to depression after portraying a series of tragic characters and was advised by a psychologist to take on fewer such roles. This explains his conscious effort to act in light-hearted movies such as Ram Aur Shyam and Azaad, among others, which showcased his versatility and spontaneity.
The Lighthouse that Inspired
By his own admission, Dilip Kumar’s “varied experiences shaped his approach to the portrayal of life on screen”. Born in Peshawar (now in Pakistan), he was one of the 12 children of Lala Ghulam Sarwar, a fruit merchant, and his wife Ayesha Begum. The family lived in the city’s Qissa Khwani bazaar (Market of the Storytellers) and as a boy, the actor was among those who gathered to hear the local storyteller. Later in life he would say that it was there that he learnt the art of the story. The family moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) when Kumar’s father set up his fruit business in Crawford Market, and then to Nashik. Kumar attended the Barnes School in Deolali, then started assisting his father in his business, while also running a British Army club canteen in Pune, till a chance meeting with Devika Rani. Throughout his career, for more than half a century – from his debut in 1944 to his last film, Qila, in 1998, Dilip Kumar’s craft was a textbook for contemporaries as well as several youngsters who came to Mumbai inspired by him. Both Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, superstars of the decades that followed, acknowledged Kumar’s impact on them, with Khan acting in various remakes of Dilip Kumar hits, including Devdas.
He may not have been prolific, starring in only 60 films in his five decade-long career, but a tour de force he definitely was. From the Padma Bhushan (1991) to Padma Vibhushan (2015) as well as the Dadasaheb Phalke Award (1994) for his contribution to Indian cinema, Dilip Kumar received resounding accolades for his craft. He also received a Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, and a total of eight Filmfare Awards for Best Actor over the course of his career. Kumar will be remembered for the peerless legacy he left behind as an actor, which continues to shape the craft of countless successors even today.