Dilip Kumar (1922-2021): A conjurer of tears and smiles
The legendary actor defined six decades of Hindi film, and became a guiding light for generations to come…
We fell, head first, for Dilip Kumar's smile. There’s Dilip, leaping up a window in Azaad (1955). In Kohinoor (1960), he’s a gently grinning prince stuck on Meena Kumari. His prankish nature is well documented by friends and colleagues. There’s nary a public photo of him without that trademark smile. ‘Tragedy King’ is a moniker best suited for the history books. Dilip Kumar, who passed away aged 98 in Mumbai after a prolonged illness, never missed a good laugh.
To understand the Dilip Kumar story is to get a guided tour of the subcontinent’s past. He was born Mohammed Yusuf Khan in Peshawar in British India. In the 1930s, his family relocated to Bombay, where his father set up a fruit export business. Though Bombay would forever be Dilip Kumar’s city, he also lived in Deolali and Pune for a while. His career, meanwhile, trailed past the confines of the Hindi film industry. He shot a number of his films in Chennai, and moved to Kurseong near Darjeeling for the 1970 Bengali film Sagina Mahato.
Known for his acute, realistic performances, Dilip Kumar is credited for introducing method acting in Indian cinema. He went to incredible lengths to inhabit a character psychologically. His naturalistic style created a fascinating friction with the era-defining films he starred in. It’s startling, even now, to watch him refuse to chew up scenery in Mughal-E-Azam, or go irredeemably over-the-top in Ram Aur Shyam or Aan. “I never think of a character as a different person,” he told BBC Hindi in a 1969 interview. “If I’m offered a character aged 30, but the script doesn’t have the data for the 29 years of his life, I try to fill that in within the framework of the story…”
As with any great star, Dilip Kumar’s legacy is inextricably tied up with other legends of his time. He was given his screen name by Devika Rani, the Bombay Talkies-head who offered him his first acting job (he debuted with Jwar Bhata in 1944). Since his family was close to the Kapoor clan, he formed a lasting friendship with Raj Kapoor, attending Khalsa College together and later collaborating in the 1949 romance Andaz. In a career spanning six decades, he rarely repeated directors, but when he did it was nothing short of event. Three of his best films – Devdas, Yahudi, Madhumati – were with Bimal Roy. Mehboob Khan punctuated the triangular romances of Andaz and Amar with the swashbuckling Aan. Late in his career, he became a favourite of Subhash Ghai, appearing in blistering blockbusters like Karma and Saudagar.
Equally iconic were his collaborations with some of the greatest female leads of Indian cinema. Given their contrasting onscreen personas, he was paired regularly with Vyjayanthimala, their natural chemistry and funny banter a battle half won for nervy producers. Though they did around seven films together, it was his partnership with Madhubala that would come to rule the headlines. The Mughal-E-Azam co-stars had a fiery romance and were set to get married. However, it fell apart when Dilip Kumar refused to have his career dictated by Madhubala’s producer father, an episode discussed with painful brevity in his autobiography Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow.
There’s an amusing story about how Dilip Kumar came to marry Saira Banu. While shooting for Azaad in Coimbatore, he was told by an astrologer that he would marry a girl half his age, who belonged to the same profession. The prophecy did turn true, with a young Saira Banu growing up in London with dreams of her favourite star. The couple were married in 1966 and have no children. “From the first time I met him, I found him to be so simple, unassuming,” Saira Banu says in an old interview. “He even dresses so modestly, despite owning a treasured collection of suits, ties and handkerchiefs… ”
Reading The Substance and the Shadow earlier this year, I was struck by the chapter set in Poona. In it, Dilip Kumar details how a combustible speech he gave at Army Club landed him in jail for a night, cooped up with Gandhi-adherents like Sardar Patel in the adjoining cells. From an accidental Gandhian, Dilip Saab emerged as a staunch Nehruvian in his working years. The former Prime Minister took a keen interest in Kumar’s career, finding their shared ideas of secularism and nation-building reflected in his movies. And in 1962, Dilip Kumar led a troupe of artists to boost the morale of soldiers defeated in the Indo-China War. Other honours were to follow. In 1980, he was appointed the sheriff of Mumbai, and was a recipient of the Padma Bhushan, the Padma Vibhushan and Dadasaheb Phalke award (he also held the record for the highest number of Filmfare Best Actor wins).
The bristling intensity Dilip Kumar brought to his roles would set the bar for all. Growing up in Allahabad, Amitabh Bachchan would repeatedly watch Ganga Jamuna to understand ‘how a Pathan was effortlessly playing a rustic character of UP.’ In the 90s, another Pathan rose from a non-film background to immaculate stardom. The most Kumar-rite of modern actors, Shah Rukh Khan would reprise his most iconic character in Bhansali’s Devdas (2002). And when his contemporary Aamir Khan signed on for Lagaan, he was perhaps assured by the success of Naya Daur, the 1957 Dilip Kumar starrer it was adapted from. These influences aren’t just trivia. If cinema exists in a continuum, the legend of Dilip Kumar will continue to grow. Such was his greatness and ferocity of craft. Rest in glory, Yusuf Saab!