Dilip Kumar, one of India’s most eminent actors, died at a Mumbai hospital on 7 July at the age of 98.
It was Devika Rani, the owner of Bombay Talkies, who introduced the shy Yusaf Khan as Dilip Kumar to the tinsel world with Jwar Bhata in 1944. Though it was a lacklustre debut with a “thin voice and expressionless face”, Dilip Kumar, over the years, patiently learning the nuances of acting and speaking by hard work coupled with intelligence and perseverance, established himself as one of the finest actors of India.
Over the years, playing roles spanning across iconic to the endearing in about 65 films over nearly five decades—a tragic lover, a villager, a suave urbanite, a prince, a swashbuckling hero, a mature character actor—he retired as a great star of Hindi cinema.
He made his first mark as an actor in the role of a freedom fighter in the film Shaheed (The Martyr) in 1948. In the words of yesteryears film critic Baburao Patel, Dilip Kumar “stole the picture with his deeply felt and yet natural delineation of the” martyr “role”.
Then came Andaz (1949), a film that explored the complex male female relationships delineating layers of love passion and jealousy. In it, taking a few pleasant and friendly smiles of the heroine, Dilip Kumar played gallantly as a romantic in the first half of the movie, but it was in the second half that he, portraying the role of an unrequited lover with seething intensity that made him at once believably tragic, walked away with audience sympathy.
It was in the 5os that he finally established himself firmly as one of the biggest draws for the audiences with a string of films in which he played mostly as a tragic lover, played even weepy roles as in Deedar (1951) in which he portrayed a blind man’s character so effortlessly that audience could feel his pain of doomed love. Of course, Rafi’s pristine singing in tear-drenched voice those pathos enunciated by Shakeel Badayuni’s lyrics—Hue hum jinke liye barbad” ; Meri kahani Bhoolne wale tera jahan aabaad rahe: Naseeb dar pe —had simply enhanced Dilip’s lovelorn persona. Despite a poor script, it is his sublime underplay and oration that lent a sympathetic halo to his character making it as one of his best-known tragic performance.
He was the first actor to win the Filmfare Best Actor Award in 1952 for his role in the romantic drama, Daag. Though he did well in the lead role of this movie as an alcoholic youth but it must be admitted that it is not one of his best. Yet, it is interesting to watch the contrast that Dilip Kumar portrays while singing those sad songs ‘Hum dard ke maaron ka itna hi fasaana hai’; Koi nahin mera is duniya mein/ aashiyaaan barbaad hai and the other one ‘Aye Mere dil kahin aur chal/ gham ki duniya se dil bhar gaya/dhoond le ab koi ghar naya’ which comes many times in the film, of course, in many versions.
With his unique understated and naturalistic style of acting, he stuck to serious and tragic roles, which appeared to have been influenced by his senior, Ashok Kumar. Besides being a hard working actor, he pioneered ‘method acting’—living the character even when not in front of the camera, and often refusing to break character until its filming was over— in Indian cinema. That’s what had made his fans believe that he delves deep into his characters.
It is often quoted that to limp-sync the song, Madhuban mein Radhika naache re in the film, Kohinoor (1958) he appeared to have learnt playing Sitar for a couple of months. As this song, composed by Naushad, progresses, there comes a sitar passage … there was also a tarana … “O de na dir dir dha ni ta , dha re dim dim ta nan a dir dir dha ni ta dha…” and these two are very difficult to perform unless one had a basic understanding of nuances of music. And that’s what he practiced for months together and finally triumphed in playing sitar with the hand movements right and mimic tarana to perfection. And that’s what held the audience in thrall.
In movies such as Andaaz, Deedar, Devdas, Jogan, Madhumati, Naya Daur, Gunga Jumna, Aan, Mughal-E-Azam, Ram Aur Shyam, etc., that are ranked among the classics of Hindi cinema, what the audience are mostly greeted with is: his poetic silences—the pauses that we come across in between his pronunciations and enunciations of Urdu dialogues, left an everlasting impact. And it is theses golden silences that held audiences’ attention to what he says or not says on the screen. It is indeed a dear delight to listen Urdu from his Jaban (tongue): How I marvel to listen him murmuring: “Insha’Allah!”
Indeed, his dialogue delivery was quite natural —with a clear diction they flow-off his tongue so naturally that they don’t sound as dialogues at all. He expresses the protagonist’s anguish in the most understated way possible. Keeping his fingers on lips, as he pours out his pathos in a shaken voice with his typical pauses, it was not only the tears rolling down his cheeks that reveals his crying … but his entire face reacts to the crying… indeed his whole body crumples at it ….…
You would see this at its best when Dilip Kumar gave his expression to the torment of Devdas in the film Devdas (1955) through his slurring lips so amazingly: “Kaun kambakh hai jo bardasht karne ke live peeta hai … …. … Main toh peeta hoon ke… …. ….. … bas saans …. le sakoon … … aur …” (Which wretched person drinks to tolerate … I drink…. So that I …can breathe). That’s what perhaps made him dearer to the audience as a tragic hero.
In 1958 the cinematic masterpiece of black and white era Madhimati of Bimal Roy was released. It was a spine-chilling mystery-romance with Dilip Kumar and Vijayanthimala as the lead pair set in the Himalayan Mountains. Highlight of this film was melodious music by Salil Chowdhry, which coupled with Bimal Roy’s wonderful song picturisation, evoked a faraway world. What a treat it is to watch DilipKumar, the hero exulting in the beauty of mountain landscape while Mukesh singing, “Suhana safar aur yeh Mausam haseen…” (a pleasant journey and this beautiful season)! Lip syncing to Mukesh’s singing, Dilip Kumar, climbs the mountain terrain as though quite in a meditative mood—meditating on the nature’s beauty. Walking gracefully, jumping in between in rhyme with the beat of the song, and smiling gleefully with a twinkle that lit his eyes at the beauty of the hills and its flora like an innocent child, he rendered the song with great élan. Unlike in most other Hindi movies, there was a certain dignity in the whole of his presenting the song.
It was in K Asif’s cinematic extravaganza, Mughal-E-Azam (1960) that Dilip Kumar, departing from any of the roles that he had enacted here before, played for the first time a character of the classical historical drama, Prince Salim, a lovelorn Prince, with royal arrogance and dignity. In a rare depiction, rendering dramatic dialogues majestically, he lived the character. And, remember, all this in the company of that Shahenshah, Prithviraj Kapoor who, with his majestic walk of the emperor, the intense and enraged eyes, personifying Akbar, proclaimed in roaring voice: “Hum apne bete ke dhadakte hue dil ke liye, Hindustan takdeer nahi badal sakte”, Dilip Kumar, as Salim artistically counterbalances Akbar’s fiery dialogues with his eloquent silences: “Taqdeerein badal jaati hai, zamana badal jaata hai, mulkon ki tarikh badal jaati hai, Shahenshah badal jaate hai … … magar is badalti hui duniya mein mohabbat jis insaan ka daaman thaam leti hai … … woh insaan nahi badalta” (Destinies change, eras change, dates of countries change, Kings change … .. but in this changing world if love stays with someone … … then that person does not change), leaving a stunning impact on the viewers. That was the beauty of his understated style of dialogue delivery.
Then came in 1961 his most critically acclaimed movie Ganga Jamuna, in which Dilip Kumar brought a rustic character—a farmer turned a dacoit—to life to the point of incredible perfection. As an outlaw on the run in the Chambal valley, he delivered the Awadhi dialogues with fabulous mastery over all its nuances so fluently as though he was a native speaker of UP making one wonder at his sheer commitment for his craft. I think it was this incredible commitment to his profession that made him a master of the ‘method acting’ and sink into the character seamlessly.
There is another wonder in this film: his superb dance moves, expressions, his whole body language and the ease with which he got immersed in that folk dance, Nain Lad gayin hain to manwa ma (our eyes have met and the throb peaks)—one of the best songs of the trio of Naushad, Rafi and DilipKumar—makes us wonder if this tragic hero could also be so cheerful while dancing! Fluidly moving with the spirit of the song, so faultless and effortless, he made us to believe as though he himself was singing the song, not lip syncing. Though some of his postures and expressions in this dance sequence appear similar to that of his performance for the song Udein Jab jab Zulfein teri ( Naya Daur, 1957), as a whole when you think of him in this lingeringly romantic ode to love you are sure to get a smile on your lips even today.
This tragedy king proved that comedy is as easy as tragedy in his 1967 film, Ram Aur Shyam. Indeed his comic timing was impeccable. He had a very endearing way of doing comedy. Even while doing comedy he maintained his usual pose and grace. In Ram Aur Shyam (1967) playing a double role of twin brothers of contrasting personalities, he pulled out a real slapstick comedy amazingly. His audition scene as Shyam, the farmer, for becoming a hero in a film is worth watching for appreciating his comic talent—the ease with which he, as Shyam beats up the sidekicks for real during the shoot. Equally entertaining was his comedy in Sagina (1974). Lip syncing that boisterous song Kishore Kumar sang, “Saala main to shaab bangaya” (Buddy! I became a lord) he could— though by then he was a bit too old to play that firebrand role—still pulled out well, indeed he was in his element in the company of Om Prakash.
That’s what I could recall the moment I think of Dilip Kumar, the director’s actor. That aside, what viewers liked most in him was his complete surrender to his characters. I loved hearing him talk, for his andaz style of speaking was amazing. Put together, these traits along with the intensity of emotions enabled him to enthral cinegoers for five decades.
Roger Ebert, an Amnerican film critic, once wrote: “… The cinema is the greatest art form ever conceived for generating emotions in its audience. That’s what it does best.” If that was true, Dilip Kumar was one actor who did it best with the clever use of his soothing voice, whisperings dotted with pauses, subtlety of expression in close-up shots, all wrapped in a certain tehzeeb grace of his own.
No wonder, if such stellar performance fetched him a slew of awards: Eight Film Fare Awards for best actor, Dadasaheb Phalke Award and Padma Vibhushan. In 1998, the Pakistan government conferred him with its highest civilian award, the Nishan-e-Imtiaz. His legacy remains etched in the minds of cinegoers of the subcontinent.