Epithets eulogizing the towering eminence of Dilip Kumar (DK) seem inexhaustible and are still emanating days after extinguishing of his life on 7th July,2021. How does an entire generation of a rather heterogeneous country like India, irrespective of class, caste, creed and countless other classifications, ends up elevating a human being to an exalted status of virtually a living God. And true and typical of the Gods, he had feet of clay too. But then also had the big heart to acknowledge and accept his failings openly (specially the hurt caused to wife Saira Banu by tying the knot to Asma and regretting that in his autobiography titled Dilip Kumar : The Substance and the Shadow).
Perhaps, such universal adulation stems from each finding an emotional connect with the image, impressions and ingestion of the man, inducing such immeasurable and immense identification, that it elevates that person to experience similar on-screen heroic attributes or aspire to attain such sterling attributes. Dilip Saab or Yusuf Saab’s ( very few are bestowed with such endearing and honorific words for over seven decades ) personality and persona, both on screen and off, still continues to be associated with exceptional and finer qualities which make a man truly human. Decency, dignity, perfect manners and old world charm were trademark qualities associated with the thespian till the very last. These never go out of fashion and are remembered for very long. One can see several such examples- in Rahul Dravid ( whose put-on anger is propagated now in an advertisement to sell Cred credit points),Kane Williamson, Biden, Sachin Tendulkar, Obama and many more. In comparative terms, his stature, personality and reverence in film industry comes quite close to what Gregory Peck was accorded in Hollywood.
Inevitably, all epithets encapsulate the essential essence of the man ,matter, event or an entire epoch. Let’s consider some given to DK. In this, none comes closer to the stature and genius of Satyajit Ray ( Honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscars awardee) in comprehending the art and craft of cinematic language specially in the acting department. He is reputed for extracting memorable performances from his actors like Madhabi Mukherjee in Charulata, Soumitra Chattopadhyay in Apu trilogy, Sanjeev Kumar and Amjad Khan in Shatranj Ke Khiladi to name a few . He paid ultimate tribute to Dilip Kumar by calling him as the ‘the ultimate Method Actor’ ; he knew fully well that DK didn’t go to any drama school or a film institute and couldn’t have gone to any, even if one wanted to, in those colonial times of total subjugation of minds and institutions. The genius of DK lies in his innate intuition and instincts, helping him incorporate the core components of method acting ,much before the likes of Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson et al made the concept internationally famous in the seventies. Possibly , the only element of the method acting that the great actor possibly missed was adopting complete body transformation for enacting a role- a trait that was made famous by Robert De Niro ( Cape Fear and Raging Bull), Christian Bale ( The Fighter , Vice) and others. In fact, in that era the sculpted body look, displayed by Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas and others, was extension of their natural physicality. If he knew, DK would have definitely adopted such body transformations to meet the role requirements. Moreover, on closer examination, one hardly finds any role from his repertoire needing body transformation of significant nature.
Interestingly, the birth of DK and the concept of method acting were evolving simultaneously, in happenstance, in early twenties of the twentieth century .In that chaotic colonial era characterized by the World War II and freedom movement, there was hardly possibility of any access to the method acting. Moreover, it anyway was still in conceptual infancy and at intellectual inquiry. Its early practitioners namely Sir Laurence Olivier was still to make a name. Hence, can say safely say that imbibing of this method was innate to DK as he was intuitive , intelligent, instinctive and imbued with an intense personality- an ideal combination for pursuing excellence in any effort, irrespective of time and spatial limitations.
Just to feel how seriously he prepared for the roles, one learns that while preparing for the role of a blind man in film Deedar, he frequently visited the platform of Bombay Central Railway Station and befriended a blind beggar who eventually recognized him by his voice, to his great surprise. It instilled in him the importance of voice modulated dialogue delivery, with silent stares and pregnant pauses, punctuated with sighs and moans – all becoming his signature style. The emphasis was equally on other acknowledged elements like the facial expressions accompanied by body language conveyed through gestures and manners. These two together in perfect harmony, if enacted or extracted by the director, only could heighten the experience, enhancing that elusive that emotional ‘connect’ of the audience. Only then, one could induce that indefinable ,immediate identification amongst cinematic audiences that causes all round adulation and ‘idol’ worship. This type of depiction became his distinctive trademark and lasted till the very last -in movies like Shakti ( rendition of dialogues was no less than Amitabh Bachchan himself), Vidhata ( with Sanjeev Kumar) and Saudagar ( Raj Kumar). Of course, some of his dialogues from Devdas and Mughal-e-Azam are immortalized in cultural and cinematic history of over half a century and this a living proof of a nation’s affection and tribute to the thespian.
His acting approach posed peculiar challenges in enacting the role of a rebellious Prince Salim in Mughal-e- Azam as observing a real prince wasn’t possible. To make the character believable, he chose to remain in the tent in full princely attire and war gear for long hours; it helped him to comprehend the consciousness of the character in love- first falling blindingly in love, rising in revolt, marching on a war path, to cross swords with the mightiest king, in all-out declaration of war and dying for undying love . Mughal-e-Azam is also a fine example of professionalism of not only DK but also Madhubala, in enacting the love scene where DK is caressing Madhubala’s face with a white feather, when their love had gone sour and weren’t even on talking terms.
What has now become a famous folklore, for a five minute song sequence in the film Kohinoor, DK learnt to play from maestro Ustad Halim Jaffar Khan Sahib and practiced sitar for about six months and the result is for all to see in the song ‘ Madhuban mein Radhika nachey rey’. Contrast this with on screen frantic strumming of guitar (including electronic guitar without wires), in complete disharmony to musical notes or pitch ,enacted by several stars, for decades ,with possible exception to Rishi Kapoor in movie Sargam ( while playing dafli). DK set a very high standard for realistic renditions, required by a role, as only then, the audience could internalize and experience identification necessary for any cinematic success. Unlike the famous multiple shift-system of Bollywood where heroes worked simultaneously on sets of separate films in a day ( Rajesh Khanna set a record in acting through this system and giving seventeen consecutive hits including fifteen solo ones in a span of two years 1969-71), DK chose to concentrate to work on one film at a time ( adopted by Aamir Khan in later part of his career). He also espoused fixing three shift limit for the actors .This explains that despite a long career spanning five decades, he worked on about 63 films . His dedication and commitment to the craft by striving to give a perfect take, irrespective of retakes required, became legendary. This type of commitment and dedication was unheard of, in the Indian film industry for a long time, till Aamir Khan ( Ghazini, 3, Rang De Basanti, Fire ), Raj Kumar Rao ( Ludo), Farhan Akhtar ( Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Toofan now) emerged as total actors, totally ‘living’ the role 24X7.
To give realistic performance for his role as a villager in film Ganga Jamuna, DK learnt the Awadhi dialect of rural eastern Uttar Pradesh and wore sweat soaked kurtas and traditional dhoti with tabeez round his neck ; not only that, he personally chose Vyjyanthimala’s sarees and dresses worn in the film. One still remembers how he shouts ( bhaag mat ) at Anwar Hussain running away for his life while funeral pyre of Vyjyanthimala burns away in the barren rock landscape. Amitabh Bachchan has admired as to how a Pathan from Peshwar could portray that personality so perfectly specially in speech and mannerisms. For the role of tongawallah in Naya Daur , he observed and learnt from ‘kochwan’ about the ways to control and communicate with the horses.
His acting talent was recognized by no less than the legendary director David Lean who first offered him an important role in Lawrence of Arabia that ,after refusal by DK, was eventually enacted by Omar Sharif and achieved lifelong stardom. There was also a massive buzz of David Lean making Taj Mahal with DK and Elizabeth Taylor in the lead. It reportedly got Saira Banu immensely worried ; but one needs to check whether the proposal predated Cleopatra and if it didn’t , then there was any cause to worry as Richard Burton actually carried the lover role to real life by marrying her not once but twice.
DK was given the epithet of ‘Tragedy King’ ( don’t miss the label King though later Shah Rukh Khan was given the epithet of ‘ King Khan’) for enacting a myriad of moods, mostly of melancholia , of men of masochist disposition nurturing emotional wounds , be it self-inflicted or deep inner conflict caused by grudging compliance with prevalent social mores. Moreover, India’s story, at that time, was no less than of a Greek tragedy as it found itself stranded on crucial crossroad of history. The exuberant joy of a nation achieving independence soon turned into living hell of humanity. One lived through a horrendous horror of death and destruction, due to unprecedented displacement ( between 10 to 20 million) of human population in history. It estimatedly left about two million people dead- forget the mayhem of rape, looting and financial losses.
Those were tragic times for a newly liberated nation where bodies, minds and souls, of families and individuals, were not only partitioned but poisoned; the specter of religious strife still haunts and the country hasn’t fully recovered from it as yet. DK was a sensitive soul and living through the direct experience of death and destruction certainly would have left a lifelong imprint on his mind and soul. Combine that with the tragedy of not being able to marry the love of his life. So, perhaps his method acting wasn’t all that deliberate and intentional and would have stemmed from real life experiences of turmoil of the mind and soul. T¬¬ransposing those real life tragic times would have been just natural for a brooding Pathan loving his big brood till the very end. His two younger brothers died due to Covid-19 just months before.
DK is also credited with being the first one to charge Rs. one lakh when being a ‘lakhpati’ was equivalent having arrived with riches in a society. One also knows when Amitabh charged first one crore for a film in eighties and India Today came out with the cover story of one crore star. And now one hears that Shah Rukh Khan’s total remuneration for the film Pathan exceeds Rs. one hundred crores. One thing is sure, one wouldn’t live through seeing the payment of Rs. one thousand crores in one’s lifetime in India.
His decency and dignified behaviour exuded that fast evaporating old world charm that endears one to people of all hues. His multifaceted personality was simple, elegant and so self-effacing that it hid his multifarious natural talents . His fluency over twelve languages helped him connect and endear to several social sections of syncretic India. His love for sports like chess, badminton ( shared similar love with Muhammad Rafi ) and cricket indicated his well-rounded personality.
His immense emotional intensity on screen inflamed the fire of both head and the heart , amongst the audiences. Depiction of self-destructing and dissolving of one’s life as a drunkard, in Devdas, created the screen and socio-cultural icon of a fallen, forlorn lover called Devdas for an entire generation. Until Shah Rukh Khan emerged and shattered this motif of self-destructive lover in the film Darr, an entire generation had loved, lived and often self-destructed as dejected drunken lovers- at times even the woman didn’t know of such one sided afflictive affection . Inculcation and incorporation of such social behaviour symbolized an easy escapism, when one was unable to marry one’s beloved in a patriarchal system that supported sacrificing one’s own desires and dreams, to family diktats and duties, of a feudal society. Though after film Darr depicted manic -obsessive love of modern era, there were other films like Baazigar which depicted motif of vengeful lover. These nihilistic depictions appealed to the millennials but they couldn’t have been culturally accepted in mass consciousness. To truly reflect the changing times, Shah Rukh Khan again returned to redefine the social norm cinematically, as it were. And that film was Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge which wed the twin needs of social conformism-cum-compliance with traditional family values and freedom of loving and living hereafter, with family fully approval, sooner or later. And to take it further, it needed an iconoclastic and non-conformist director like Anurag Kashyap who finally buried the century old cultural icon of self-destructive lover in DevD. Instead of dissolving one’s life in drinks, his film modernized Devdas by opting for ‘moving on’ motif in life, rather than wasting one’s body and soul over another ‘moved on’ individual. The new generation has slowly taken over this newer consciousness of love and living by burying the ghost of Devdas in Indian culture ,even in the countryside of India. In fact, the use of word Devdas is used more in a pejorative sense by the youth these days.
He was a total actor interested and involved in entire process of film making and was accused of excessive interference and ghost directing films like Ganga Jamuna and Dil Diya Dard Liya (was co-director ). Even Aamir Khan has faced similar charges and ended up directing Taare Zameen Par after falling out with Amole Gupte midway in making of the movie.
Long before the modern era when artists and sport persons ( tennis star Naomi Osaka’s admission during recent French Open) started speaking openly about mental health issues, DK was the first one, in the fifties only, to openly acknowledge his own trying trysts with depression. His propensity to get under the skin of the characters and his intense identification, to make the screen serious characters believable, lasted beyond the director’s pack-up diktat and led to descending into depression. And on doctor’s advice, he deliberately chose a series of comedy films like Azaad, Kohinoor and Leader. One sees that he clearly enjoyed himself in Leader’s light hearted role ( can see the song Mujhe Duniya Waalon Sharabi Na Samajo).
It is said that a person is a product of his time and this aptly applies to DK too. Devika Rani advised him to change his screen name from Yusuf Khan to Dilip Kumar. The era of his screen debut was a turbulent time in the country facing partition and communal conflagration. And Devika Rani’s own love affair with co-star Najm-ul-Hassan may have convinced her to espouse separation of religion from screen persona. Not that the people have been unaware of DK’s original name ; it didn’t matter anyway once the talent shone through the screen.
The permeance of syncretic culture and harmonious coexistence in daily life is best demonstrated by the fact that despite being a Muslim, DK’s fathers’ name was Lala Ghulam Sarwar Khan. As we know, the epithet Lala is somewhat honorific title preceding people doing business and we all know DK’s father’s pesha( profession) was that of a fruit merchant and he came from distant Peshawar to make a fortune in Maharashtra.
The world’s consciousness in DK’s era was dominated by humanism, Fabian Socialism, freed people and spirit unleashed through liberation of the colonial world. There was all encompassing romanticism about the future of new India amongst the freed people. The three stars namely Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar were like the famous trios of today’s football- Neymar, Ronaldo and Messi- all great in their inimitable ways . Raj Kapoor and DK shared Nehru’s humanism and vision of new secular India with a difference. Raj Kapoor made feel good factor driven films which transcended trappings of poverty and were represented through naivete and good deeds done by a destitute tramp . He and his films achieved cult status in socialist countries. Dev Anand represented the urban suave(te) of an emerging urban India. For Nehru, DK represented a fine symbol of an emerging secular society and composite culture of India, in complete contrast to a theocratic new neighboring nation founded on a religion ( first Islamic country of the world ). DK clearly kept his religion entirely in his private domain like Nehru and one cannot recall any photo of DK praying in public or wearing religion on his sleeve. It is another matter that DK may have transgressed in taking another wife but that was a regretful mistake he admitted making.
As stated, DK’s all India adulation after the tragic partition led Nehru to openly endorse him as a mascot of new nation. It is a different matter that despite his proximity to powers that be, DK still faced the ignominy of being investigated for being a Pakistani spy when his name figured in a piece of paper found on one suspect. Though he kept politics mostly out of his personal and professional life, his emotional reaction to post 1992 Mumbai riots pointed to an intense personal pain , in imagining what is being bequeathed by the present to future generations.
Despite agreeing to act willingly as Nehru’s mascot of a secular India, one can’t comprehend why DK wasn’t bestowed with the national award though he won the Filmfare award a record eight times -a feat later emulated by Shah Rukh Khan. He was also awarded Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award .DK was nominated 19 times for Filmfare awards ( Meryl Streep was nominated nineteen times for Oscars but won three times and only Amitabh received higher nominations (33) ). DK also won the Dadasaheb Phalke award.
Interestingly, both DK and Sahir Ludhianvi share similar maternal attachment and this element permeates their work . DK has admitted the fear of his father as he didn’t approve his acting career. Sahir’s distance and despise of his father is also well known.
Though critics ascribe Dilip’s intensity for realistic portrayal for a forlorn lover permanently pining for Paro, it was the youth’s inability, in general, to stand up to the authority, be it of a dominant father or social group of the then feudal patriarchal society that found the ideal identification for film’s success. In a way, there was a sub-conscious cultural connect of people lacking courage to confront the colonial powers as well. Just few years later, in the role of Prince Salim, DK turned the Devdas’s performance on its head . He was equally convincing in that role for revolting and standing his ground against the mightiest Moghul monarch (Akbar) ,for the love of his life. It is as if the story with allusion of Oedipus complex had come full circle if both these films are taken together.
Though the hold of caste and community haven’t gone away , for some at least, DK’s sterling performance indeed sowed seeds of lovers rebelling and marrying outside the boundaries of caste and community ( though over eighty percent population still opt for arranged marriage). Even as late as eighties, the famous line of ‘pyar kiya to darna lya’ held strong sway over the young lovers till lines about possessive love mouthed by Shah Rukh Khan took over in the nineties.
His conscientious personality permeated with deep rooted humanism and social responsibility saw him being closely associated with social issues before the concept of goodwill ambassadorship and brand ambassador became famous. For about a decade, he annually travelled on a train from Bombay to Pune to raise funds for the National Association for the Blind . He also helped Ali Yavar Jung Institute of Speech and Hearing in Bandra. He also led rallies to collect donations during the Indo China war and went to interact with the troops on the borders for several years. He was involved in charity cricket matches to raise funds for the poor. Imran Khan has also shown personal gratitude to DK for helping him raise resources to construct cancer hospital in her mother’s name. And don’t forget that he never associated his name for commercial advertisement except in one case and that too that was done for free.
He also mobilised money and legal aid for victims detained under Terrorist and Disruptive Activities ( Prevention ) Act and opened his doors for the communal riot’s victims.For this he was targeted later and his patriotism questioned by one particular party. Like his religion, he kept his political beliefs private. He didn’t let pettiness of politics overtake and was willing to return the Pakistan award if the PM of the county so decided but PM Atal ji advised him to ignore the pettiness.
It mustn’t have been only good looks but also his magnetic personality that fostered live long and unstinted devotion and love of Saira Banu till very last moments of his life. Interestingly, his love and marriage also represents how closely the real life approximated the reel life of that bygone era. One doesn’t need to remind that in that era , the films depicted lifelong love and devotion of lovers -specially women though a wayward man could regretfully return to the lady in the final frames. The role of woman was stereotyped similar to sacrificing Sita , an eternal motif signifying supreme devotion bordering almost on the sacred . Saira seems to have imbibed that stereotypical role of woman blindly loving and steadfastly standing next ( despite Asma’s episode) and serving him till the very last ( evident from the last photograph posted just three hours before the thespian’s demise). She has now left an unforgettable real life tale of devotion and love about a woman’s eternal love- starting at the first sight and serving with absolute devotion till termination. It surely is a tale fit enough to be scripted on screen sometime for sure if someone is looking for a storyline with universal appeal. Am sure that it will happen at some stage.
Fate meant that despite growing up in family of eleven siblings and admitting for being a father like personality for younger siblings, he didn’t experience the joys of fatherhood- and Saira of motherhood ( there was a miscarriage for Saira). Yet, he lamented on the spiraling out of communal hatred and prejudice in the nineties and the world that we are bequeathing to the next generations. After all , he had seen what the communal virus could do the social fabric and inner humanity of all human beings and costs are paid by all irrespective of inclinations of community , creed or caste.
Javed Akhtar has called DK as the Panini as he laid the grammar and standards of acting against which an Indian actor has been and would be judged in the Bollywood. Amitabh Bachchan has stated the history of Indian cinema would always be known through ‘before DK and after DK’.
One was revisiting his filmography and was struck by how the names of this films actually signify the times and the man of Dilip Kumar. His first film Jwar Bhata actually symbolizes his life in Low and High Tide ( low of initial struggle to super stardom to low again and then rebirth as character actor and his two decades struggles with health); he was indeed Jugnu(firefly) in that era that intermittently lit acting arena for over five decades; one has already described in detail his ‘Andaz’ or signature acting style ; he kept his ‘Aan’ by adhering to highest standards in personal conduct barring the small digression of second marriage ; only personal ‘Daag’ may be his second marriage and regret for giving pain to Saira; he was truly ‘Azaad’ in being his own man for decades; was indeed embodiment of ‘Ganga- Jamuna’ tahzeeb if one listens to his interview on the BBC and other interviews and tone and tenor of dignity and decency in description of people and events in his autobiography; ‘Saheed’ was the motif of those times; he would remain ‘Amar’ in Indian psyche for generations ; his quintessential “Insaniyat’ defined his life and living and was almost a perfect insan; he did symbolize the ‘Paigham’ of new secular India; Devdas and Mughal-e- Azam defined the love and reaction of those times and represented repression and revolt of the Oedipus complex ; ‘Naya Daur’ indeed was symptomatic of country reconciling romantic rural lifestyle with modern machines and modernism of Nehru ; ‘Aadmi’ again symbolized his insaniyat and what attributes a man must possess for love and friendship and shunning suspicion; he was indeed the ‘Leader’ in acting and giving hits of his times; Dil Diya Dard Liya was again representative of his Devdas motif with slight angle of revenge; the ‘Dastaan’ of his life can be summarized in one word’ Sunghursh’; his life was a beautiful ‘ Tarana’ that won millions; he did take temporary sanyas or “Bairaag’ from time to time; his acting ‘Shakti vis a vis Amitabh was amply seen in that film; he has been indeed the ‘Mashaal’ (torch bearer) for near perfect behaviour and has carried the ‘torch’ of method acting in Indian cinema; he was indeed a ‘Saudagar’ selling dreams of love and longing; and in keeping with the title of his last film ‘Qila’, the Emperor finally retreated into his fortress of privacy and didn’t venture out again at least professionally. His magnum opus Mughal-e- Azam is indeed the highest earner till date if adjusted for inflation and contains the imperial status and regalia of the Mughals which could only be depicted so convincingly by him. Lastly , he indeed is the ‘Kohinoor’ in many respects including acting that remained in India unlike the other one. One has deliberately left out listing the dialogues delivered and songs picturized on him as that would have made the present attempt too lengthy.
His quintessential dignity defined a perfect gentleman and for this he served in the Honorary capacity of Sherriff of the then Bombay and was also nominated for the Rajya Sabha. He received India’s second highest civilian award namely Padma Vibhushan and Nishan-e- Imtiaz – the highest civilian award in Pakistan.
In the end one can say that Dilip Kumar or Dilip Saab worked hard all his life to protect the projected persona, personality and the person who was loved by an entire nation and came as close to perfection as is possible. He never wanted to let down his own symbol of what constitutes a real India and an Indian. He represented a personality for which everyone aspired to emulate. Rarely does one find a person in whom all the best qualities are incorporated in such measure. Symbolically speaking, he can be compared to an ‘ansh’ or a ‘kan’ in which inheres an entire brahmand or the Whole; or a particle which contains the entire cosmos. In other words, Dilip Saab represents what a man can aspire to attain in his life time- highly developed intellect, knowledge, kindness, compassion, dignity, decency, tolerance, commitment, love for all irrespective of class, caste or community, pursuit of learning, dedication, sportsmanship, absorption of new influences, secularism, broadmindedness and abhorrence of anything petty and the list is endless. In some way, he approximates another artist- Leonardo De Vinci who similarly had abundant attributes to constitute an ideal man. Dilip Saab would remain an ideal forever and not only for pursuing perfection in pictures but in what a person could possibly be. He is an ideal candidate for being called a man of Renaissance of the last century.
Dilip Saab, I can never forget experiencing the entire spectrum of emotion and existence through your movies. You would remain the timeless towering thespian and an almost perfect Homo Sapien in body, mind, soul and spirit. The crown of thespian totally fits you as you elevated the art almost as a tribute to Thespis- Greek god of drama.
And in keeping with the name of your ancestral place –Qissa Khawani– your qisseys would continue to be told forever. Thank you for enriching this world by your visit. The journeys of millions of people were changed forever by your presence on screen and off.
(The Author is a film and sports columnist, and a senior IAS officer, presently serving as a Secretary to the Government of India)