Ninety years ago, on December 11, 1922, Yusuf Khan was born in Peshawar to Hindko-speaking parents. Fourth in a family of 12 children, he moved with his family, in the late 1920s, to then Bombay, where his father Ghulam Sarwar Khan set up business as a fruit trader.
The shy young man did a job or two to support the family since the business wasn’t doing well in the War years. One day he ran into Devika Rani, the reigning heroine and the chief executive of Bombay Talkies, whose greatest contribution was the discovery of a person who was destined to be a legend in his lifetime. She offered him a film actor’s job on what was then a princely salary of Rs500 with the prospects of an annual increase of Rs200. Yusuf Khan, she thought, was not a name to go well with a romantic hero. Of the three names suggested to him — Jehangir, Vasudev and Dilip Kumar — he chose the last. This he thought was also appropriate for it would hide his new occupation from his conservative father.
The chance meeting with Devika Rani altered the course of Dilip Kumar’s life but more than that it changed the trend in acting from loud and theatrical to a natural style both in action and in speech. To quote a critic, “he lent a meditative resonance to film acting”. Amitabh Bachchan, a great performer himself, says “He is a milestone for every upcoming actor. We have all been influenced by his dedication and versatility.”
Dilip, who did only 63 films in a career, which spanned six decades, immersed himself in the characters he played. For instance, when he was to play the sitar in Kohinoor, he took lessons from a sitar maestro. Likewise, when he was to enact the character of a tonga driver in Naya Daur, Dilip spent time with the people in the profession. No wonder the world famous film maker Satyajit Ray called him “the ultimate method actor.”
He is often bracketed with Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, calling them the great trio, but the fact remains that neither could match Dilip Kumar in sheer versatility. Raj Kapoor fell into a Chaplin-style tramp mode, while Dev Anand could never move out of a suave young, and later not so young, man image. Dilip played a rustic character in Ganga Jumna, the only film he produced in his career, with as much ease as when he donned the heavy mantle of a Mughal prince, who challenged the mighty emperor when he imposed impediments in his love for a courtesan, played to perfection by Madhubala.
Dilip Kumar may have started his career as a doomed lover, who more often than not died in the end, but the great tragedian later showed his immense flair for comedy. Not even once in Azad, Kohinoor, Leader and Ram Aur Shyam did he overdo a scene. In fact, half of the eight Filmfare Awards trophies for the Best Actor that he won were in this genre.
When the last film featuring him in the romantic lead — Bairag — flopped, he realised that at 54 he could not be accepted as a ‘lover boy’, so he took a four-year break. In 1981, he appeared in what is known in the film lingo as a character actor in Karanti.
In the film that followed he shared the marquee with Amitabh in Shakti. But his was the central character. It got Dilip his last trophy as Best Actor (the Lifetime Achievement Award was to come later). I had the privilege of chatting with the thespian on the sets of the film, but that’s another story. What is pertinent is that the scene featuring him and Amitabh was okay from the word ‘go’ but the perfectionist in Dilip wasn’t satisfied until the fifth take.
Among his last few films, the one where he shared stellar honours with Naseeruddin Shah, was Karma. One could see that Naseer held his own when pitched against the person, who was aptly called the actors’ actor.
One agrees with writer Javed Akhtar when he says that Dilip’s influence can be seen in even those who made their debut in recent years.
Many heroines have happily played the romantic lead opposite him but no one has made a more endearing pair with Dilip than Madhubala. They were in love with each other and would have made a fine couple off the screen as well but fate had something else in store. With her he made four films, but with Nargis and Vyjaynthimala he did eight.
When Dilip Kumar was given the highest film award, Dadasaheb Phalke Award, belatedly in 1995, The Times of India, commented editorially: “Given that the award was instituted a good 26 years ago, it defies logic that the Centre should have taken this long to honour the thespian.” The Pakistan Government awarded him Nishan-i-Imtiaz, the highest civilian award.
Morarji Desai was the only other Indian to have been similarly honoured.
Social work and charities kept Dilip busy in the latter half of his career. He came to Pakistan twice, once to promote the cause of a blood bank and again to help raise funds for a cancer hospital. Very few people know that way back in the mid-60s, when he was flying to London, and the aircraft made a stopover in Karachi, he was invited to spend a few minutes in the VIP lounge. That was the first time he stepped onto Pakistani soil.
Dilip Kumar, escorted by Saira Bano, his wife of more than four decades, still attends social functions occasionally, but he doesn’t talk. The once so expressive face just wears a blank look. But he is still approached by his fans spanning three generations.