Today, on December 11, arguably the finest film actor the subcontinent ever produced was born in Peshawar to Hindko-speaking Pathan parents. Fourth in a family of 12 children, he was named Yusuf Khan. Sometime in the late twenties, the family moved to Bombay, where his father Ghulam Sarwar Khan set up a fruit business.
A shy young man, Yusuf did a job or two to support the family since the business wasn’t doing well in the War years. However, fate had something exciting in store for the young man, who ran into Devika Rani, the reigning heroine and chief executive of Bombay Talkies. As it turned out, her greatest contribution to the Indian cinema was the discovery of a person who was destined to become a legend in his lifetime. She offered him a film actor’s job on what was then a princely salary of Rs 500 with the prospects of an annual increase of Rs 200.
Yusuf Khan, she felt, 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, who loathed all ‘nautankwalas’, as he used to call those associated with the cinema.
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 rich career, which spanned six decades, immersed himself in the characters he played. For instance, when he was to play the sitar for a song situation 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 some time with the people in the profession to learn about their trade as also their mannerisms. 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 movie 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.
To be fair to Dilip Kumar’s distinguished contemporaries, one may add that both Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand were also into film production, while Dilip only concentrated on his acting as also on the script of the films he did. He was ghost director for two movies, the box-office hit Gunga Jumna and a commercial disaster Dil Diya Dard Liya. For some reason, Kalinga, the movie he was directing officially, didn’t go beyond the shooting of a few scenes.
Back to his acting, 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 movie 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 break that lasted four years. In 1981, he appeared in what is known in the film lingo as a character actor in Karanti. He impressed even his worst critics in his new avatar. In the movie that followed he shared the marquee with Amitabh in Shakti. His was the central character. It got Dilip his last trophy as the Best Actor (the Lifetime Achievement Award was to come later). This writer had the privilege of chatting with the thespian on the sets of the movie, but that’s another story. What is pertinent is that the scene featuring him and Amitabh was ‘OK’ (to use a term from the film parlance) from the word ‘go’ but the perfectionist in Dilip wasn’t satisfied until the fifth take.
Among his last few movies, 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, the same number with Kamini Kaushal and Meena Kumari but with Nargis and Vyjaynthimala he did eight.
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. However, he is still approached by his fans belonging to three generations.
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 longer to honour the thespian.”
The Pakistan Government awarded him Nishan-e-Imtiaz, the highest civilian award. Morarji Desai was the only other Indian to have been similarly honoured.
Social work and charities kept him 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-sixties, when Dilip Kumar 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 the Pakistani soil. The Chief of the Protocol, Nawab Rahat Saeed Chathari, who was sitting there, was left alone. Even his daughter jilted him and joined the crowd that had gathered around the thespian. Two staff members were suspended the following day for opening the lounge without the permission of the ‘seniors.’ They were later reinstated.
A few months later, when I met Dilip at Kardar Studios in Bombay, I mentioned to him that it was because of his presence that two people in the civil aviation department almost lost their jobs. “Well, if someone had told me that the Nawab sahib was also in the lounge, I would have gone to see him. After all, he is older than me,” said the man whose greatness often transcended his calibre as an actor.
Asif Noorani is a seasoned journalist, who writes on music, literature, cinema and travel. His latest book ‘Mehdi Hasan: The Man and His Music’ is a bestseller. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.