TOMES have been written about his magical and unparalleled talent as a movie actor. The late thespian Dilip Kumar, however, endeared himself to South Asia’s moviegoers with more than his range and calibre as an actor’s actor. It was his studiously cultured persona and dedicated work as a public intellectual — rather cannily in the footsteps of his self-confessed icon Marlon Brando — that promises to be inexorably entwined with Dilip Kumar’s lasting memory. He spoke for peace and communal harmony, a factor that may have prompted the Pakistan government to anoint him with its highest civilian award in 1998. The citation described Dilip Kumar as a great actor, of course, but also underlined his struggle for multicultural and multiethnic harmony. That naturally riled reactionary quarters in India. The fact that his death on Wednesday at 98 coincided with a sharp downturn in India’s political standing as a rainbow democracy is thus not bereft of irony.

Dilip Kumar’s early grooming and eclectic education enabled him to make a seamless transition as a polyglot between his native Pashto, which he spoke fluently with Punjabi and Urdu in which he excelled. American-born actor Tom Alter asked him the secret of his brilliance. Pat came the reply: “Sher-o-sukhan.” Simply put, love of literature and Urdu poetry in particular showed starkly in the aura of the actor called Dilip Kumar. This was true of his contemporaries too, like Balraj Sahni and Motilal. It was another era. He was, however, not constrained by his love for Urdu. The one immensely successful movie he made — Ganga Jamuna — saw him and his handpicked Tamil heroine Vyjayanthimala delivering lines with near accuracy in the difficult Bhojpuri dialect of eastern UP. Dilip Kumar pointedly questioned any link between his language and his religion as a Muslim. There wasn’t a movie other than the magnum opus Mughal-i-Azam in which he played a Muslim character. Yet it was sher-o-sukhan that inspired his fabled dialogues and the pauses between the lines.

Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2021

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