Dilip Kumar is not merely the screen name of a single historical individual, Yusuf Khan of Peshawar. It designates a cultural phenomenon, a wave, a meteoric spectacle and a creative jet.

He was all around us in my younger days; one recalls his gigantic posters in front of cinema halls, with endless lines of unruly — sometimes rioting — ticket hopefuls, lines reminiscent of the Great Wall of China, and around these lines black marketeers fluttering, multiplying the ticket prices as much as sixfold. In every alley, ordinary folk would sing songs masterfully lip-synced by this giant.

My uncle used to boast that he was among those champions who saw the very first screening of Aan, India’s first film shot in 16mm Gevacolor and blown up in 35mm Technicolor, a film created by the legendary Dilip Kumar-Mehboob Khan-Naushad trio. In fact, this Dilip-enthusiast uncle of mine would tell us his winner’s tale: he had prevailed upon his friends in the entertainment tax department to intercede and twist the arm of the obese cinema manager to give him a ticket — yes, people would go to such lengths when it came to Dilip Kumar. Aan was the highest-grossing film ever at the time, released as The Savage Princess in the United Kingdom and the United States.

And there is a whole sociology involved here. Dilip Kumar was a great social equaliser: what of the lord, lady and princely youngsters of the household and what of its maids, cooks and security guards — all were hit by Dilip Kumar’s Cupid’s arrow. Even in the decade after the tremors of Aan, the Bengali cook of my next-door neighbours would announce the serving of dinner by singing, at the top of his voice and exercising the limits of his vocal cords, a song sung by Dilip Kumar’s character in the film. Then, at the other end of the social spectrum, the teenage son of these neighbours copied the hero’s hairstyle, constantly shaking back from his forehead the locks of his hair in perpetual, supple movements.

One of Dilip Kumar’s fundamental creative traits, perhaps ‘the’ trait, is the harmony he was able to forge between the words he uttered and the external gestures and movements he generated.

But how does one explain the ubiquitous magic of Dilip Kumar? Once, the Padma Shri-decorated actor Tom Alter asked him the same question. The answer came effortlessly: “Sher-o-sukhan” [poetry and literature]. This should give us pause. These days, when in our throes of scientism (not science) and technological obsessions, people often ask the resounding, in fact deafening, question “what is the use of poetry and literature? Shouldn’t we pay attention to technology?”, here is one glaring instance of the so many pragmatic dimensions of poetry. Being immersed in poetry can bring fame, wealth, creativity and can engender so much love and affection, so much glory.

So let’s pause. One of Dilip Kumar’s fundamental creative traits, perhaps ‘the’ trait, is the harmony he was able to forge between the words he uttered and the external gestures and movements he generated. This harmony is the key to unlocking the secret of his genius. He could enter the semantic depths of words, scan their nuances, deliver them with perfect punctuation. And if there is a string of words, they radiated from him with measured silences and pauses, with dramatic hiatus. With all of this harmonised his facial expressions, his bodily movements and his gestures. There is hardly any other actor in the history of South Asia cinema who could match this substantive-semantic harmony.

And all of this is taught to us by poetry. Words can have different meanings in different contexts, and words are anchored in their history of usages. The craft of poetry lies in the exploitation of these features of language, and pressing them into aesthetic service. Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, for example, used the different conjugational forms of the same verb to open up new vistas of meaning.

But in the domain of performing arts, Dilip Kumar uses enunciative variations to create a specific effect. In one sequence of the grand film Mughal-i-Azam, Dilip Kumar’s character, Prince Salim, lifts the veil of Madhubala’s character, Anarkali, who has been presented as a marble statue, and says, “Truly, only stone could have borne the weight of this unbounded beauty!” The words ‘stone’ (patthar) and ‘weight’ (bojh) are delivered with such craft and care, complemented by the harmony of such parallel facial expressions, that their meanings appear in their full embodiment and dramatic effect.

The legendary singer Lata Mangeshkar, born in Madhya Pardesh, is neither a Hindi nor an Urdu speaker; her mother tongue seems to be Marathi. She tells us that, when she first met Dilip Kumar, he had reservations about her Urdu diction and pronunciation: “The Urdu enunciation of your community is only half-baked,” he is reported to have said. Lata admits how she took this remark to heart, learned Urdu and became one of those singers who hardly ever made an error in Urdu pronunciation; she remained just absolutely perfect. So, in a sense, the greatness of this legendary singer is also a sher-o-sukhan gift of Dilip Kumar.

Indeed, a critic of the performing arts can do something very simple to support my observations. All one has to do is survey the multifarious ways Dilip Kumar has expressed negation, “No!” and the countless manners in which he has enunciated affirmation, “Yes!” The variety is mind-boggling.

But really, sher-o-sukhan needs no pragmatic justification. Indeed, one may talk about its supra-pragmatics. Poetry gave Dilip Kumar a profound inner fulfilment, serenity, a power of creative imagination, a passion. All of this made him a fuller human being. People on both sides of the border not only loved Dilip Kumar the actor, but equally Dilip Kumar the human being.

The columnist is dean of the School of Liberal Arts at the University of Management and Technology, Lahore, and visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 18th, 2021

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