Yousuf Khan, known to the world as Dilip Kumar, was born on December 11, 1922, in Peshawar. He was the fifth child in a family of 13 children of Mohammad Sarwar Khan and his wife Ayesha Begum. Having a fair complexion, lustrous hair, expressive eyes and a sprightly nature, Yousuf was regarded as a very special child, and his grandmother rarely let him leave the house without smearing his forehead with kajal to ward off the evil-eye.

Mohammad Sarwar Khan was a fruit merchant by profession, and in search of better prospects, he and his family migrated from Peshawar, first to Deolali and then to Bombay. Yousuf received his basic primary education from Anjuman-e-Islam High School, Byculla, Bombay, and after matriculation, he attended Wilson College. Unfortunately, he soon had to drop out in order to help his father run his fruit business, which was facing a downward trend and barely supporting the family’s deteriorating budget.

As Yousuf explored options to help his family, his father’s friends helped him secure a job in Poona as an assistant in a British Army mess. From Poona, Yousuf went to Nainital to look for more opportunities, where he met Devika Rani, a film celebrity and owner of Bombay Talkies; it was a chance meeting that would change the course of his entire life.

Yousuf was introduced to Devika Rani while she was location hunting in Nainital with her director Amiya Chakaraborty, after which she invited him to Bombay for a screen test. He later narrated to his friend, “I refused to take the incident too seriously. Besides, I didn’t think I was all that great looking and, most importantly, my heart wasn’t in films. It was in my father’s business.”

The actor who passed away at the age of 98 on July 7, and who was dubbed the ‘Love Legend’ and the ‘Tragedy King’ at the height of his film career, was loved like no other in the Subcontinent. There was a reason he was also awarded Pakistan’s Nishan-i-Imtiaz: he was as big a human as he was a filmmaker

Despite his inhibitions, Yousuf went to see Devika in her office at Bombay Talkies. “Devika Rani looked me over one more time, quietly, then, without saying a word, handed me a piece of paper. It was a contract letter to work in films produced by Bombay Talkies.”

Even with his back to the camera he could deliver a powerful performance as in this scene from Amar (1954)
Even with his back to the camera he could deliver a powerful performance as in this scene from Amar (1954)

She also asked one of her writers to suggest stage names, as she thought Yousuf was not a suitable name for films. Three names were suggested to him: Jehangir, Yasu Dev and Dilip Kumar. “I was,” Yousuf said later, “so tense to think about anything, and just blurted, ‘Dilip Kumar’.”

Yousuf became Dilip Kumar for the cinema-going public in his first lead role in Jwaar Bhaata (1944), directed by Amiya Chakarborty. Alas, the film did not fare well at the box office. Babu Rao Patel, editor of the magazine Film India gave Jwaar Bhaata very bad reviews and labelled Dilip Kumar an “anaemic hero”, commenting that his appearance on screen was very disappointing.

Yousuf, a sensitive young man who had entered an altogether strange world, was struggling to get acclimated to the film industry. Unfortunately, his second film Pratima (1945) was another failure. Patel repeated his comments in Film India that Pratima was a terrific disappointment to all fans of Bombay Talkies, and doubted if the “anaemic hero” would ever act again.

However, Jai Raj, the director of Pratima, had different views about the young man: “This young actor is consciously and rapidly learning the art and craft of acting, though he has yet to find his individual idiom.” History ordained that it was Dilip Kumar’s third film Milan (1946), directed by Nitin Bose, in which he ultimately realised his talent as an actor.

As a man unable to face the social taboos of his time in Devdas (1955)
As a man unable to face the social taboos of his time in Devdas (1955)

Initially Yousuf was not considered to act in Milan. Nitin Bose had wanted to make both a Bengali and an Urdu version of the film, with Abhi Bhattacharya playing the lead in both versions. However, as Abhi could not speak Urdu properly, Bose asked Yousuf to play the lead in the Urdu version.

Bose’s confidence in Yousuf pushed the young actor to do what he confessed he should have done earlier. He watched film after film of the best Hollywood actors, such as Spencer Tracy, Paul Muni, James Stewart and Ingrid Bergman, absorbing their natural dialogue delivery, and even the silent acting of Greta Garbo, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Despite Babu Rao Patel’s third round of bad reviews, Milan was a box office success.

Under the direction of Bose, Yousuf learnt the value of silence. Milan was the first film in which Yousuf conveyed deep emotions by his facial expressions alone, and the effect was tremendous. At last, Dilip Kumar’s success story had begun.

Andaaz (1949) established Dilip Kumar as a great thespian
Andaaz (1949) established Dilip Kumar as a great thespian

Following Milan, hordes of producers made offers, the most pivotal being Syed Shoukat Hussain Rizvi’s Jugnu (1947), in which Yousuf was cast opposite Noor Jehan. Jugnu clearly revealed that the young hero had star charisma; his boyish charm and loveable smile attracted girls, and his tousled hair became a rage with the boys. Jugnu became a super-hit and brought a spate of assignments in its wake for Dilip Kumar.

In 1946-47, Yousuf signed several films, five of which were released in 1948 — Mela, Nadiya ke Paar, Anokha Pyar, Ghar ki Izzat and Shaheed — and all five of them became super-hits. At long last, Babu Rao Patel admitted about Shaheed: “…so far as acting is concerned, Dilip Kumar steals the picture with his deeply felt and yet perfectly natural delineation of the main role. Sensitivity and intelligent understatement are the outstanding characteristics of his acting…Kamini Kaushal is somewhat overshadowed by Dilip...But the two of them act some of the tenderest, most intimate and moving love scenes that have ever been seen on the Indian screen.”

By 1950, Dilip Kumar was at the dizzy zenith of fame and, as the intense and tragic lover, was given the sobriquet ‘The Love Legend’. Over time, Yousuf honed his signature technique of modulating his vocal range when expressing grief or deep emotion, the effect of which was amplified by turning his back to the camera.

Playing Prince Saleem, a strong character who opposes his father in Mughal-i-Azam (1960)
Playing Prince Saleem, a strong character who opposes his father in Mughal-i-Azam (1960)

In Amiya Chakraborty’s Daag (1952), Dilip Kumar reacts to the news of his mother’s death in an unforgettable scene that is carried solely by the nuance of his vocal inflections in the repetition of one single line “Meri maa margayi [My mother has died].” It is said that the impact was such that the audience was reduced to pin-drop silence.

In Mahboob Khan’s Andaaz (1949), Dilip Kumar jolts Nargis out of the shock of her father’s death in such a compelling manner that he transcended from being a good actor to a great artist, on his way to becoming a legend. These two scenes are unforgettable in the history of cinema.

A testament to Dilip Kumar’s versatility and range as an actor is the fact that, in the early ’50s, he was shooting completely different characters in two very different films at the same time — Bimal Roy’s Devdas and K. Asif’s Mughal-i-Azam. Both films were shot at Mohan Studios, and the sets were erected in the same hall, facing each other. In an amusing double-act, Yousuf had to shuttle only 50 feet to transform from Devdas — a self-destructive, weak-willed, despondent man unable to face the social taboos of his time — to Mughal Prince Saleem, a strong character who opposes Akbar the Great himself, and is not prepared to forsake his lady love.

One of his best performances was in Ganga Jamuna (1961)
One of his best performances was in Ganga Jamuna (1961)

After Mughal-i-Azam released in 1960, Dilip Kumar began realising his ambition to produce his own film. With assurances and encouragement from his younger brother Nasir Khan and his friend Shapoorji Pallonji (a Bombay construction tycoon), Ganga Jamuna (1961) went into production with great zeal.

Although it listed Nitin Bose as director and Dilip Kumar as writer, Yousuf was commanding the ship, from writing the story and dialogues, selecting the location to mastering the Bhojpuri dialect — to, of course, delivering one of the most memorable performances of his illustrious career. In an interview with The Sunday Times in 1990, Amitabh Bachchan called Dilip Kumar the “master of understatement”, and his role in Ganga Jamuna “the ultimate performance.”

Thousands of Dilip Kumar’s admirers still reminisce about his peak in the ’50s and the ’60s. They say that the Dilip Kumar of Mela and Nadiya ke Paar, of Andaz and Mughal-i-Azam, of Naya Daur and Gunga Jamuna, held sway over their hearts and emotions in a way that the Dilip Kumar of Kranti (1981), Bairaag (1976), Mazdoor (1983) and Qila (1998) could not. In an interview with Screen in 1991, Shabana Azmi noted an erosion of the intellectual acumen of the directors surrounding Dilip Kumar, which may have contributed to his questionable choice of films such as Dharam Adhikari (1986), Kanoon Apna Apna (1989) and Izzatdaar (1990).

Many attribute Dilip Kumar’s decline to his avoidance of parallel cinema which, at the time, was being led by directors such as Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and Mrinal Sen. Yousuf, however, did not believe in “cinema that floats above the head, even though it may be imparting a new film grammar.”

Dilip Kumar received eight Filmfare Best Actor awards for his roles in Daag (1953), Azad (1955), Devdas (1956), Naya Daur (1957), Kohinoor (1960), Leader (1964), Ram aur Shyam (1967) and, lastly, Shakti (1982). He also received a Special Prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for Ganga Jamuna.

The National Awards came later but he received them all; Padma Bhushan in 1991, the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, and the prestigious Dada Saheb Phalke Award (named after the father of Indian cinema), which was presented to him at the Vigyan Bhavan, Delhi, on July 7, 1995. He was also given the N.T. Rama Rao Award for his outstanding contributions to Indian cinema in 1997.

Also in 1997, Dilip Kumar was given Pakistan’s highest civilian award, the Nishan-i-Imtiaz, in acknowledgement of his lifelong contribution to cinema. In response to criticism for accepting a Pakistani award, he stressed that the Nishan-i-Imtiaz was a gesture of love and friendship for people on both sides of the border, and that he was accepting it as a great honour on behalf of the people of his country.

Yousuf flirted with politics throughout his career, the highlight of which coincided with Pandit Nehru’s prime ministerial tenure. He used his star power and charisma to campaign for prominent members of the Congress, including Krishna Menon, who later became the foreign minister of India.

Owing to his wisdom, influence, and cross-cultural background, Yousuf was appointed the Sheriff of Bombay in 1980, to promote amity among different communities and allow Bombay to remain a cosmopolitan city. However, the political tension between the Hindu and Muslim communities in the 1990s made peaceful coexistence impossible. Victims of communal carnage thronged Dilip Kumar’s Pali Hill residence for help and solace. Delegates of the All India Muslim Conference also pressurised Yousuf to assume leadership of the Muslim population. Although he retired from politics in 1997, the sentiments of his community and requests made to plead their cause in parliament were too strong to resist.

With his wife Saira, he started the Welfare Organisation for Relief and Care Services (WORCS), to provide relief to riot-stricken people in case of a terrorist attack. He also had a brief stint in the Rajya Sabha on a Congress nomination in the year 2000. The Times of India reported that he “made an impressive debut in his new role.” As he aged gracefully, however, he discouraged shows of adulation and preferred leading a private life with his family.

Times changed, and the grammar of filmmaking and technology evolved in the alien culture of the new millennium. While there are still many stars and critics who swear by his histrionics and look up to him as a king among actors, many more may not understand the love and adoration heaped upon him on account of his heartfelt performances. No film star has been adored as much by the masses as Dilip Kumar.

But then there are those few who still view his old DVDs on a quiet Sunday afternoon, immersing themselves in his ‘loves’ tragic endings’.

It will be impossible to forget Dilip Kumar — the actor and the man.

Dr Munawar Ahmad, though a practising medical doctor, has an abiding interest in art and literature. His book on Khalid Iqbal, the legendary landscape artist, was published in 2017

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 18th, 2021

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