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Dilip Kumar: 90 fruitful years

Published Dec 11, 2012 07:14am


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Dilip Kumar and Waheeda Rehman in "Dil diya, dard liya" - File photo courtesy author
Dilip Kumar and Waheeda Rehman in "Dil Diya, Dard Liya" - File photo courtesy author

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 Kumar recites a ghazal at a film function in 1963. - File photo courtesy author
Dilip Kumar recites a ghazal at a film function in 1963. - File photo courtesy author

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.”

Dilip Kumar with his favourite poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. - File photo courtesy author
Dilip Kumar with his favourite poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. - File photo courtesy author

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.

The writer showing Dilip Kumar the cover story on him. - File photo courtesy author
The writer showing Dilip Kumar the cover story on him. - File photo courtesy author

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


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Comments (48) Closed

Michael Warner Dec 13, 2012 06:05am
Malick Dec 12, 2012 09:52pm
Happy Birth day to Daleep Komar and Saira.
Malik from Australia Dec 11, 2012 12:09pm
Thank you for the article. Dilip Kumar is my hero. He is a beacon of decency and civility. He is the king of acting. He gave so much to the film and culture that would be hard to ignore. My salute to you, sir, Dilip Kumar Sahib. Happy Birthday to you.
S M ZAKARYA Dec 11, 2012 12:18pm
Happy birthday,Dilip sb
Khan Dec 13, 2012 12:11pm
Uday Chopra? LOL .. Dilip Saheb will not be happy :D
observer Dec 11, 2012 08:27am
Great photo of Faiz + Dilip Kumar.
Ashok Pandey Dec 12, 2012 10:38pm
Yusuf/Dilip Sahab.. aap jiyo aur bhi hazaron saal.
Shyam Dec 11, 2012 09:05am
What a lovely recall of Dilip Kumar's life as an actor and personality so well portrayed!
Muhammad Asif Dec 11, 2012 08:11am
long live legend. Kalinga has to wait
nabidad Dec 11, 2012 11:00am
Lovely piece on a legendary subcontinent actor Dilip Kumar sahib
Mohammed Cohen Dec 13, 2012 04:07am
It is such a sad situation today in Bollywood that Indian Jews who migrated to Israel in last 30 years or so are now back through Hollywood's studio to undermine the great culture and tradition of India through Hollywood style sex, violence for one purpose alone and that is, to demolish and destroy India's centuries old culture and family system through Bollywood. Indians who really care for India specially their own families, must voice against this foreign penetration into Bollywood for only one purpose... to destroy India's moral and family fibre through pricy Hollywood style films. if Dilip Sahib (Yousuf Bhai) was as vocal when he was able to speak he would've taken this call and gone on mission to expose the traitors now controlling Bollywood. Expose and expel these eneimies of India from within!
Amit-Atlanta-USA Dec 13, 2012 04:03am
Call me what you want, I am not one of those who has great faith in India Pakistan relations. Take it from me, even if India gives away Kashmir to Pakistan on a platter, and solves the water disputes in Pakistan's favor, surrenders it rights on Sir Creek, and also Siachen, Pakistan will never stop conspiring against India. None of this bon-homie that you writers, Bollywood starts talk about can bring up people like Surabh Kalia and scores of others as well as the millions of Bangladeshi Hindus butchered by the marauding West Pakistani army. Ofcourse religion is a huge factor in our relations, and so is that even within India. Unfortunately for many Indian Muslims (I surely don't mean all) the Ummah decides where their true allegiances lie........Dilip Kumar was one shining example of that!
Masood Hussain Dec 12, 2012 07:03pm
May God grant you many more years to healthy life.
adam memon Dec 11, 2012 04:19pm
Happy birth day Dilip Sahib.God bless you and make you happy and healthy all the time.
Ajay K Chanchani Dec 11, 2012 03:53pm
We even today in our private conversation amongst our friends from college days respectfully 7 lovingly refer to him as our Yusuf. He is the greatest.
Suren Singh Sahni Dec 11, 2012 09:57am
One of the greatest actors of all times. Happy birthday
Memee Dec 11, 2012 01:38pm
2 Legends .. Dilip Sahab and Uday Chopra
Malone Dec 12, 2012 10:59pm
``.... but Indians who are aware of what these people have uttered..'' And what have they uttered? Aamir Khan is more Indian than any Hindu!
sartaj Dec 13, 2012 06:11am
No match wit Dilip Kumar any where in the film industry of any country
Amir Dewani Dec 11, 2012 05:09pm
Now at 74+ here in America, I remember my days as a young man standing in the queue on the first day first show of most of Dilip Kumar;s films. Most of his films I used to go to Rex, Majestic and Naaz cinema houses in Karachi. He is even today my HERO. His hair style we students used to copy, and were proud to do so. Delivery of dialogue as he deed in DEEDAR in particular I never forget I wish I could reach him on line to say Happy Birthday. His mastery over Urdu language was beyond imagination. May God bless him with all the best in life.
Musthaq Dec 13, 2012 09:34am
We all should understand its mearly an artificial boundary that sepate the both countries,No matter how far we talk ,we have one culture ,habit and lifestyle. So stop differenting peoples as if they are in diff poles.Its always the hawkish politics playing the cards.Why the people suffers.Lets be together as one community.
Lakhar Khan Dec 12, 2012 07:18pm
You are pretty harsh and would not let go of your resentment of the past. Maybe problem is not with Dilip Kumar, but it
Faisal Dec 11, 2012 06:22pm
Yes but you are not him and he he made a personal choice! Since no one really knows you here I don't think anyone is interested in knowing how you live your life.
fjilani Dec 11, 2012 06:23pm
Yes but you are not him and he made a personal choice! I don't think anyone here is interested in knowing how you live your life ;)
khanm Dec 11, 2012 01:16pm
Indeed a fantastic actor but if were him, I will never change my identity. I am who I am Yousef Khan not Dilip Kumar
Abbas Dec 11, 2012 06:25pm
For me his best movie is mashal with anil kapoor. Wow what an acting ....when he was screaming in the street of Bombay at night crying for help cos his wife was dying and he was crying for help .....I can never forget that acting felt so real .... That I almost cried. What a character he played in that movie from a honest good news man to a evil gangster out for vengeance and dies for honour and truth to clean his sins . Wow he really got the massage across his audience that life can be so cruel but humanity is the ultimate virtue .
pathanoo Dec 11, 2012 06:37pm
I am an American of Indian ancestory and living in this great land for over 45 years now. I do not see Indian movies any more because there is no one who can act like Dilip Kumar. An actor is at his/her greatest when he/she is not percieved to be acting. And, there is no one in Indian cinema that you can say that about except Dilip Kumar. He, in my mind, is in the class of Sir Laurence Olivier, John Gielgoud, Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholoson to mention a few who are the epitom of acting becuase when they are (acting); it deos not seem like they are (acting). You feel you are facing the real life person. May the Good Lord grant you long life and peace, Dilip Sahib.
Mr.T Dec 11, 2012 10:36am
Happy Birthday Dilip Sahab...
fahim waqar (@fahim_waqar) Dec 11, 2012 10:30am
Thank you for this useful and appreciating piece..there are many things that i have never listen about him.i really love him ..he is my ideal .God bless you Dilip sahib..
abdul rahim chundrigar Dec 11, 2012 07:55pm
Happy birth day,sir May ALLAH bless him with lonnnnng life,aamiin rahim chundrigar
rajeshk Dec 11, 2012 08:19pm
Indian cinema salute to Dilip sahib. What a great man he is and has given so much to Indian cinema. We all in Pakistan and India are fan of him
Patriot Pakistani Dec 11, 2012 08:28pm
Dilip Kumar is an original Legend of Indian Cinema.When Indian Cinema was in infancy it needed some great actors to make it popular with people and the trio of Dilip Kumar,Raj Kapoor and Dev Anad were to fill this space.It was the golden time of Indian Film Industry,not only were the actors and actresses great but so were Musicians,Lyricists ,Singers and Directors of that time. Of all the films of Dilip Sahib I like Devdas,Mughal-e-Azam,Naya Daur,Ram aur Sham,Andaz and Deedar the most.god give him long and healthy life
Mahavir Dec 12, 2012 03:13am
I am not sure if you read the article properly or have not seen the movie Mugle Azam, but the author has already mentioned Dilip Kumar's stellar acting in Mugle Azam along with MadhuBala.
Qaiser Hussain Khan Bakhtiari Dec 11, 2012 09:40pm
Just like a poet, an actor is an artist.... he can have nom de plume or stage name. Also yousuf khan doesnt sound as cool as Dilip Kumar.
KDP Dec 11, 2012 02:50pm
Of all movies that you mentioned how can you miss to mention Mugle Azam? Who can forget dialogue between the two giant actors Prithviraj Kappoer and Dilipkumar , gifts of Peshavar PK to Bollywood
abbastoronto Dec 13, 2012 02:39pm
I am sorry you hold such views. In contrast, for what Pakistanis think of Indians I recommend a Punjabi film Kartar Singh (1959).
abbastoronto Dec 11, 2012 02:44pm
Bollywood was and is a metaphor for India at large - it shows some reality, but more so it expresses dreams and aspirations of the masses. Lollywood is no comparison because Pakistanis are better at realism, at social dramas depicting real problems with real answers, not escapism. DK, a method
Agha Ata Dec 11, 2012 02:40pm
Hey readers. You are mistaken. Dilip is not old yet. he is just acting. :)
Amna Dec 12, 2012 12:52am
We didnt celebrate his birthday in KP it is a media hype. fake news!
gopal Dec 12, 2012 01:12am
Sagina was produced by the couple also. They both acted in that. Dilip 's real youthfulness reflects in that movie & he was above 50 at that time.
kausik Dec 12, 2012 07:22am
Happy Birthday Dilip sahib.The Greatest versatile actor of Bllywood.His mesmerizing acting transformed the industry.This article one of the best written as I was longing to know life of Dilip kumar and thank the author and Dawn for publishing.
Vicky Dec 12, 2012 11:40am
I partially agree with you: Pakistani TV dramas are indeed better at realism, at social dramas depicting real problems with real answers, not escapism. However, Lollywood (Pakistani film industry) is nowhere as good as Bollywood!
Sumit Mazumdar Dec 12, 2012 03:43am
Dilip Kumar acted in a single Bengali movie directed by the legendary Bengali film director Tapan Sinha. The actor played the role of Sagina Mahato, a tribal labor leader in a Darjeeling tea garden. It wasn't a great film, but the actor did a wonderful job.
Asif Noorani writer Dec 12, 2012 12:55pm
Please don't bring politics into it. During the 1965 and 1971 war many Pakistanis did not speak against India. Faiz Ahmad Faiz was one of them. I was stranded in India during the 1965 war but I wasn't mistreated. On coming back I wrote my personal experiences and praised all Bombaywalas, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. By the way Dilip Kumar did not donate 2 crorws to Imran Khan's hospital. He was at a charity dinner in Karachi, while another great Indian Sunil Gavaskar attended a charity dinner in Lahore. People like Dilip Kumar, Sunil Gavaskar and Mehdi Hasan are too great to be limited by political boundaries. Any supporter?
SBB Dec 12, 2012 05:44am
Very well said. dilip Saheb is his finest fruit!
Mahesh Verma Dec 12, 2012 01:50pm
So you are listing him because he was muslim?? You didn't cover Dev-anand, or Rajesh Khanna??
Shafqaat Dec 12, 2012 06:45am
He is really a legend of his field. HAPPY BIRTHDAY DILIP SB
Amit-Atlanta-USA Dec 12, 2012 03:18am
Yes, he was a great actor, and magnanimous Indians loved him too. But did he love India, he never did! At the height of the India-Pak war in 1971 and also during 1965 his guest of honor (at his home) was either the Pakistani Ambassador or the Pakistani High Commissioner. Also while he made his millions from his die-hard Indian fans he showered Rs.2 Crores to a Cancer Hospital started by Imran Khan in Pakistan, while he never contributed anything close to that amount to any Indian cause! The current breed of Bollywood Khans (with possibly the exception of Aamir Khan) are ONLY a shade better, but Indians who are aware of what these people have uttered have no respect for them......I am one of them.