An archetypal performer who created his own school of acting
Phenomenon, instinctually natural performer, polyglot, and one who could harmonise mind, voice and body on screen — this is how colleagues, film historians and cinema enthusiasts remember Dilip Kumar, whose birth centenary falls on Sunday.
Kumar was not only suave and soft, elegant and enchanting, but his performing skills continue to be respectfully emulated by leading actors and thespians of Indian cinema.
He never studied the art and craft of acting in any drama or film school, but his presence on screen had a certain rhythm, poise and movement derived from his own method of acting.
As the film industry and cinema lovers across generations mark the birth centenary of the silver screen icon, film historian Amrit Gangar believes it is interesting that the celebrations coincide with times when “we are talking not just about Hindi cinema but the pluralistic Indian cinema as a whole”.0
“Dilip Kumar sahab was a polyglot reflecting India’s polyphonic character as a nation. He knew or spoke fluently, besides his own mother tongue Hindko, Urdu, Hindi, Pashto, Punjabi, Marathi, English, Bengali, Gujarati, Persian, Bhojpuri and Awadhi… His birth centenary marks Indian cinema with an extraordinary poise and economy in today’s cacophonic environment,” Gangar told.
Born in a congested lane of Qissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar, Pakistan, Muhammad Yusuf Khan was one of the 12 children of Lala Ghulam Sarwar Khan and his wife Ayesha Begum.
In his 20s, he decided to pursue acting professionally with “Jwar Bhata” being his first film. It was the beginning of the journey of one of the biggest screen icons witnessed by Indian cinema-Dilip Kumar, a name suggested by legendary actor-producer Devika Rani.
From “Jwar Bhata” in 1944 to “Qilla” in 1998 Kumar had a 56-year-long illustrious career. The decades 1950s and 1960s marked his golden period so it was Indian cinemas. Mehboob Khan’s 1949’s “Andaz”, alongside Nargis and his childhood neighbour Raj Kapoor, brought him superstardom and he reunited with Nargis the next year for “Jogan”.
His performances smoothly slid between tragedy and comedy — “Paigham”, “Ram Aaur Shyam”– to swashbuckling titles “Aan”, “Azad”, “Kohinoor” and “Mughal-e-Azam”. “His aplomb had its own elan,” Gangar said.
Kumar’s screen persona evolved in the directorial hands of Bengali filmmakers such as Nitin Bose (‘Deedar’ and ‘Ganga Jumna’), Tapan Sinha (‘Sagina Mahato’) and Bimal Roy (‘Devdas’ and ‘Madhumati’).
While 1970s was a lean phase for the actor, he rose back in 1980s and 1990s with films such as Subhash Ghai-directed “Karma”, “Saudagar”, “Vidhata” and Ramesh Sippy’s “Shakti”, which was the first collaboration between him and megastar Amitabh Bachchan, who has been vocal about his love for the late cinema legend and calls him his idol.
“Dilip Kumar is a phenomenon in the world of cinema and society. He was not only a superstar for five decades but also a very profound man,” Ghai told.
“He once shared with me that he was never a method actor… He never tried to dramatize or act it out rather he would surrender to the scene. He would say, ‘You create your own method while evolving yourself, you create your grammar through working’,” the filmmaker recalled.
Ghai said Kumar had the power to “portray every character with dignity”.
“Whenever I write about a character of dignity and power and whatever he speaks is true , I would always think of two actors, either Dilip Kumar or Amitabh Bachchan.”
In his long acting career, Kumar starred in 65 films. But it is not the number of films but his range as a performer and his awareness that made him a cinema legend.
“He is one of those who did very little work, always chose what he wanted to do and worked very hard on it. Sometimes it would be two or three years when his film came, while most of the actors did two-three films a year. It takes a lot of courage to do little work. He concentrated a lot on the work he did, he would put in a lot of effort behind it. I have no hesitation in endorsing him as the best ever,” Sippy said.
From Amitabh Bachchan to Naseeruddin Shah, Shah Rukh Khan to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, every actor of Hindi cinema has a trace of Kumar’s genius reflecting in their performance.
Veteran actor-politician Shatrughan Sinha, who worked with him in “Kranti”, said subconsciously all the performers in India have learnt a lot from Kumar.
“Dilip Sahab has been a huge influence on all of us. We all have learnt a lot subconsciously from him like his intensity, the way he would emote scenes with honesty. He was the tragedy and comedy king, he can do anything,” Sinha said. But ultimately what makes a man or a woman memorable and honorable is their humanism. According to Ghai, Kumar had much more to offer to the world apart from his acting genius– a wider perspective towards life.
“He was someone who would think beyond his work, like for the nation, society and people. He would not flaunt anything. He would silently contribute towards a lot of things and causes for cine workers, blind children, handicap people, and others. This is the difference that I could see between him and other stars or celebrities of the show business,” the director added.
Farida Devi, who worked as a child artist with Kumar’s classics “Dil Diya Dard Liya”, “Ram Aur Shyam” and “Charity Master”, remembers him as a “punctual, dedicated and co-operative” co-star.
“Dilip Kumar sahab would treat us like his own children, he would take care of us and protect us. He would treat us like his own children, he would take care and protect us. He would never sit alone and eat. He would make sure everybody — from spot boy to Dilip Kumar — is sitting on one table. It is very rare to find a man like him today. He would treat everyone equally,” she said.
Though a people’s person, Kumar remained away from the spotlight in the later years of his life. He spent most of his time with his wife, veteran actor Saira Banu, and met a few colleagues, who were frequent to his house till his passing away last year.