Dilip Kumar showed India’s social reality on screen

The iconic actor transformed acting into an artistic expression of sublime genius, bringing realism to Indian cinema and leaving a cinematic legacy rich in esoteric content.

Devika Rani, the diva of classic Indian cinema of the mid-1940s, could not have foreseen that the shy 22-year-old son of a Pathan fruit seller would go on to become India’s cinematic titan when she cast young Muhammad Yousuf Khan in her 1944 Bombay Talkies studio movie, Jwar Bhata. Yousuf, renamed Dilip Kumar for the screen, not only established himself as the finest male actor of all time – especially when it came to intense dramatic roles – but went on to become a reference point for future actors.

Kumar’s performances in Bollywood films essentially altered histrionics in one cinematic depiction after another, and he elevated acting to a higher art form, cementing his status as an Indian cultural icon. It’s difficult to think of anybody else who has had the same long-lasting impact on Indian cinema culture as Kumar, and his influence among artists, filmmakers and moviegoers across generations remains as powerful as ever.

The legendary actor is known for his iconic roles in movies such as Shaheed (1948), Azaad (1955), Andaz (1949), Naya Daur (1957), Ganga Jamuna (1961), Kranti (1981) and Karma (1986). In K Asif’s magnum opus period drama Mughal-e-Azam (1960), he delivered one of his most memorable roles, with the movie becoming one of the highest-grossing films in Bollywood history. His portrayal of the tragic recluse and drunkard protagonist in Devdas (1955), Bimal Roy’s version of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel, earned him the title of Tragedy King. 

The actor’s death from age-related illness in Mumbai on 7 July brings an end to an illustrious cinematic legacy and draws the curtain on the golden age of Indian Hindi cinema from the 1940s to the 1960s. He was 98 and is survived by his wife Saira Banu, a popular actress of the 1960s and 1970s.

1944: Dilip Kumar with Mridula Rani in Jwar Bhata. (Photographs via Cinestaan.com)

“With a heavy heart and profound grief, I announce the passing away of our beloved Dilip Saab a few minutes ago. We are from God, and to Him we return,” family friend Faisal Farooqui announced on Twitter. 

Kumar’s death drew widespread tributes. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Kumar a “cinematic legend”. “He was blessed with unparalleled brilliance, due to which audiences across generations were enthralled. His passing away is a loss to our cultural world. Condolences to his family, friends and innumerable admirers. RIP,” Modi wrote on Twitter.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said he would never forget Kumar’s contribution towards setting up the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital (SKMTH) in memory of Khan’s mother, and called him the greatest and most versatile actor. “Saddened to learn of Dilip Kumar’s passing. I can never forget his generosity in giving his time to help raise funds for SKMTH when the project launched. This is the most difficult time, to raise the first 10% of the funds, and his appearance in Pak and London helped raise huge amounts,” Khan said.

Pakistan President Arif Alvi also paid tributes to the veteran actor, saying Kumar was “an outstanding actor, a humble man and a dignified personality”. Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan said the actor defined Indian cinema forever. “An institution has gone … Whenever the history of Indian cinema will be written, it shall always be ‘before Dilip Kumar’ and ‘after Dilip Kumar’,” he tweeted.

The beginnings

Kumar was born on 11 December 1922 in Peshawar city of undivided British India. “I have little doubt that my sense of storytelling was ignited during my childhood years in Peshawar,” he would later write in his autobiography, Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow. 

Born to Ayesha Begum and Mohammed Sarwar Khan, he was the sixth in a family of 12 children. In the 1930s, Khan’s father relocated to Kolkata, and then to Mumbai. In Mumbai, Kumar studied at Wilson College and later at Khalsa College, where he met another Bollywood icon and contemporary Raj Kapoor.

An acquaintance introduced Kumar to Devika Rani, the Bombay Talkies studio chief, in 1942. Rani paid Khan a monthly income of Rs 1 250 and persuaded him to change his name to Dilip Kumar, as a Muslim name was anathema to producers at the time.

1954: Madhubala with Dilip Kumar in Amar.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Muslims were singled out as potential threats to the Indian film industry. Muslim actors passed themselves off as Hindus as the All India League of Censorship, a self-designated house of un‐Hindu activities, targeted Muslims and Parsis, accusing them of trying to destroy the film industry with their “decidedly anti‐Hindu agendas”.

Dilip Kumar was proficient in Hindi, Urdu and Pashto. During his early days at the Bombay Talkies film studio, his grasp of Urdu enabled him to help writers draft screenplays. Kumar’s counsel from seasoned actor Ashok Kumar, whom he saw regularly at Bombay Talkies studio, to make his mannerisms as genuine as possible shaped Kumar’s acting technique.

Kumar made his debut in the musical romance Jwar Bhata in 1944, which turned out to be a damp squib. His performance was criticised in particular for its lack of energy, articulation and expression. Kumar began devoting time and energy to learning his craft and studied how to articulate and offer suitable expressions when acting. He continued to work and featured in movies such as Pratima (1945) and Milan (1946), which were warmly received.

Method acting, before method acting

“Kumar went to no school of acting but created his own method of emoting long before ‘method acting’ came to be known in India or abroad,” writes his wife in the foreword of Kumar’s autobiography. Kumar also described himself as an actor who evolved a method. “I learned the importance of studying the script and characters deeply and building upon my own gut observations and sensations about my own and other characters,” he writes in the book.

He made his first major impact in Ramesh Sehgal’s Shaheed (1948), which marked the beginning of a successful pairing with Kamini Kaushal. Mehboob Khan’s Andaz (1949), a love triangle that also featured Nargis and Kapoor, became the turning point in his career. 

He starred as an underdog tongawalla (horse cart puller) in Naya Daur, in which the son of a landlord modernises his business by replacing horse carts with buses, and in the process depicted the changing social reality for India’s impoverished owing to industrialisation policies. Meghnad Desai explains in his book, Nehru’s Hero: Dilip Kumar in the Life of India, how India’s sociopolitical developments in the 1950s closely reflected the actor’s career.

Kumar’s portrayal of Prince Salim in the long-running epic Mughal-e-Azam remains one of his most remembered portrayals. The legendary actor missed out on worldwide recognition by declining the role of Sherif Ali in David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia. Omar Sharif, a relatively unknown Egyptian actor at the time, was cast in the role in Kumar’s place.

1960: Dilip Kumar in Mughal-e-Azam.

Kumar experienced a brief spell of depression when the melancholy roles he was playing began to affect him, following which his therapist in London urged him to loosen up. On this advice, he gravitated towards comedies such as Azaad, Kohinoor (1960) and Ram Aur Shyam (1967), demonstrating his acting prowess across genres.

Kumar married Banu in 1966 and the duo were paired in Gopi (1970), Sagina (1974) and Bairaag (1976). He went through a slump and took a brief hiatus in the 1970s, reappearing in the 1980s as a respected Bollywood elder, mentoring films featuring younger stars.

He returned in Manoj Kumar’s multi-starrer Kranti and went on to play a series of patrician characters, including a devoted grandfather in Vidhaata (1982), an upright police officer in Shakti (1982) and Karma, and an honest newspaper owner in Mashaal (1984). His penultimate release was the Subhash Ghai-directed Saudagar (1991), while his final screen appearance was in Qila (1998), which featured him in a double role as twins.

A cinematic titan

In his long and illustrious career spanning five decades, Kumar did more than 65 movies. He received several honours for his contribution to the Indian film industry and was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award, in 2015; the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian award, in 1991; and the Dadasaheb Phalke in 1994, India’s highest award in the field of cinema. He was also granted Pakistan’s highest civilian honour, Nishan-e-Imtiaz, in 1998.

Kumar made acting appear so easy that everyone in the audience felt as though they could be up there with him. With dramatic skill and confidence, he illuminated his portrayals. Kumar has arguably been magnetic every time he took to the screen. Iconic Oscar-winning film director Satyajit Ray described Kumar as “the ultimate method actor”.

1986: Dilip Kumar in Karma.

“From the wolf-whistling frontbencher to the most serious critic of cinema, Dilip Sahab’s varied range of histrionics has aroused spontaneous admiration while he has been considered the epitome of fine acting for generations of actors who looked up to him for inspiration,” said Banu. She added that other actors over the years strove to emulate Kumar’s understated elegance and voice modulation.

“An actor needed to strengthen his instincts because the duality between the real and unreal cannot be sorted out by the mind, which is more concerned with truth and logic in any normal situation,” Kumar writes in his book about his struggle to play characters realistically. “It is only instinct that will help you absorb what you have to absorb from the script and drive you to render a performance coated with realism and conviction despite the knowledge of it all being fiction and drama,” he adds.

“Kumar invented a delicately rehearsed ego within this sensibility that showed Indians through their most-loved and most-popular art form, cinema, that machismo doesn’t always define the most complex, elegant and enduring masculinity,” said Mumbai-based journalist Sanjukta Sharma.

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