Dilip Kumar: A Centenary Tribute

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Dilip Kumar centenary
From Tragedy King to Romantic Hero

Many years ago, when I was a young journalist, I was assigned by the editor of Free Press Journal to do a cover story on three generations of great heroes of Hindi cinema– Pradip Kumar, Dilip Kumar and Jeetendra. I spoke to all of them over the phone. In those days, it was common for superstars to take their calls and Dilip Kumar was no exception. I had goosebumps when I heard his soft, romantic voice say “Hello.” However, he gracefully denied a detailed interview saying he was past his prime and I needed to talk to contemporary actors. But he did add some bits all the same and praised the heroes of the time for their competence and completeness as actors. 

Also read: Interview of Actor Anirban Bhattacharya

Many years before that, when I was still in school, I was invited to attend a shoot on the floors of Devdas by Bimal Roy. The day’s shooting was focussed on child actors Baby Naaz and Ram Kumar. A song sequence was being shot in the backyard of Mohan Studios in Andheri where Bimal Roy had his office. Dilip Saab came to pick up his dialogue sheets. When one of Roy’s assistants, (Gulzar and Debu Sen) asked him which language he wanted his dialogues to be in, he smiled and said “Urdu” and slowly walked back to his car. I was mesmerised at this handsome young man dressed in spotless white, with that thick mop of hair falling across his forehead. That image remains engraved in my memory to this day.

Dilip Kumar, the ‘tragedy king’ of Bollywood was born 100 years ago on this day in Peshawar. The Film Heritage Foundation headed by Shivraj Singh Dungarpur, has organised a retrospective film festival titled ‘Dilip Kumar Hero of Heroes’ to mark the centenary celebrations of erstwhile film icon. Slated to be hosted on the 10th and 11th of December 2022, the festival will showcase some of his milestone films like Aan (1952), Devdas (1955), Ram Aur Shyam (1967) and Shakti (1982). The festival will be screened in some thirty movie theatres covering twenty cities across India. 

Dilip Kumar said that much of his inspiration for the natural style of acting came from Motilal, his co-actor in Bimal Roy’s Devdas. Motilal was known for his organic performance in films. Dilip Kumar’s screen image offered a complex, cultural and psychological terrain displaying the anxieties of Independence and the nostalgia of pre-Partition childhood. Unlike Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar’s naturalistic underplaying often presented him as an innocent loner caught in and destroyed by conflicting social pressures. In Andaz (1949), he played one angle of a love triangle played by Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Nargis. In Deedar (1951), he held his own, pitted against the extremely versatile and gifted actor Ashok Kumar.

Dilip Kumar centenary
‘Dilip Kumar Hero of Heroes’ film festival marks his centenary.

His debut film Jwar Bhata (1944) though a reasonable hit in Bombay, did not run well at other centres. It was with Jugnu (1947) in which he starred with Naseem Banu that he struck gold. In 1948, Dilip Kumar had five releases including Ghar Ki Izzat, the war drama Shaheed, Mela and Anokha Pyar. His last release in 1948 was Nadiya Ke Paar which became the biggest hit in 1949. That year he also acted in Mehboob Khan’s Andaz, a blockbuster that turned Dilip Kumar into the hottest selling star of the time.

Ram, the hero played by Dilip Kumar dies in the final scene in Shaheed (1948). His martyred corpse is then taken out in a procession with the soulful song, watan ki raah mein watan ke naujawan shaheed ho playing in the background. This film crowned Dilip Kumar as the “tragedy king” of Bollywood and he went on living up to the sobriquet in one film after another – Andaz, Footpath, Shikast, Mela, Babul, Deedar and Uran Khatola. Tragedy on celluloid became his identity card. His producers felt that if he did not die at the end of the film, his fans felt betrayed! Around this time, this astute, extremely well-read, erudite and intelligent actor took stock of his bearings. He realized that being typecast as tragedy king could become self-defeating and stop his growth as an actor. He carried the tragic roles home with him bringing on depression. He consulted a psychoanalyst who suggested he change his screen image to reflect a more swash-buckling, romantic side in order to discover hitherto unexplored avenues of histrionics. In fact, he turned down Guru Dutt’s offer to play the lead in Pyaasa because it was a tragic role.

Dilip Kumar’s romantic screen presence was magnetic and had every female in the audience swooning over him. He had a naughty smile and would crinkle his eyes and smile mischievously at his lady love. This marked his command over romance in characters like films Naya Daur, Leader, Ram Aur Shyam, Azaad, Kohinoor, Aan, Gunga-Jumna, Insaniyat and many more.  Looking back on his performance in these films, one feels that the crown of “Tragedy King” he was made to wear was too limiting for an actor of his range not only in terms of his histrionic talent but also in his popularity among his huge fan following. In many of his films, his love scenes are memorable more for what he left unsaid than what he did.

Dilip Kumar once worked in the title role of a bilingual (Hindi-Bengali) film Sagina Mahato directed by Tapan Sinha. The film defines a classic example of the intense homework he put in for his roles, big or small, positive or negative, never mind the director. He slipped easily in the role of the rustic in Sagina where he had to speak in a North Bengal tribal dialect in Hindi. For Mughal-e-Azam, he spoke in classical Urdu fit for the royalty of the time. In Gunga-Jumna, he switched quite easily into Poorvi dialect. He always changed his gait, his manner, his body language and his behaviour according to the demands of the role. This magic sustained him as the best actor Indian cinema has ever seen stretching out to the time when he stepped into character roles fitting his age. 

Dilip Kumar Suchitra Sen

Few are aware that Dilip Kumar was one of the most erudite actors of his time. He was fluent in Urdu, Hindi, English, Gujarati and snippets of Pashto. As a voracious reader, he read anything and everything from Eugene O’Neill, Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Tennessee Williams. He did not sign more than one film a year and even hiked his price to Rs.1 lakh per film, to keep producers away. 

His innate humility came across when after watching Omar Sharif portray the role he refused David Lean when approached for Lawrence of Arabia. Dilip Saab said he may probably not have done the justice Sharif had done to the role! Never mind how much you keep talking about this great man, Dilip Kumar, you cannot keep him trapped in clichés like “Tragedy King” or “Romantic Hero” because above everything else, he was a great human being.

Images courtesy: Shoma A. Chatterji.

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