How Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar changed the craft of acting

Two accidental actors. Two legendary craftsmen. Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar founded the basic structure for the method school of acting in Indian cinema.

Shriram Iyengar

If Devika Rani would have done nothing of note in her career, she would still find a place in the annals of Indian cinema history. The actress, co-founder of the pioneering Bombay Talkies, was crucial to the discovery of two of the most talented actors in Indian cinema – Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar. The term 'actor' is too often used and abused in cinema, but few performers on screen deserve the epithet as the two Kumars. Both superstars had no intention of turning to acting as their first profession. It happened by accident. But their success took method.

The story of Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar reads like a retelling, a decade apart. Both were well educated, multi-lingual and shared a love for literature. They were both escaping a confined social structure, seeking to branch out on their own. They both acquired pseudonyms to escape the social ridicule associated with their craft. Both developed their styles by watching Hollywood actors and learning from them; Ashok Kumar on Henry Fonda and James Cagney, while Dilip Kumar admired James Stewart. Both were accidental actors. They did not choose to act, but rather were chosen for it; and being outsiders, worked twice as hard to sharpen their craft.

It is also valid to recognise the origins of the style of 'method' acting. Although a westernised concept, its origins lie in the eastern hemisphere. The Russian acting giant Stanislavski evolved this technique for actors. It meant internalising the character's emotions in order to portray natural expressions on stage. Ashok Kumar marks the first stage of 'method' acting in Indian cinema. With a face that was far from handsome, Ashok Kumar's acting and industry were key to his rise as the first 'superstar'. His tonal modulations and understated expressions enhanced his expansive acting vocabulary. In an interview years later, he shed light on his 'method'; “If I’ve followed any technique, it’s that of taking the scene home. I’d rehearse the lines of dialogue, plan out my body movement and repeat all this the next day on the sets. When I was doing Gumrah, B R Chopra told me there would be a scene with me sitting between my wife (Mala Sinha) and her lover (Sunil Dutt). They would be silent while I’d go on talking non-stop, telling her to hurry up with the tea and so on. For three days, I improvised on the scene at home with my wife. I drove her crazy, I kept on telling her to hurry up with the tea till she was ready to hit me with the kettle. I jotted down the lines we exchanged, gave them to B R Chopra.” This description is clear evidence of the obsessive attention that the actor gave to his craft. Dilip Kumar was no different. His long introspection and self-suffering to understand the tragic heroes of films like Deedar, Andaz and Yahudi would land him in depression.

Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar are two sides of the acting coin. While in the elder thespian, natural grace and humour took on shades of complexities according to the character he played, Dilip Kumar would internalise it further and add a sense of defined realism. The first example of Dilip Kumar's method acting comes in the epochal film 'Devdas'. Directed by Bimal Rai, the film had the actor portraying the eternal tragic hero. Devdas had been made twice before with PC Barua and KL Saigal in the legendary role. He provided Devdas with a new perspective of a brash, intellectual caught unawares by the turbulent affairs of his heart. It was a modernist, almost Dostoevskian, take of the epic saga. Throughout the film, Dilip Kumar looks as likely to implode within, while exploding onto the screen. His whispers and pauses carry the weight of his character's sorrows. On the back of qualified performances in films like Deedar, Andaz, Daag, and Yahudi, it established Dilip Kumar as the ruling 'Tragedy King'. The second transformation of Dilip Kumar occurs from 1957 onwards. From Naya Daur onwards, the actor acquired a versatility and naturalism that would become his definitive trademark. To lend authenticity to the role of the royal musician in Kohinoor, he learnt to play the sitar. In the film 'Ganga Jumna', this Peshawar-born Pathan's grasp of the 'khari boli' dialect added to the mannerisms of a rustic farmer in a UP village. Dev Anand would call it the most 'complete performance' he had ever seen. It would lead Satyajit Ray to call him 'the ultimate method actor' in the world. His expressions are minimal but real. It would be impossible to equate prince Salim of Mughal E Azam with the rude Jumna. In his biography, Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow, the actor explains, “I do not know how I came to be known as a method actor...The truth is that I am an actor who evolved a method, which stood me in good stead. I learned the importance of studying the scripts and characters deeply and building on my own gut observations and sensations about my own and other characters. It was always meaningful for me to study even those characters who would be close to me or opposed to me.” This is the mark of a professional at the peak of his powers.

Age is often fatal to acting careers. Though Ashok Kumar lacked the handsomeness and regality that would shade Dilip Kumar even in his later years, his face had character. As the lead roles began to dry up, both actors utilised their skills with greater efficiency. Ashok Kumar experimented with roles as the suave villain in Jewel Thief and the endearing grandfather in Khoobsurat. Dilip Kumar's second innings began later in films like Shakti, Mashaal, Karma and Saudagar. In their sunset years, both actors displayed the prowess that would leave their co-stars in the shade.

It is easy to underestimate the work that goes behind the craft of acting. Sociologists point out that humans are born performers. Everyone lies, pretends, and 'acts out' during the course of a lifetime. Sometimes convincingly enough for others to believe. For a professional actor, the secret lies in the sustaining this belief long after the performance has ended. In this context, Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar are bookmarks to a textbook guide on Indian acting. To paraphrase the great roman Augustus, they found Indian acting brick and left it marble.