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The role of Urdu and poetry in Dilip Kumar's methodical craft of acting – Birthday special


Dilip Kumar's brilliant presence on screen owed a great deal to his constant education in literature, poetry, and the Urdu and Hindi languages. On his 96th birthday, we take a glimpse at the role these played in the flowering of arguably India's greatest actor.

Shriram Iyengar

In 2015, the late Tom Alter was part of a video where he described an interesting anecdote about an early meeting with Dilip Kumar.

As a freshly minted graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Alter had approached the great actor and asked him the obvious, "What is the secret to good acting?" Without a moment's hesitation, Dilip Kumar replied, "Sher-o-shayari [Poetry]." 

The answer might puzzle many, as it did young Alter at the time. But, later, he realized that poetry is the art of saying simple things in a dramatic way. "When you try to say something, which is after all the job of every actor, what we say is only part of it," Alter explained in the video. "How we say it carries much more importance. If you have a poetic style of conversation, it adds another dimension to your ability."

For Dilip Kumar, poetry was an integral part of life. By his own admission, the actor was born in a family that did not have any artistic inclination. In fact, circumstances denied the actor the privilege of completing his education.

However, he made up for it with a lifelong passion for the arts. From conversations with actors, directors and musicians to an abiding love for books of poetry and literature in multiple languages, Dilip Kumar managed to create a bank that he could mine as and when he needed for his characters. 

In the foreword to his biography, The Substance And The Shadow, his wife, yesteryear actress Saira Banu, described his love for books thus: "When he reads, he is like a child engrossed in his favourite game, unwilling to put it away until time and again I plead with him to rest." 

Take this 1970 interview with the BBC's Mahendra Kaul. The actor's conversation with the late journalist in excellent Urdu is an example of an artiste capable of imbibing literature in all its facets. This is not just visible in his language, but also in his observations on society, art, and culture. 

Asked why his tragic performances are more memorable, the actor put it poetically, "Tragedy itself lasts longer. The effect of a tragic story, like that of Laila-Majnu or Shirin-Farhad, remains after the story has ended. Happiness and joy pass away quickly. In my opinion, my performances as a tragic actor have been memorable because the stories themselves have outlasted their time." 

Another surprising moment comes at the 11th minute of the video, where Kaul asks the actor, who had gone to England in connection with the centenary of the passing of the great 19th century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib, to sing a few lines. While initially hesitant, Dilip Kumar eventually launches into a mellifluous rendition of a ghazal.

In the age of auto-tunes and digital records, one would be hard-pressed to find an actor possessed of such multiple talents. 

For those not in the know, Dilip Kumar made his debut in an era where actors were expected to be well versed in singing as well. As Saira Banu revealed in the biography, "Our home has resounded with the music of maestros from the classical dimension." From singers like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustad Vilayat Khan to Mehdi Hassan and the Sabri brothers, the Devdas (1955) actor was known to be a keen listener and occasional practitioner of singing. 

In Hrishikesh Mukherjee's directorial debut, Musafir (1957), Dilip Kumar sang the very classical 'Laagi Nahi Chhoote' alongside none other than the great Lata Mangeshkar. 

Coming back to poetry, the actor often attended mushairas, or poetry gatherings, across the world. An example is this old video of him, alongside greats like Kanwar Mahendra Singh Bedi, reciting from another Urdu great, Josh Malihabadi, on stage. 

Another is this wonderful recitation of the great Faiz Ahmed Faiz's poetry. Throughout the recitation, it is the pauses, the thoughtful style of intonation, that make it even more engrossing. Incidentally, these pauses were a hallmark of the Dilip Kumar style of acting, something that many have parodied, sadly. 

In an age of constant social media presence, where actors and actresses promote every little activity, one is often ignorant of the fact that once upon a time great artistes shaped themselves through better hobbies in life.

It was not six-pack abs or changing hairstyles that dominated Dilip Kumar or Raj Kapoor or Sunil Dutt's acting styles. It was their ability to keep up with the times through literature, through an understanding of humanity as reflected in poetry that shaped their emotions. 

As the thespian reflects in the interview with Kaul, "Cinema is made for the masses. It cannot be made in a  vacuum of literature, or political ideology or progress. We [India and Pakistan] are both developing nations. We have gone much further in these years, but there is much more to fix. We are looking for better roads, better education, the standard of living. As these improve, our cinema will also improve."