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The secret of Dilip Kumar's 'method', revealed by the actor himself

Hailed as one of India's greatest, Dilip Kumar was quite open to discussing his approach to his craft. We revisit the actor's 1969 interview to the BBC in London.

Shriram Iyengar

A famous anecdote of Marlon Brando, one of the leading proponents of method acting, says Stella Adler, his teacher, once gave the class an assignment of playing chickens in a coop about to be bombed. While the rest of the class went hyper running around and screaming, Brando just sat at his desk clucking. When the panel asked him why he did not 'do' anything, the actor replied, "A chicken would not know what a bomb is."

That ability to understand a character and react according to its innate nature was what set Brando apart. While the rest of Hollywood continues to hail the Godfather (1972) actor as one of the 'greatest ever', there was another man, a star in India, who had independently found and mastered the technique.

Dilip Kumar made his debut in Amiya Chakrabarty's Jwar Bhata (1944) and soon rose to become arguably Indian cinema's greatest. The title has not been in question even 20 years after the actor bade goodbye to the arclights. Till this day, the name, Dilip Kumar, remains the gold standard in film acting across India.

In an era where actors often earn reams of publicity owing to their physical or mental transformation to play a difficult character once in a blue moon, Dilip Kumar pushed himself to play every character impeccably. Neither did he hide behind the cloak of 'method' or technique, or deny his knowledge to his peers. 

This 1969 interview with the BBC London reveals how open the great man was about his craft, his approach to the story and his opinion on cinema. Speaking to Vinod Pandey, who later became a filmmaker himself, Dilip saheb offered eloquent and effective explanations for his approach to characters. 

Speaking in elegant Urdu and Hindi, the actor explained that he has no favourite genre. "I like all forms of acting. I like doing comedy. I like doing tragedy. I like doing these different characters because it is a drill. It builds character, shapes your work, skill. Otherwise, you become a one-dimensional personality. From the perspective of individuality, or acting, it helps you become a better person."

While the conversation delves into the actor's interests and early experiences in cinema, the key is the explanation of his craft from the 04:25 mark. Talking about shaping a character, Dilip Kumar said, "I do not approach the character as a different person. If you are directing the drama, there may be 20 characters in your drama. As the director, you are dealing with all 20 of them. But as an actor, I only have the one character to play. If you choose me for a character who is 30 years old, as an actor, you can only give me data beyond 30 years. It is my job to prepare the character's data till the age of 29, within the framework of your story, myself. It helps me understand the foundations of the character."

By 1969, Dilip Kumar had transformed himself from the king of tragedy from films like Devdas (1955), Deedar (1951) and Jogan (1950) to the versatile hero of Naya Daur (1957), Kohinoor (1960) and Ram Aur Shyam (1967).

Poster of Ram Aur Shyam (1967)

In this same period, in Hollywood, Brando was wallowing after delivering consecutive flops like A Countess From Hong Kong (1967), Reflections In A Golden Eye (1967) and Candy (1968). The actor had to wait until 1972 when Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather would rescue him from anonymity.

This innate intelligence of Dilip Kumar to understand characters came from a lifelong education in literature and the arts. In his autobiography titled The Substance and The Shadow, his wife, actress Saira Banu, revealed that the veteran often spent hours reading literature as varied as Shakespeare, Chekhov, Premchand and Ghalib. 

She described in the foreword, "If not the classics or master plot plays by Eugene O'Neill, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad or Tennessee Williams, he is sure to be engrossed in the writing of a script or a scene that waits to be picturized the next morning." 

In the BBC interview, the actor went on to offer a more personal and intense insight into his 'method': "For instance, if the director comes up to me for a scene and says 'This is your mother. And she is now dead'. But I know this is Lalita Pawar, and she is just acting. And every faculty of yours is against the idea that this woman who is lying down is your mother and she is dead."

Describing eloquently the process of reconciling these contrary thoughts through a fertile imagination, he added, "In a situation like that, regardless of whether you think she is your mother, your imagination needs to function, asking, 'What if she were my mother? What then?' And that is when the brain starts to bring in memories of your own mother, and sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, puts you in touch with your emotions."

Few acting gurus anywhere in the world could have described it better.

Cut to 2001, when the actor made a rare appearance on stage to present an award to Shah Rukh Khan. He said, "No actor can be bigger than the substance he portrays — the character, the story, the screenplay. For any enduring performance, Shah Rukh, you have to have a good story, good character equations, sound conflict."

Another example of how far ahead of his time the actor was, was his description of how a good film should be. Describing his dislike for propaganda films, he said in the 1969 interview: "The attempt should always be to make a film with good stories, sound conflicts, characters that make it entertaining. I do not like films with a lot of lectures." A lesson new-generation filmmakers are picking up, as evidenced by the growing number of entertaining yet educating movies like Newton (2017), Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017) and Hindi Medium (2017).

As yet another generation of artistes like Rajkummar Rao and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, or their seniors like Irrfan Khan and Manoj Bajpayee, find praise for their methods and performances, it is worth recalling the words and the examples of the one who first built the bridge across talent, acting and stardom.