Article Hindi

Jwar Bhata (1944): When Dilip Kumar's performance got him a zero

On the 75th anniversary of the release of Jwar Bhata, Dilip Kumar’s debut film, we look at the legendary actor's shaky beginnings that eventually congealed into a luminous career through determined effort.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

In 1943, a good-looking young Pathan walked into the renowned Bombay Talkies studio at Malad in the distant suburbs of the city with an acquaintance. Muhammad Yusuf Khan was hoping to land a job, any job. He had never even dreamt of becoming an actor and could not have imagined the way in which his life was going to be altered in that one meeting with Devika Rani, the glamorous Bombay Talkies boss, who offered him the chance to be an actor. She later suggested the screen name that would rule the world of Hindi cinema for decades to come: Dilip Kumar, originally spelt Dileep Kumar.

Despite his dreamlike entry into the world of cinema, Dilip Kumar’s debut was anything but. His first film, Jwar Bhata (1944), in which he played the second lead and which was released on this day 75 years ago, failed to make the right impression and did not fare well at the box office.

Filmindia editor Baburao Patel

The intrepid and caustic Baburao Patel, editor of the now defunct Filmindia magazine, called it an “amateurish production”. Patel found the film to be unoriginal and, therefore, unexciting. As he wrote in his review of the film, “The story of ‘Jwar Bhata’ has been seen several times on the Indian screen and half-a-dozen times on the English screen.”

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Dilip Kumar, the man who would one day be acknowledged as possibly the greatest actor to grace the Indian screen, got a rather gruff welcome from Patel, who described him as “the new anaemic hero”. Patel said, “He looks gaunt and famished and strikes one as a long ill-treated convict who has escaped from a jail. His appearance on the screen creates both laughter and disappointment. His acting effort in this picture amounts to nil.” Who would have thought Dilip Kumar would have ever faced such withering criticism? Maybe it is just as well that Jwar Bhata was lost to posterity for ever, with no print or negative of the film surviving.

In his autobiography Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow, the actor has recounted the experience of his first film, saying, “Honestly, the whole experience passed by without much impact on me. I did what I was told to do and it was not easy at times, or most times rather, to come to terms with the fact that it was all unreal and unrelated to one’s real self and real existence.”

The film that followed was another Bombay Talkies production, Pratima (1945), which also failed to create a mark. But the actor found success with his third film, Milan (1946), directed by Nitin Bose, and critics began to take note of the young man's understated performance. This marked the beginning of the enormous success to come.

Dilip Kumar's next film Jugnu (1947), co-starring the singing star Noorjehan, created ripples as it was labelled a “dirty, disgusting, vulgar picture” by Baburao Patel and was even banned for a while. However, as with most films that face bans, it went on to become a huge hit! This was the year when India gained independence from British rule and Noorjehan decided to move to the newly created country of Pakistan, thus making Jugnu the only film in which she and Dilip Kumar appeared together.

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In the introduction to Dilip Kumar's autobiography, Udayatara Nayar details some of the ways in which Dilip Kumar went beyond merely being an actor, highlighting his management skills in particular. She writes, “As the young actor progressed from Jwar Bhata (1944), his first film, to Jugnu (1947), his first hit at the box office, he began to grasp the essential secret of making a successful film. By his own study and observation of the process of film making and marketing of the end product, he arrived at the conclusion that an actor’s responsibility did not end with his work as an actor. The actor had as much of a stake in the quality and finesse of a film, which ensured its commercial success. It meant an efficient and dedicated management of the infrastructure and resources of the production as well as a creative management, which started with the writing of the script and the screenplay.”

This meticulous attention to detail as well as the desire to immerse oneself in one’s work has been a hallmark of Dilip Kumar. With six releases in 1948, his star was unquestionably on the ascendant. Films like Mela (1948), Andaz (1949) and Babul (1950) all left a mark and the actor’s tenacity made even the redoubtable Patel melt as he wrote in his review of Babul: “It is a great work and the ease with which Dilip Kumar portrays the role makes one wonder whether the man himself has lived through similar moments of pathos and frustration in his private life!”

Jwar Bhata was released on 29 November 1944 at the Majestic theatre in Girgaum, Bombay. Neither the film nor the theatre survive today.