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Dilip Kumar, unlimited and unbound – Birthday special

The actor, with his magnetic screen presence and legendary versatility, has consistently defied the constraints of hollow sobriquets.

In a scene from Dil Diya Dard Liya (1966)

Shoma A Chatterji

Dilip Kumar cannot be confined to the field of acting any more. He is a legend, an institution that has been the training ground for many a young dreamer who stepped into the film industry with stardust in the eyes. Some stayed on and made a name for themselves. Others fell by the wayside, ignored and forgotten. But the man who unwittingly set hundreds of hearts aflutter in his heyday, the man who indirectly contributed to runaways from small towns to the big, bad, beautiful city of Bombay, remained oblivious to the kerfuffle he continued to cause. He remained singularly focused on his work, lighting up the Hindi screen with his rare but eagerly awaited presence.

Dilip Kumar created his own controversies when he was younger, especially on account of his extended bachelorhood. But as he mellowed, he stepped, wisely, into character roles and shifted his focus to philanthropic activities like the welfare of the blind, the movement towards de-addiction of drug addicts, and so on.

I met him once at Mohan Studios in Bombay. I was still in school then and was among the guests invited to attend a shoot of Bimal Roy's Devdas (1955). The shooting involved child artistes Baby Naaz and Ram Kumar. Dilip saheb was visiting the set to pick up his dialogue sheets. When one of Roy’s assistants asked him which language he wanted his dialogues to be written in, he smiled and said “Urdu” and slowly walked back to his car. I was mesmerized and speechless at this handsome young man dressed in white, with that thick mop of hair falling across his forehead. That image has remained etched in my memory.

A few months later, I happened to visit Mohan Studios again, escorting guests from Calcutta who wanted to watch a shooting. The shooting of Devdas was still on. Three stalwarts of Hindi cinema — Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala and the immortal Motilal — were there. I watched the artistes enact the scene where Vyjayanthimala as Chandramukhi performs the memorable dance number 'O Aanewale Ruk Jaa'.

The entire song was shot in a few takes without much rehearsal. I later learnt that Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala were not on talking terms at the time. Yet, their screen rapport was incredibly realistic. Dilip Kumar does not have a single dialogue in the scene, nor does Motilal. Yet, his dark and sad expressions and his slow and languorous body language make his mood palpable. You could almost reach out and touch it.

Fast-forward to 1979. Soon after Dilip Kumar was appointed sheriff of Bombay, he was invited to be the chief guest at a musical programme at the city's famous Shanmukhananda Hall anchored by Tabassum on a wheelchair with songs sung by Hemant Kumar and the (then) very young Kavita Krishnamurthy. But Dilip Kumar carried the show on his able shoulders with his beautiful speech in impeccable English where he modestly admitted that it was no great thing to be the sheriff of Bombay, a ceremonial post, but that flag flying on his car was a big ego-booster, never mind if it was for a short while (the sheriff's term is for a year).

Some years later, I was assigned to do a long article on three generations of great heroes of Hindi cinema. I spoke to them on the telephone. In those days, even the big stars attended to their calls personally and so did Dilip Kumar. I almost fainted when I heard his soft, romantic voice saying “Hello”. He gracefully denied a detailed interview, saying he was no longer among the top heroes and that I needed to talk to contemporary heroes. But he added some bits all the same and praised the contemporary heroes for their all-round completeness as actors.

Dilip Kumar has gone on record to state that much of his own inspiration for the natural style of acting came from his Devdas co-star Motilal, known for his organic performances. Like his contemporary Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar’s screen image offered a complex, cultural/psychological terrain displaying the anxieties of Independence and the nostalgia of pre-Partition childhood.

Unlike Raj Kapoor, however, Dilip Kumar’s naturalistic underplaying often presented him as an innocent loner caught in and destroyed by conflicting social pressures, as in Andaz (1949), where he played one angle of the triangle with the other two played by Raj Kapoor and Nargis. In Deedar (1951), pitted against the versatile and gifted actor Ashok Kumar, he held his own and did not let the senior star overshadow him.

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All eyes in the audience in the darkened theatres moistened when, in the final scene of Shaheed (1948), Dilip Kumar's sixth release, produced by Sashadhar Mukherjee and directed by Ramesh Saigal, the hero dies. This became the film where the young actor revealed himself a serious worker with total commitment to his craft. In the final scene, Dilip Kumar’s martyred corpse is taken out in procession against the lines of the film's famous title song.

This film crowned Dilip Kumar the 'Tragedy King' and he went on living up to the sobriquet in one film after another – Mela (1948), Andaz, Babul (1950), Deedar, Footpath (1953), Shikast (1953) and Uran Khatola (1955). Tragedy on celluloid became his identity and a time came when his producers felt that if he did not die at the end of the film, his fans would feel betrayed!

Around this time, this astute, well-read, erudite and intelligent actor took stock of his bearings. He realized that being typecast as the tragedy king could become self-defeating and stop his own growth as an artiste. One story goes that he consulted a psychoanalyst who suggested that he change his screen image to reflect a more swashbuckling, romantic side in order to discover avenues of histrionics he had not explored till then.

His romantic screen presence was overwhelmingly magnetic and made every female in the audience identify with his lady love on screen. Blessed with a naughty smile, he would crinkle up his eyes and beam mischievously at his lady love. This marked his ability to command romance in characters such as the ones he portrayed in Aan (1952), Azaad (1955), Insaniyat (1955), Naya Daur (1957), Kohinoor (1960), Gunga Jumna (1961), Leader (1964), Ram Aur Shyam (1967) and many more.

When Dilip Kumar starred as the businessman turned vigilante, Azaad

Looking back on his performances 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 and durability not only in terms of histrionic talent but also popularity. In many of his films, his love scenes are memorable more for what he left unsaid than for what he vocalized or did.

In 1993, director Mahesh Bhatt, asked to name a few memorable love scenes from Hindi cinema, cited the scene in Mughal-e-Azam (1960) with Salim (Dilip Kumar) tickling the impassioned face of Anarkali (Madhubala) with a white feather, held in extreme close-up for just a few moments, as the best love scene in the history of Hindi cinema.

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In Naya Daur, there is a scene where Vyjayanthimala visits the local temple to offer prayers. Dilip Kumar teases her after her prayer, asking, “Kya manga?” or "What did you pray for?” Then the camera cuts to Dilip Kumar driving his tonga with Vyjayanthimala beside him breaking into that wonderful song 'Maang Ke Saath Tumhara'.

Another lovely scene in the same film is when the lovers have an entertaining jugalbandi and Dilip Kumar, never known to be a good dancer, compensates with his naughty jumps and leaps and body language in 'Ude Jab Jab Zulfein Teri'. The stanza 'Tujhe chaand ke bahane dekhun, tu chhat par aaja goriye' is filled with mischievous teasing and delightful romance.

Prem Dhawan: Dilip Kumar's unknown choreographer

He was as much in command of his performance as a singing-dancing-fisticuffing actor as he was as the Tragedy King of Hindi cinema. He delighted his audience with his adorable, charismatic antics, especially in the song-and-dance sequences and his love scenes. In Gunga Jumna, he plays his naughty self in just a couple of frames in the song sequence, 'Dhundo Dhundo Re Saajana'. The number is picturized on Vyjayanthimala, but the two scenes with Dilip Kumar on the morning following their wedding night are very sensual.

Many are, perhaps, not aware that Dilip Kumar played the title role in a bilingual film Sagina Mahato (1970, Bengali) and Sagina (1974, Hindi), directed by Tapan Sinha. The film is about a Santhal tribesman from north Bengal who gathers his folks to rise against the exploitation and injustice meted out to them in every way. The film is a classic example of the intense homework Dilip Kumar put in for each of his roles, big or small, positive or negative, never mind the director. He slipped easily into the role of the rustic where he had to speak in a north Bengal Santhali-accented Hindi.

For Mughal-e-Azam, he spoke in classical Urdu fit for the royalty of the period the film is placed in. In Gunga Jumna, he switched quite easily into the Poorvanchali dialect. He always changed his gait, his manner, his body language and his behaviour according to the demands of the role and this is the magic that sustained him as the best actor Indian cinema has seen, stretching out to the time when he stepped into character roles befitting his age.

His first senior role was in Manoj Kumar’s Kranti (1981), which did not do too well because it was a badly made film. But he found his mellowing mettle in one of the best performances of his career in his next film, Ramesh Sippy’s Shakti (1982).

Dilip Kumar played a strict, honest, disciplined police officer whose son Vijay, played by Amitabh Bachchan at the peak of his superstardom, gets involved in crime, not naturally but as an act of ‘revenge’ against a father who he thought did not care for him.

Dilip Kumar played a police officer who places duty above all else, including family. He met the electric energy Bachchan invested in the role of the son with his own cool, mature, slow approach and his muted style of expression. The scene where he feels the hand of his dead wife (Rakhee) in the morgue and says, “Lekin haath toh garam hai [But her palm is still warm]" is filled with the eloquence of grief only Dilip Kumar is capable of.

The incidental misunderstanding between father and son functioning from two sides of the law came off so well that as the film unfolded, reel after reel, one forgot that they were just playing father and son. In the end, in one of the most touching father-son scenes in Hindi cinema, as the son lies dying in his arms, Dilip Kumar finally tells him that he loves him and has always loved him, and the son, pained, responds, “Phir bataya kyon nahin [Why didn’t you say so]?"

Vidhaata (1982), Mashaal (1984), Karma (1986) and Saudagar (1991) turned out to be big box-office attractions mainly because Dilip Kumar played pivotal roles in these films. He neither enjoyed the romantic space he once did nor was he young enough to make his female fans’ hearts go aflutter. But he carried each film on his shoulders, though all these films were made mainly for the box office, to cash in on the star cast, and were less than good, especially when compared with the actor’s previous oeuvre.

Dilip Kumar was among the very few actors who refused to sign more than three films a year, a number which eventually came down to just one because he believed in soaking in a single film each time. He believed in giving a take without rehearsing it because he felt that a rehearsal before a shot takes away the spontaneity of the actor. He also wished to allow his audience to be able to identify or empathize with the character he portrayed on screen. His emotional depth, his voice modulation, his self-defined body language to express a particular mood or a specific emotion was what made Dilip Kumar the legend he has become.

His choice of very few roles over his entire career is proof that he belonged to an era when artistes concentrated on their roles and not on the money they could make while the going was good. Secondly, they concentrated on a few roles because the stress was on the intensity of their performances and the quality of their input rather than the quantity of their output, and Dilip Kumar headed this group of artistes. The Hindi film industry was not yet the rat race it was to become when numbers alone were seen as proof that you were in demand, not the quality of your performance.

Much before junior artistes began to mimic his slow dialogue delivery and his mannerisms like rubbing his nose before delivering his lines and his designedly slow movements, Dilip Kumar proved his tremendous versatility as an actor in every kind of film, from a historical venture like Mughal-e-Azam to a fantasy-filled love story like Uran Khatola and a literary classic like Devdas, from playing a Robin Hood-in-disguise in Azaad to a fun-loving but stubborn young tongawallah in Naya Daur to a sad victim of mental obsession in Aadmi (1968).

So, please, do not call him a 'method actor'. because it is too limiting, Do not use titles like Tragedy King before his name, because he is much, much more than just that. Do not call him Yusuf Khan because he left that name behind long ago for his fans and his audience. He is, and will remain, the one and only Dilip Kumar.

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Indian cinema