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10 Dilip Kumar performances you cannot miss – Anniversary special

As the late thespian's centenary year begins, we revisit 10 jewels in the crown of arguably India's greatest movie actor.

Shriram Iyengar

When Dilip Kumar first stepped on to the silver screen, Charlie Chaplin was still making movies, India was under British rule and the internet was not even a pipedream.

When he died on 7 June 2021, social media mourned. One could paraphrase for the actor the quote about Rome's great emperor, Augustus: He joined a group of passionate, adventurous filmmakers in laying the bricks for the foundation of what is now a gigantic industry.

Dilip Kumar, born Muhammad Yusuf Khan, achieved this by exploring, driving and learning every aspect of his craft. It was developed through a careful study of literature, people and culture. Dilip Kumar could speak on poetry, books, politics and cinema with ease.

To cherry-pick films from the legacy he has left behind will never be satisfactory. From the swashbuckling Aan (1952) to the moving Jogan (1950), from his brilliant performance in films like Gunga Jumna (1961) to the father-son conflict of Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Shakti (1982), the actor has left behind masterpieces in every genre.

As his centenary year begins, we look back at 10 performances by Dilip Kumar that can justly be considered acting masterclasses.

Andaz (1949)

Mehboob Khan's tragedy was the first clash of titans. Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar vie for the affections of Nargis, and the limelight, in the film.

Born in the same town, Peshawar, in the erstwhile North West Frontier Province, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar remained comrades-in-arms and rivals on the field till the very end.

Their performances reflected the duo's personalities as well. While Raj Kapoor plays the fashionable, extroverted, charming Rajan, Dilip Kumar's Dilip is the tragic lover, an introvert willing to sacrifice everything for love.

For a film made in the 1940s, Andaz has startlingly modern sensibilities and the actor's style and understated performance are a far cry from most of his peers of the time. The actor, barely 28 then, appears to internalize the emotions of his character even in his speech and movements, capturing this internal conflict in a very expressive manner.

Daag (1952)

Dilip Kumar's first Filmfare award for Best Actor arrived for his performance in this Amiya Chakrabarty classic. As an early proto-Kabir Singh (2019), Dilip Kumar's subdued, controlled expression of a self-destructive man in love is moving. The performance has been the blueprint for every alcoholic, self-destructive leading man since. The journey into chaos and then redemption earned him the first of many awards.

A tragic film in some ways, Daag was also the first of many performances that would earn him the sobriquet 'Tragedy King'.

Amar (1954)

Of all the craft in his arsenal, the portrayal of psychological torment and self-inquisition set Dilip Kumar's performances apart. Few roles captured it as well as in Mehboob Khan's Amar. Playing an idealistic lawyer Amarnath, Dilip Kumar succumbs to lust and rapes the very girl he is trying to protect.

The expression of this conflict defines the actor throughout the film. In 2001, passing on his wisdom to Shah Rukh Khan at an awards function, he had said, "For any enduring performance, Shah Rukh, you have to have a good story, good character equations, sound conflict." Few performances underlined it as well as Dilip Kumar's in this Mehboob Khan film.

Devdas (1955)

An iconic Dilip Kumar film, Bimal Roy's Devdas was the biggest jewel in his acting crown. As iconic as the character was, it had already been immortalized on screen by PC Barua and KL Saigal, among others. Yet, Dilip Kumar picked up on the youthful naivete and tragic heartbreak with a vulnerability that was unlike any other performance. The actor was actually worried about portraying an alcoholic for 'misleading youth'. It took all the persuasive skills of Bimal Roy for him to step into the role.

A stickler for method, the actor was given the freedom to participate in the writing process. In his autobiography, The Substance and the Shadow, Dilip Kumar said, "He [Bimal Roy] made it comfortable for me to participate in the writing work along with his formidable team comprising Nabendu Ghosh and Rajinder Singh Bedi, among others. The lines from Devdas, I must mention here, are some of the most responsible and sensitive ever written for a Hindi film hero. In fact, the dialogues of Devdas are replete with a haunting sensitivity, spontaneity, and meaning." 

In an interview, writer Kamlesh Pandey likened this ability of the actor to use words to that of a musician playing with the keys. Quite a concert it was, Devdas!

Naya Daur (1957)

Yet another quality that set Dilip Kumar apart was his versatility. There is a reason Shah Rukh Khan considers him his idol. Dilip Kumar could play the romantic, ideal youth with as much ease as he could portray a revolutionary leader. The perfect example is BR Chopra's Naya Daur. In a film that portrayed India trying to balance modernity with tradition, Dilip Kumar is effervescent. Matched by the vivacity of Vyjayanthimala, he carries the film with the ease of a star in his prime.

If you still doubt it, just watch the song 'Ude Jab Jab Zulfein Teri'. His ease and style can put a smile on the face of even the most daunting cynic. His performance is magnificent in every phase of the film's theme. As the idealistic Shankar, he captures the optimism, courage and drive that symbolized a newly independent country in its first decade. The performance brought Dilip Kumar his third Best Actor Filmfare.

Madhumati (1958)  

The grandmother of all reincarnation films ever made in Hindi cinema, Madhumati had some powerful names behind its ideation. Ritwik Ghatak created the story which Bimal Roy took into his hands to film. He cast his trusted leading man, Dilip Kumar, in the role of the young star-crossed lover who returns to find his love. The film is a masterful example of Roy's directorial capabilities, yet it is Dilip Kumar's sensitive performance that evokes the emotions at the core of the story. The style and presence were those that stamped his legacy for a generation to follow.

Even in a supernatural plot, the actor managed to ground his performance with realism. Dilip Kumar captures with sincerity and vulnerability the soul of a young man pining for his love. While the film remained director Bimal Roy's greatest hit, and a remarkable work in his ouevre, it captures Dilip Kumar in one of his finest moments. The sight of him cavorting through the misty hills singing 'Suhana Safar Aur Yeh Mausam Haseen' is one of the most memorable moments in Hindi cinema.

Mughal-e-Azam (1960)

Today's filmmakers brought up on ROI (return on investment) may scarcely believe that Mughal-e-Azam could ever be made. The product of K Asif's obsession with the story, it marks the pinnacle of Indian cinema's melodramatic oeuvre. With powerful performers dominating every breadth of the film, Dilip Kumar still left his mark. His presence, control of language, and restrained style have become standards for any Indian actor playing a regal prince since.

The film's high point is the romance between Salim and Anarkali (Madhubala). The two stars had previously been in a relationship, with Dilip Kumar even admitting his attraction for the legendary beauty in his autobiography. This only fuelled the fire and the magic in the romantic scenes in Asif's film.

Yet, romance is only one part of the story. To hold one's own against the broad-shouldered Prithviraj Kapoor's Akbar was quite an achievement. Dilip Kumar does this with the determination of a prince denied love. No other scene embodies this like Salim's confrontation with the emperor over Anarkali. The dialogue delivery, the pauses, and the stare are quite simply the work of a craftsman at the peak of his prowess.

Kohinoor (1960)

It was when playing tragic and serious characters started to take a toll on him that Dilip Kumar turned to something light-hearted. The result was the refreshing musical Kohinoor. With Naushad's compositions setting the tone, the actor took to the part of a swashbuckling prince in a fantasy epic.

The film may not have the literary depth of Mughal-e-Azam or the nuanced portrayals of Daag. Yet, it has a smiling, charming Dilip Kumar who embodies the childlike joy of living out a fantasy on screen. The performance is a stark contrast to the seriousness and complexity of his tragic characters, but does not lack one bit in authenticity or belief. The true power of a great actor is to live his characters, no matter how silly or outrageous they may be. Of course, Naushad's compositions only lift the performance to another level.

Gunga Jumna (1961)

Undoubtedly a personal favourite of the star, Gunga Jumna was the moment his craft attained supremacy. Dilip Kumar's performance was to be the inspiration for Salim-Javed's 'Angry Young Man' image in the following decade.

Written and produced by Dilip Kumar, Gunga Jumna saw the actor speak in the Awadhi dialect to capture the essence of a farm boy forced to turn bandit for his rights. Nuanced, fiery and filled with earthy texture, the performance is a textbook for method acting.

Long before shooting in dialects became the vogue, Dilip Kumar's decision to have every dialogue in the film fused with the Awadhi language was revolutionary. The performance, sadly, did not earn him another Filmfare. Yet, it remains iconic for the effect it had on future generations. Years later, Amitabh Bachchan would call it the best performance he had seen. Javed Akhtar called it the inspiration for the iconic Deewaar (1975) which was based on the same story of two brothers on opposite sides of the law.

Shakti (1982)

When he signed on for Shakti, Dilip Kumar was in the autumn of his career. A new generation of stars had taken over, prime among them being the reigning superstar of Hindi cinema, Amitabh Bachchan. Yet, in Ramesh Sippy's classic, the veteran displayed the full range of his abilities to create the perfect foil for the fiery Bachchan. As the righteous father, he was perfectly placed to hand the baton over to the 'Angry Young Man'.

In many ways, it was coming full circle for Dilip saheb, as he was now popularly known. From being the young tyro facing his unbending father in Mughal-e-Azam to playing the righteous father schooling a truant son, the role was made for him. In a performance that evoked sympathy, courage and respect, the veteran showed he still had something left to teach the newer generation. Fittingly, it earned him yet another Filmfare award for Best Actor.