Article Hindi

Dilip Kumar (1922-2021), the name that meant actor


Dilip Kumar created a template for the perfect actor who could source every possible emotion from the deepest recesses of his soul.

Shriram Iyengar

In Amadeus, a play on the legend of composer Mozart, Antonio Salieri says, "We were both ordinary men, he and I. Yet from the ordinary he created Legends, and I from Legends created only the ordinary!"

To put it simply, an actor named Dilip Kumar is no more. But for Hindi cinema, Kumar was not just an actor. He was ‘THE’ actor.

Every man who has sought to be an 'actor' in the true sense of the term in Hindi cinema has at one point looked at the face of Dilip Kumar and dreamt of achieving similar prowess. It was the face that led Harikrishan Goswami to add the suffix Kumar to his pseudonym Manoj. It was the reason why, in 1992, Rajiv Hari Om Bhatia decided to go with Akshay ‘Kumar’ as his screen name.

A mural in Bandra, Mumbai

With a simplicity that belied his genius, Dilip Kumar created a template for the perfect actor who could source every possible emotion from the deepest recesses of his soul and express it, unhindered by staccato words or poetry. Expression in its purest form.

Born Muhammad Yusuf Khan on 11 December 1922, Dilip Kumar hailed from the same locality of Peshawar as that other great actor and rival of his, Raj Kapoor. The area was Qissa Khwani Bazaar, or market of storytellers. Young Yusuf was a mischievous child, and it was his mother, grandmother, and aunts who offered his frail, sensitive soul protection from the strict, conservative nature of his father. Even at a young age, his talent was obvious. But it was subsumed by a self-conscious neurosis that would be reflected strongly in his characters later.

In his autobiography, aptly titled The Substance and the Shadow, Dilip Kumar's narration about entering the world of cinema feels almost cinematic.

Having arrived in Bombay, he joined a family friend, Dr Masani, on a trip to Bombay Talkies at far-off Malad seeking employment. It was here that Devika Rani, the studio's boss, spotted the young man and asked if he would become an actor, at the princely salary of Rs1,250 a month.

Humble to a fault, Yusuf Khan replied that he had no experience in the field. To which Devika Rani shot back, “If you can take pains to learn about fruits and fruit cultivation, you can surely take pains to learn the craft of filmmaking and acting.”

And learn he did. Making his debut in Amiya Chakraborty’s Jwar Bhata (1944) as Dileep Kumar, he soon became one of the most wanted actors in the industry. Films like Jugnu (1947), Shabnam (1949), and Andaz (1949) were among the early milestones in a career that would last over five decades.

A poster of Dilip Kumar's debut film, no print of which exists today

In the early period of the newly independent India’s cinema, Dilip Kumar occupied a privileged position alongside Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor. Like fellow Pathan Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar possessed the combination of a handsome profile and a sharp cinematic intelligence. However, he stood apart in terms of his need for perfection. Comparing himself to Raj Kapoor, a friend from his Khalsa College days, Dilip Kumar said, “He was a born extrovert and charmer.”

To combat his involuntary shyness, Kumar turned to literature, poetry, and, more obviously, his craft. In the foreword to his autobiography, Saira Banu, his wife of five decades and co-star of many films, wrote, “If not the biographies or classics or master plot plays by great writers such as Eugene O’Neill, Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Tennessee Williams, he is sure to be engrossed in the writing of a script or a scene that waits to be picturized the next day morning.”

It was this unquenchable thirst for knowledge, fuelled by a neurotic addiction to the craft, that gave him an edge over his fellow stars. In fact, in an age when the term stardom was born, Dilip Kumar remained first and foremost an actor. Whether it was the immortal pathos of Devdas (1955), the youthful vibrance of Naya Daur (1957) and Madhumati (1958), the tragic Yahudi (1958), or the high drama of K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960), the man known as Dilip Kumar rode through wave after wave of roles as an actor.

His dedication and craft earned him praise as one of the legends of Indian cinema. Director V Shantaram, who had sought to cast him in his iconic Do Ankhen Barah Haath (1957), said, “Had Shakespeare met Dilip Kumar, he would have added one more character to the already well-defined ones he had created.”

Even Satyajit Ray, a director who consciously stayed away from the glitz and glamour of Hindi cinema, was once quoted as saying, “Dilip Kumar is a brilliant actor and can be termed the 'Ultimate in Method Acting'.”

This praise was not born of adulation. An actor who worked hard on his diction, knowledge and craft, Dilip Kumar embodied the famous quote of Konstantin Stanislavski, the man who invented method acting, that "unless the theatre can ennoble you, make you a better person, you should flee from it".

To achieve it, he immersed himself in every aspect of the craft. At a time when actors were expected to be jacks of all trades, Dilip Kumar was the master. A true Punjabi with an interest in music, he could sing quite well, but refrained from singing often owing to modesty.

The peak of this craft was his performance as the innocent peasant in Gunga Jumna (1961). Speaking in accurate Awadhi, the actor embodied the innocent farmer-turned-dacoit Gunga to such an extent that it became the byword for method acting for years to come.

When social responsibility was an unknown term, Dilip Kumar organized charity cricket matches and tours to the war front, and donated generously and anonymously. It was his nobility that earned him the respect of every individual in an industry otherwise famed for shallowness.

An actor’s greatness is often defined by consistent performances scattered over decades. From the moment he won his first Filmfare award for Best Actor for Daag (1952), Dilip Kumar was nominated for the top prize a record 19 times, winning it on eight occasions, also a record.

It was Dilip Kumar’s perception and keen understanding of his age that allowed him to evolve as an actor even in his sixties. Films like Kranti (1981), Vidhaata (1982), Shakti (1982), Mashaal (1984), Karma (1986), and Saudagar (1991) stand testament to a legend that did not fade even when his proud youth did.

The complexity of an art is only enhanced by the simplicity of its portrayal. Mona Lisa, the famous portrait by Leonardi da Vinci, is neither a captivating beauty nor a seductive painting. What makes the portrait immortal is the artist’s effective picturization of the subject’s natural repose. In Dilip Kumar, Indian cinema found its Da Vinci. With a keen understanding of his characters, and their emotional turmoil, he taught actors a lesson with every performance.

It was a conscious effort. In his autobiography, he writes, “It is only instinct that will help you to absorb what you have to absorb from the script and drive you to render a performance coated with realism and conviction, despite the knowledge of it all being fiction and drama.”

Watch as almost five decades later, in 2001, he repeats his advice to Shah Rukh Khan, another Pathan, on acting.

Such self-awareness is often rare among actors. It did not come without a cost, though. Dilip Kumar had to undergo psychiatric counselling after portraying a spate of tragic characters in the 1950s. While it earned him the sobriquet 'King of Tragedy’, it also ended up unbalancing his mind. It was then that he turned to rollicking comedy, with films like Kohinoor (1960), Ram Aur Shyam (1967), and Gopi (1970), among others.

His marriage to Saira Banu, among the most beautiful women of her time, has been a work of similar dedication. After enduring heartbreaks with co-stars Vyjayanthimala and Madhubala, the arrival of Saira Banu allowed levity into the actor’s life. As marriages of younger stars kept floundering, Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu stood as reminders of true love from an earlier, simpler time.

Timing is everything for an actor. A momentary slip might ruin the impact of a crucial line. So, when he delivered Qila (1998), the industry cringed. To his credit, Dilip saheb understood that time had moved on. Discreetly, and gently, he vacated the stage for other actors.

As he makes his exit today, there is a teeming crowd of people waiting to bid farewell, many of them below the age of 30, who might not have seen him on the big screen, and may even know him only by his reputation. Dilip Kumar would not care.

The cottage industry he joined is now a billion-dollar enterprise with octopus arms spreading across the globe. Powerful actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan now share credit equal to that of the superstars.

It was said of Augustus’s contribution to Rome that ‘he found it brick, and he left it marble’. Farewell, Augustus Dilip Kumar.

Related topics

Indian cinema