With Dilip Kumar's Passing, Hindi Cinema Loses One of Its Last Links With the Golden Era

The thespian, known as much for his roles as a tragic hero as for his ability to do light-hearted comedy, was generally considered by fans and peers alike as the greatest actor on the Hindi film screen.

With the passing away of Dilip Kumar, one of the last remaining links with the Golden Era of Hindi cinema has gone. The thespian, known as much for his roles as a tragic hero as for his ability to do light-hearted comedy, was generally considered by fans and peers alike as the greatest actor on the Hindi film screen. Along with his contemporaries Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, he dominated the decade – each developed their own screen persona.

More than just that, Dilip Kumar – born Mohammed Yousuf Khan in Peshawar in unpartitioned India – was the great symbol of a secular, Nehruvian India, which was struggling to form its new identity in the aftermath of a bloody Partition. At a time when many Muslims in the film industry were leaving to move across the border, Yousuf and his family – newly arrived in Bombay barely a few years before – chose to stay back.

In 1998, he got embroiled in an unseemly controversy when he was awarded Pakistan’s highest civilian award Nishan-e-Imtiaz; a year later came the Kargil war and his friend Bal Thackeray demanded that he return it. Shiv Sena activists shouted slogans outside his home, but Dilip Kumar did not relent; finally, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee intervened and called him a patriot and the matter calmed down.

He gained fame as Dilip Kumar, the name given to him by Devika Rani, the star of the 1930s who also ran Bombay Talkies, then the most professional of film studios. It was she who suggested that he become Dilip Kumar, saying it sounded more romantic than his original name and would perhaps give him wider acceptability. It remained a tradition for decades and male Muslim film stars generally chose to use Hindu screen names, which also applied to the women in the post-independent era, till Waheeda Rehman came and bucked the trend.

Young Yousuf grew up in a house in the midst of the busy Kissa Khwani Bazaar and traders’ market in Peshawar. He was one of a large brood of siblings – six brothers and six sisters in all – the children of Ayesha Begum and Lala Ghulam Sarwar Khan, a prosperous fruit seller though the household was run by his commanding grandmother, his Dadi, whose word was law. Later in his life, this role was taken over by his eldest sister Sakina Khan, who looked after the rest of the family, even after he got married.

In the early 1940s, the family moved to Bombay to start a fruit business, though young Yousuf went to school in Deolali, where his brother Ayub was undergoing treatment. In Bombay, he joined Khalsa College, where his childhood friend Raj Kapoor was with him.

Dilip Kumar with his brothers Ahsan and Aslam. Photo: Twitter/TheDilipKumar

In 1942, Yousuf was taken by a family friend Dr Masani to Malad, a suburb of Bombay, to meet Devika Rani, who offered him Rs 1250 on the spot and signed him as an actor. The newly minted actor was too scared to tell his father – who had earlier mocked Raj Kapoor and his father Prithviraj Kapoor for being mirasis, a derogatory term used for people who sing and dance.

So it was with much pleasure when one day Raj Kapoor’s grandfather, Biseshwar Nath, took his friend Aghaji, as Dilip Kumar’s father was called, outside his shop in Crawford Market and pointed to a hoarding of the film Jwar Bhata, in which his son – now called Dilip Kumar – figured prominently.

Dilip Kumar was petrified of the possible reaction, since his father had hoped the son would become a government official and “have the suffix OBE against his name,” as the star writes in his autobiography The Substance and the Shadow. Prithviraj Kapoor intervened and explained to Aghaji that there was nothing wrong with his son’s choice and his father calmed down.

On the way to stardom

Jwar Bhata (1944) did not set the box office on fire, but Jugnu (1947), with Noorjehan, did. Then followed two back to back hit films – Nadiya Ke Paar and Shaheed, and Dilip Kumar was on his way. His co-star in both films was Kamini Kaushal and news of their romance spread all over the gossip magazines. She was married to the widower of her sister who had two children, and the family was outraged. They acted in a few more films but eventually had to part ways.

It was in the late 1940s and 1950s that Dilip Kumar truly came into his own. Mehboob Khan’s Andaz (1949), where he co-starred with Nargis and Raj Kapoor as a man who misunderstands a modern girl’s friendliness as love – shaped his persona as a tragic hero, doomed to failure. He perfected his low-key, understated style, often mumbling his dialogues, giving the lines many shades of meaning. It was the perfect foil to the exuberance of Kapoor and Nargis. In a world of tennis, clubs and homes with piano, all three were in their element, and by then Dilip Kumar was confident enough to know how to play up his best side to the camera. His cowlick, falling from his pomaded hair, became his signature style, much copied by actors down the generation.

Nargis, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar in Andaz (1949). Photo: Mehboob Khan/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The tragic hero reached its zenith with Devdas (1955), based on Sarat Chandra’s novel about a zamindar’s son who loves Paro (Suchitra Sen) but cannot marry her. He goes away to the city, where he turns into an alcoholic and finds solace with the dancing girl Chandramukhi (Vyjantimala). As the man wallowing in self-pity and drink, Dilip Kumar made the role his own, blurring the distinction between the man and the star, and also set the template for how tragedy was interpreted on the screen.

A switch to another genre

At the time, Dilip Kumar was feeling somewhat depressed because of the intensity of the roles he was doing. He met the psychiatrist, Dr Nichols, in London who told him that he was “bringing his work home” and advised him to switch to another genre.

The suggestion came at a time when the actor was contemplating signing up for Azaad, where he ended up playing a swashbuckling bandit who robs the rich and romances a wealthy girl, Meena Kumari. It was a light-hearted role, which allowed him to wear different disguises. He also played in a costume drama, Insaaniyat, with Dev Anand, but the main attraction of the film was Zippy the chimp, imported from the US. The film, though thoroughly atrocious and campy, was nonetheless a hit.

Dilip Kumar reached the apogee of his career in the early 1960s, with K. Asif’s magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam, in which he was a young, impetuous Jehangir, taking on his father Emperor Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor) to claim his right of loving (and presumably marrying) Anarkali, played by Madhubala.

Madhubala and Dilip Kumar in Mughal-e-Azam.

By this time, the two were estranged but still their love scenes had a tenderness and imtimacy rarely seen on the screen. His relationship with Madhubala – who by then had been diagnosed with a heart ailment – had started with Tarana  (1951), and was coming to an end, that would be bitter and marked with rancour. In his autobiography, the star writes he wanted to marry her but his father’s greediness, who saw great potential in the two of them forming an onscreen pair, was the hindrance. Dilip Kumar was in his 30s but still a bachelor, while Madhubala went on to marry Kishore Kumar.

Gunga Jumna (1961) followed, in which he played the outlaw who battles his brother (Nasir Khan), a policeman. The film inspired Deewar many years later and was one of Amitabh Bachchan’s most compelling performances.

File photo of Amitabh Bachchan and Dilip Kumar. Photo: PTI

After that, it was mostly downhill – a new generation of stars had taken over and Dilip Kumar was not getting the kind of roles that he had played so brilliantly and his 60s work, whether Leader or Dil Diya Dard Liya were unsuccessful. There were exceptions – Ram aur Shyam (1967) – where he once again showed his mettle playing two brothers, one meek and the other with a confident swagger and then, four years later, Sagina Mahato, a bilingual film (Hindi and Bengali) set in the tea plantations of Northeast India where he takes on his British bosses.

But in the 1980s, it was all loud and raucous drama, except for Shakti, where Bachchan was pitted against him as the son angry with his stickler-for-rules policeman father for not bending the rules to save him from kidnappers. The clash between the two titans was much awaited and did not disappoint. Dilip Kumar kept it low and Bachchan was all simmering anger; opinion is divided about who was better, but for many, Dilip Kumar was the clear victor.

It was the last truly memorable film he did. By then he was effortlessly hamming away, still capable of holding the viewers’ eyes, but in the hands of lesser directors and awful scripts, he had little chance. After that, barring a few appearances, he retired.

That did not in any way cool down the adulation. Though younger fans may not have seen his films, they can’t help knowing his name. Actors and directors still mention him as their inspiration. YouTube is full of fans posting his songs and films, and a few years ago, a group popped up on Facebook, calling for him to get the Bharat Ratna. From a great actor, Dilip Kumar has now become a legend for all time.