In and out of hospital for the last few months, Dilip Kumar, the thespian, who became a legend in his lifetime, has finally bidden a goodbye, orphaning the Mumbai’s filmdom and saddening millions of his fans. In a career spanning over six decades, right from 1943 till 1998, he played lead roles in 41 films, few of them escaped being hits. A dozen others where he figured were either shelved, remain unreleased or abandoned in the middle. He rode like a colossus across the silver screen for nearly four decades and won every conceivable honour reserved for the cine artistes.
Dilip Kumar will be remembered for his debonair personality, radiant face, clipped English and Urdu conversation, linguistic sophistry, elegant sartorial sense, extremely suave and polished manners, and as an actor who would raise the scale and temperature of emotion demanded by the challenging scenes he would be asked to act out. A disciplined man, he considered it the producers’ prerogative to demand full cooperation once the contract was signed. His staunch commitment to this principle made him show unflinching loyalty to the assignments to the fullest satisfaction of the men behind the cameras. This devotion to work made him to accept one film at a time and never more than two. He writes in his autobiography titled Dilip Kumar: The substance and the shadow: “It was Allah’s will, and also loads of painstaking work and relentless pursuit of my goal, which has always been to deliver work that made the producers of my films feel proud and commercially rewarded.”
He was a voracious reader and maintained a library stocked with novels, plays and biographies. A reading lamp would burn on the sides of his armchair till the wee hours when he would retire for the day. His range of knowledge would often amaze people who did least expected a cine actor to draw parallels from wisdom derived from sacred Bhagvad Geeta, Bible and the Holy Quran. He was equally at ease in rapidfire delivery of dialogues in Bhojpuri dialect or conversing in Persianized Urdu, which was however not his mother tongue.
Born as Yousuf Khan in Peshawar in 1922, Dilip Kumar got his screen name on suggestion from the then diva of Bombay Talkies (production company) Devika Rani who launched him first in film Jwar Bhata released in 1944. He was taken aback when the proposal came first from the actress. It took him some time to reconcile with the thought that he would have to conceal his real identity. But then fast changing scenario in India in the wake of exit of the British colonial administration convinced him of the change being sought. Coming as he did from a conservative family, he did not reveal to his parents where he went to work during the initial years. He had been offered a salary of Rs. 1,250 for a month, a fabulous sum those days. It took him nearly a week to get confirmation if the amount mentioned was for a year or a month. It was soothing for him to know that his mentor Ashok Kumar was actually Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly.
Why a thespian?
For long many years, Dilip Kumar was known as a thespian as he was assigned tragic and melancholic roles. Devdas and Mughal e Azam were two such blockbusters. But few know the real story. During his initial years of childhood “a fakir had told his grandmom (dadi) to take extra care of the boy as he would be an extraordinary person when he grows up’. This made the dadi to apply on his forehead a line of black soot as nazar-tod (safeguard against the evil eye). “I was filled with deep sense of unworthiness and loneliness in school. I waited to get back home where I took refuge in the security of Amma’s gentle, comfortable presence. I feel there was a divine purpose in the episode of Dadi blindly believing the Fakir and giving me the ugly appearance that made me the butt of unpleasant remarks in school. I was playing the early tragic roles in my career and I had to express the deep mental agony of those characters” observes Dilip Kumar in his autobiography.
A serious actor, Dilip Kumar was coveted by several actresses. Kamini Kaushal (real name Uma Kashyap) was perhaps his first love. But one that got into media gossip and rumour mill was with Madhubala (real name Mumtaz Jahan Begum Dehalvi). They had a steamy affair but in the end they decided not to enter marriage. Madhu’s father’s designs on casting the duo as a permanent pair into his films, perhaps proved to be the nemesis and led to the break-up. Although he and Madhubala completed the Mughal e Azam and did not allow the estrangement to affect the quality of their acting, Dilip Kumar confesses that they were not even greeting each other when they arrived on the sets halfway through the film shooting which took almost nine years to complete. The bitterness stayed between them for quite some time when mediators brokered a patch-up. However Dilip Kumar attributes several of the media stories about their affair to factual inaccuracy about which the cine-writers were unmindful of.
A second marriage
Dilip-Saira relationship came under strain (although he appreciates Saira’s forbearance) when he took a second wife Asma Rehman. Though media reports ascribed it to issueless marriage with Saira, Dilip debunks the pursuit of offspring to be the cause behind it. The Nikah was solemnized in Bangalore in 1982 by Qazi Mohammed Junaidi who was peshimam in a mosque in the Cantonment area. He writes: “I would not like to devote more space to the forgotten episode and conclude by saying without the slightest hesitation that, as a human being, I was not infallible and I became a victim of a situation that was set to precipitate a deep crisis in my marriage with Saira.” The marriage ended in a divorce in 1984 which was mediated by worthies such as Rajni Patel, Sharad Pawar and Mama Kapadia.
Though Jwar Bhata was his first film, it was the success of Jugnu that took his fame to heavens. He single-handedly redefined histrionics in one screen portrayal after another—from Shaheed 1948, Andaz 1949, Devdas 1955, Naya Daur 1957, Gunga Jumna 1961, and Mughal-e-Azam 1960—and from Ram Aur Shyam 1967, Gopi 1970, Kranti 1981, to Shakti 1982, Mashaal 1984and Saudagar 1991. In his illustrious career, he refined acting to an art form of exalted brilliance. Down the decades every actor of calibre has held him in high respect as the reference point in acting. He went to no school of acting but created his own method of emoting long before ‘method acting’ came to be known in India or abroad. His varied range of histrionics won him spontaneous admiration while he has been considered the epitome of fine acting for generations of actors who looked up to him for inspiration. His understated elegance and voice modulation have become role models for scores of actors over the years.
Jaya Bachchan is on record to have said: “When Abhishek took the decision to become a film actor, I told him to watch all of Dilip Sahab’s classics and learn some essential lessons from them without trying to copy him. For instance, how many actors of our cinema know how to use silence to enhance the import of dramatic or emotional moment?” Superstar Amitabh Bachchan too minces no words and says: I had always admired the actor in Dilip Sahab much before I came across Ganga Jumna. But the film became special to me after seeing Dilip Sahab’s versatility as the villager from UP possessing the perfection of the dialect and its delivery. It was impossible for me to imagine at that time, being from UP, how someone not connected to the state, could deliver such a flawless performance, nuances and all, for the character.”
Dilip Kumar was extremely handsome, radiant, elegant, sophisticated and regal in bearing and mannerism. But fame came to him through focused hard work, diligence and capacity to emote characters as diverse as insouciant Ganga (Ganga Jumna), reverence of Shyam (Ram aur Shyam) and intensity of Devdas (Devdas). He was full of gratitude for Ashok Kumar (Ashok Bhaiyya for him) for mentoring he provided in early years on the sets.
On the sets of Devdas he was troubled by the thought that the heavy measure of pain and despondency that he used to carry could mislead the more vulnerable youth to belie that alcoholism offers the best escape from the pain of losing in love. He writes: “The dialogues of Devdas are replete with a haunting sensitivity, spontaneity and meaning. They came from the pen of Rajinder Singh Bedi, one of those rare Urdu writers whose syntax was so perfect that the simple lines he wrote inspired actors to build up deep emotions in their rendering.”
In his demise, the Indian filmdom has lost not merely an actor, but a fine human being to which the industry always looked up to as a beacon of guidance, an artiste who showed profound commitment to social causes, a mind that constantly thought of raising the level of art to realities of life. He would remain a fount of inspiration for generations to come.
M A Siraj is Bengaluru based seasoned writer and journalist.