Not many were aware that Dilip Kumar was in an advanced stage of prostate cancer that had spread to different parts of his body and some of his organs were damaged beyond repair.
He passed away aged 98 after a long fight on 7 July at around 7.30 a.m. Kumar has left a legendary legacy in Indian cinema through only 61 films in around 58 years as an actor.
He refused to sign more than a film a year and even at the peak of his career, sometimes did only one film in three years. The master believed in dedicating himself to just one character at a time.
Much before others began to mimic his unhurried dialogue delivery, deliberately acquired mannerisms, like rubbing his nose before delivering lines, or his designedly measured movements, Kumar proved his unmatchable versatility in every kind of film.
He did it all – from a historical yarn like Mughal-e-Azam (1960) to a literary classic like Devdas (1955), from a Robin Hood-in-disguise in Azaad (1955) to a fun-loving but stubborn young tongawalla in Naya Daur (1957), from a fantasyfilled love story like Uran Khatola (1955) to an obsessed wheelchair-bound man in Aadmi (1968).
One shouldn’t just label Kumar a method actor because that would be too limiting. A sobriquet like “Tragedy King” is redundant because he is much more than that. One shouldn’t call him Yusuf Khan also because he left that name behind long ago. He is and will remain the one and only Dilip Kumar.
Kumar was born in Peshawar, then part of British India, on 11 December 1922.
He was one among 12 children, born to a fruit merchant father.
The family came down to Bombay and his father continued with the fruit business in Nashik. Kumar studied for his graduation at Wilson College in Bombay and had no dreams of stepping into films. He quarrelled with his father and shifted to Poona where he ran a sandwich shop in the Army canteen.
It is said that while Kumar was there, Devika Rani, wife of Himanshu Rai who owned and managed Bombay Talkies, visited the Army canteen. She asked the young man how much he earned a month to which he replied around Rs 150. Rani told him that she would pay Rs 450 a month if he agreed to work in her film.
The money was the main attraction for Kumar, and he said yes at once.
Thus, began the story of the actor. Kumar’s debut film Jwar Bhata (1944) was directed by Amiya Chakrabarty, who later became famous with brilliant films like Seema and Kath Puthli. Though Jwar Bhata became a reasonable hit in Bombay, it did not run well at other centres.
The actor didn’t manage to make a mark then. Three years later, the 1947 drama Jugnu, opposite Noor Jehan, became Kumar’s breakthrough. The highest-grossing Indian film of 1947, it established him as one of Hindi filmdom’s best young actors. In 1948, Kumar had five releases including the family drama Ghar Ki Izzat, the war drama Shaheed, the romantic tragedy Mela and the love story Anokha Pyar.
His last release in 1948 was Nadiya Ke Paar, which turned out to be the biggest box office hit that year. In 1949, he acted in Mehboob Khan’s Andaaz alongside Raj Kapoor and Nargis in a love triangle.
That film became a blockbuster and made Kumar the brightest star of the time alongside establishing his pedigree as a brilliant performer. Kumar was the first Indian actor to charge Rs one lakh a film, which amounts to around Rs one crore with inflationary adjustments. It was a decision he made to deter producers from queuing up outside his door.
His choice to appear in so few films across six decades is proof that he belonged to an era when actors concentrated on their craft and not on the money they could make while the going was good. Second, he headed a group of actors whose stress was on intensity of performance, the quality of input rather than the quantity of output.
The industry was not a rat race like today where numbers at ticket counters prove an actor’s worth and not the quality of their performance. Kumar liked soaking in a character but did not believe in rehearsals before a take as he felt it took away spontaneity from a performance.
He also wished to allow his viewers to be able to either identify or empathise with the character he portrayed. His emotional depth, voice modulation and self-defined body language to express a particular mood is what made him a legend.
That said, most films Kumar featured in demanded that he play the tragic hero. He internalised characters so deeply that it led him to deep depression, and he had to visit a psychiatrist in London for relief. He was advised to cut down on such roles and take on lighter ones.
Thereafter, he began doing films like Aan (1952) and Azaad that displayed his magical ability to fluently enact light roles and not just remain confined to tragedies. Kumar is the only man to have won the Filmfare Award for Best Actor eight times followed by the Dadasaheb Phalke Award.
He became a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, received the Padma Vibhushan and the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award. When he was conferred the title of Nishan-e-Imtiaz by the Government of Pakistan in 1998, the ruling political party in Maharashtra objected and even questioned his patriotism.
Looking back at the humility with which Kumar wore the crown of the uncrowned emperor of Indian cinema, one wonders whether awards meant much to him. More important was to portray the best Devdas among all 18 adaptations of the classic or accept with dignity that Madhubala as Anarkali had the more authorbacked role in K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam. Interestingly, he lent his voice to a song only once in the Hrishikesh Mukherjee film Musafir (1957). In 1993, director Mahesh Bhatt was asked to choose a few memorable love scenes from Hindi cinema.
He had pointed out the scene in Mughale-Azam where Salim is gently stroking the impassioned face of Anarkali with a white feather, held in extreme close-up for a few minutes, as the best love scene in the history of Hindi cinema.
The intense homework he put in for each of his roles, big or small, positive or negative, never mind the director, left its imprint on the sands of time. The story of Dilip Kumar, the man, actor and myth, will remain immortal and command a golden chapter in the history of Indian cinema.
The writer is a senior film critic.