Long live the legend

July 11, 2021

Dilip Kumar was able to add that sheen to suffering, making it a value in itself to be cherished

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Dilip Kumar represented his characters’ glamourised suffering. The suffering or unrequitedness has been part of our artistic tradition, particularly in northern sub-continent, that includes Pakistan. Best portrayed in ghazal, the long suffering hero mulls and meditates over his lack of proper realisation, not really worried about acting as men intent on solving problems. The problems somehow have dynamics that cannot be controlled or changed. It is only the awareness about these that becomes more agonising, leading to a feeling of resignation. The resignation is not without its merits as it grows out of a heightened awareness which only the great can be accessed or blessed with. The paradox of the Greek hero is shared by the hero of this region and the actor who best portrayed all this was Dilip Kumar.

Actors like Ashok Kumar, Moti Lal, Pithviraj Kapoor, too, portrayed suffering before him. However, their portrayal lacked the glamour that lighted it all up. Dilip Kumar was able to add that sheen and made suffering a value in itself to be cherished. It is probably true to say that no actor was more emulated in the films or imitated across the social divide than him. He became the representative figure of the star-crossed youth of his times.

Most of the time, he dominated the film. It was not that the role depended on the film, instead the film was dependent on his character. He dictated the action in the film; the eventual resolution was seen in the light that his character shed upon it. It can be said that at times his greatness was at the expense of the film itself. If it were so the audiences felt aligned to it, as women wept and men rued with him.

He was superb in Jogan and in Devdas, where he played the roles that were more in synch with the archetypes. The films were elevated as his restraint in suffering and lack of fulfilment were matched by the hugely talented Nargis and Suchitra Sen. It can be said with honesty that he was an original. While the others imitated or emulated other film stars and styles of filmmaking in India, he carved a place for himself by creating his own style. He studied and carefully examined the character types in the sub-continent. In a definitive way, he was able to project their innermost self on the big screen. It wasn’t something contemporary like the Nehruvian ideal or as the preserver of law and order that struck the chord with the times, it was something primordial, the sad tragic destiny that confronts mankind which is beyond the remedial recipes offered by epochs or eras.

His was a fairy tale beginning, reinforcing the dust-to-gold impression that show business garners. Kumar becoming a film hero was as accidental as it gets. He was on a railway station transiting while looking for a job when he met Dr Masani, a psychologist, who had lectured the students at Wilson College, where Dilip Kumar was a student. Dr Masani suggested that the young Yousaf Khan join the films. He took him to see Devika Rani who was then running the Bombay Talkies after the death of her husband Humansu Roi. Rechristened as Dilip Kumar, he was cast in Jawar Bhata. The audiences rejected the film but the filmmakers did not, and kept casing him till he was a success in Shaukat Huusain Rizvi’s Jugnu, starring with Nur Jehan.

While the others imitated or emulated great actors, Dilip Kumar carved a place for himself by creating his own style. It wasn’t something contemporary like the Nehruvian ideal or as the preserver of law and order that struck the chord with the times; it was something primordial, the sad tragic destiny that confronts mankind which is beyond the remedial recipes offered by epochs or eras.

Yousaf Khan, the son of a fruit merchant, Ghulam Sarwar, and Ayesha Bibi, hailed from Peshawar. In Bombay, he became a film hero. This, of course, had to be kept a secret from the father who often bantered with Basheshwarnath, the grandfather of Raj Kapoor, about his sons and grandsons having joined a disreputable profession. It was finally their turn to get back. When Jugnu became a hit, Basheshwarnath took Dilip Kumar’s father to see a poster with his son’s image on it. The father was unbelieving and dumbstruck and confronted his son. He also stopped talking to him. It was only the intervention of Prithviraj Kapoor that restored an edgy normalcy to the father-son relationship.

The father had wanted him to join a ‘respectable’ profession like government service and eventually be awarded an OBE. However, the son joined the films. Like the other dynasty from Peshawar, he started manipulating the fantasy of the Indian masses. The relationship between the two families was very cordial. There was a very warm friendship between Dilip Kumar, the introvert, and Raj Kapoor, the extrovert. When Dilip Kumar went back to India after visiting Peshawar in 1988, Raj Kapoor was in a coma. It was a touching episode as narrated by Rishi Kapoor. Dilip Kumar sat by his bed side, holding his hand and whispering to Kapoor about their beloved Peshawar which he had visited after 50 odd years.

He was so engrossed in the tragic roles that made him so successful and a great actor that he had to seek medical advice to break out of that mode since it had started affecting his health. He finally needed to distinguish the person from the character that he was playing. He offered that as an explanation for choosing greater diversity in the roles he played.

Some actors die young and carry the youthful image as did Guru Dutt and Madhubala. Dilip Kumar lived to a ripe old age with news of his trips to the hospital dominating the media for longer than his work. However, this did not erase or tarnish the image that was etched in the public mind. It is a measure of his his endurance as an actor that the best of his work was remembered till the very end.

Dilip Kumar was awarded Padma Vibhushan and Padma Bhushan, the Dada Saheb Phalke Award and was a member of the Rajia Sabha and the sheriff of Bombay. However, when he was awarded one of the highest civilian awards by the government of Pakistan, there was uproar in India particularly instigated by the Shiv Sena. The pressure grew so much that he had to seek advice from the then Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It was only with the asheerbad of the prime minister that he was able to travel to Pakistan for a second time to receive the award.

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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