King of tragedy

July 18, 2021

July 7, marked the passing of veteran actor Yousuf Khan who was more famously known by his screen name: Dilip Kumar

King of tragedy

July 7, marked the passing of veteran actor Yousuf Khan who was more famously known by his screen name: Dilip Kumar. As someone who had no prior ambitions of “making it big” in cinema, Khan’s rise to stardom was set into motion by chance when he was discovered by Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai, the founders of the Bombay Talkies studio. At the time of his debut, Khan was advised to follow in the footsteps of his Muslim contemporaries and go by another name, in order to be accepted and not discriminated against in the then Hindu-dominated Indian film industry. He was granted the opportunity to work in his first film Jwar Bhata in 1944. Even though the film flopped at the box office and the actor was criticised for his performance, it played a significant role in placing him on the Bollywood stage. His first success came in Jugnu, in which he starred alongside Noor Jehan.

Dilip Kumar leaves behind a rich legacy. His career boasts of more than 60 films, including numerous blockbusters. Kumar routinely practiced the method acting technique: an emotionally-immersive form of role play that called for actors to study, empathise with and embody their characters, rather than just perform actions and read out memorised dialogues. He was considered a pioneer when it came to the application of this technique for breathing life into his characters, and was celebrated for his consistent practice of it to bring forth more authentic and emotional portrayals.

Dilip Kumar’s reputation as the Tragedy King of Bollywood arose from his frequent portrayal of the tragic hero, one destined to pine for an unattainable love, suffer the plight of unrequited love or meet a tragic end that would eliminate any possibility of a happy ending. Perhaps the most renowned of his tragedy films is Mughal-i-Azam (1960), in which he played the role of Prince Salim. The film was set in the Mughal era during Emperor Akbar’s reign. It tells the story of his son, Prince Salim, who falls in love with a courtesan, Anarkali. Their forbidden love culminates in tragedy as Anarkali belongs to the court of Akbar and cannot be united with Salim. She is sentenced to be entombed alive. Another famous tragedy that displayed the finesse with which Kumar performed the role of the aggrieved lover is Devdas (1955). In this film, Kumar was cast in the titular role of Devdas, a man who is driven to drunkenness and borderline insanity when he is unable to attain his childhood love, Paro, due to their unequal socio-economic status. This trope of forbidden or unattainable love recurs in many of his other tragedy films. For instance, the film Jogan (1950) concludes with a scene of his character mourning the death of his love in a graveyard. In a similar vein, his film Mela (1948) tells the story of two lovers who are separated by fate, then reunited temporarily, only to be separated again when one of the lovers dies by falling off a cliff. Deedar (1951) is another retelling of unrequited love whereby a blind man undergoes surgery, has his eyesight restored, discovers that he and his surgeon are in love with the same woman, and blinds himself in grief over the fact.

It is interesting to note that during his career, Dilip Kumar portrayed renditions of not just one, but two of the most well-known tragic heroes from classic literature: Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights (1847) and Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre (1847). The film Sangdil (1952) was an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre —with some deviations from the text— in which Kumar played the role of a brooding and mysterious man who falls in love, but cannot marry his lover as he is already married to a mentally deranged woman and stuck in a loveless union. The film Arzoo was an adaptation of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, wherein the actor embodied the role of the lover who yearns for his love in vain and, eventually, witnesses her death and grieves it for the remainder of his years.

The Tragedy King title might suggest that Kumar was type-cast and deprived of other types of roles. A quick survey shows that he got to perform a diverse range of roles. Being a method actor and constantly having to portray despondent and mournful characters on the silver screen had begun to take a serious toll on his mental health. That was when he made the shift towards comic and romantic roles and started acting in social dramas. Throughout his career, which spanned over six decades, he not only starred in tragedies, but also played lead roles in romantic dramas, comedies like Ram Aur Shyam (1967), and films like Ganga Jamna (1961) that focused on social commentary.

He was famously celebrated and lauded for both his portrayal of the quintessential tragic hero and his versatile acting profile. This fact is highlighted by the honours and accolades he received for his vast and diverse repertoire and contribution to cinema. These included several Filmfare awards. He received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1994, and the Nishan-i-Imtiaz in 1998.

The writer has an English literature degree from LUMS. She can be reached on Instagram at @sanateewrites

King of tragedy