The patriotic legend

By virtue of being a method actor, he immersed in the character completely simply because that character was indigenous and therefore accessible

The patriotic legend

The last scene of Ganga Jumna, in which Ganga (played by Dilip Kumar) –with the police chasing after him– badly wounded eventually dies before Bhagwan (god) in a hospice, was witnessed by none other than David Lean (1908-1991). Film buffs would know Lean, an English film director, producer, screenwriter, and editor, widely considered one of the most influential directors of all time. Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago were his monumental productions. Lean after watching the death scene, pronounced that it could not be enacted better than the way Dilip Kumar did.

According to a few critics like late Sajjad Haider Malik, Dilip Kumar outperformed Marlon Brando’s death scene in Viva Zapata. Impressed by Dilip Kumar’s acting prowess, David Lean made him an offer of a role of Sherif Ali that was later played by Omer Sharif, which brought him world-wide fame and critical acclaim. Omer Sharif was subsequently cast in the lead role in films like Doctor Zhivago and Mackenna’s Gold. Astoundingly, Dilip Kumar declined, preferring to keep teaming up with his Indian colleagues and peers like Mahboob, B. R. Chopra, Bimal Roy, Nitin Bose and Ram Mukherji. Spurning offers extended by Hollywood production houses stirred curiosity among writers and critics. Asked several times about the intriguing fact, Dilip Kumar appeared not to have come up with any definitive (or convincing) answer. At least I found his answers, nebulous to say the least. However, if his responses are pieced together to deduce some credible conclusion, his unflinching belief in associating great value to the indigenization of the cinematic ethos. Venturing out of India to feature in foreign films, therefore was not an option, he ever fancied. Through the tool of modernity bequeathed by the West, story, the context in which the story was set as well as the characters of the story and the music being an integral part of the film must, to the reckoning of Dilip Kumar, emanate from indigenous socio-cultural realities.

Thus, be it Naya Daur, Dagh, Devdas, Deedar, Madhomati, ganga Jumna, Ram aur Shyam or Sagina Mahto, most of his films had purely Indian, rural context. The salient feature of many of his films had been indigenization of socio-cultural ethos and nostalgia for the Indian pristine hood, being rendered hollow by pervading Westernization. One may argue that both categories, indigenization and nostalgia are two sides of the same coin. Nostalgia may act as a stimulus for the people to actualize indigenization.

Indigenization is the act of making something more native; transformation of some service, idea, etc. to suit a local culture, especially through the use of more indigenous people in any activity. The word indigenization was, according to J.F. Butler, first used in a 1951 paper about studies conducted in India about Christian missionaries. The word was used to describe the process of making churches indigenous in southern India. It was used in The Economist in 1962 to describe managerial positions and in the 1971 book English Language in West Africa by John Spencer, where it was used to describe the adoption of English. Indigenization is often used to describe the adoption of colonial culture in Africa because of the effects of colonialism by Europe in the 19th and the early 20th centuries. The term is primarily used by anthropologists to describe what happens when locals take something from the outside and make it their own (e.g. Africanization, Americanization).

Dilip Kumar was one of the principal exponents of realism in Bollywood and he is described as an icon of method acting. By virtue of being a method actor, he immersed in the character completely simply because that character was indigenous therefore accessible. Despite localized essence of those characters, Dilip Kumar had to put in an assiduous effort to re-configure himself as Devdas. Reading that novel with the same title Devdas by Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay several times, learning about its Bengali cultural setting was exceedingly daunting a task. In the 1950s and 60s, Indian literature and history writing aimed at retrieving the authentic pristine hood of Indian culture and its social essence. Indian cinema joined in the same endeavour. The overall message that Indian films were projecting was inflected by Gandhian thought and not Nehruvian modernism. Film industry was an instrument to convey a political message to the masses and it did it very effectively. At that time, the connection between literature and films was firmly established and both complemented each other. Most of the films, Dilip Kumar did were based on an extraordinarily strong textual tradition. The story line for many of those films was adaptation from either novels written in different languages of the Subcontinent or historical tales. Since he was meticulous to the core and did his spade work with extreme care, he could do only 63 movies in his career spanning almost 76 years. All I am arguing here is that hypothetically speaking, any role typical of the Hollywood if assigned to Dilip Kumar, with his intense style of acting, would have consumed him far too early. Then for an Indian actor, fitting in Hollywood would have been impossible. They could only be doing side roles at best. Amitabh Bachchan playing Mr. Patel in The Great Gatsby is a case in point. All these considerations kept Dilip Kumar from doing foreign films. Later, Shahrukh Khan and Naseer ud Din Shah also expressed the same opinion.

Generally, Devdas and Ganga Jumna are considered his best films but in Deedar and Madhumati Dilip Kumar’s performance was outstanding. Same can be said about Mughal-i-Azam and Admi because those roles were incredibly challenging. In Shakti, he stole the show vis a vis Amitabh Bachchan and in Karma Naseer ud Din Shah wilted before him. I would conclude by saying that beneath all that glamour and razzle dazzle in the life of Dilip Kumar, the perseverance and hard work in fact made him, what he become, a legend, an icon and most of all a lovable human being.


The writer is a professional historian and author. He can be reached at [email protected]

The patriotic legend