The outpouring of tributes after Dilip Kumar’s passing earlier this week comes as no surprise—surely anyone with a sense of film history knew that a giant had left us, that this was a momentous closure. However, the depth and breadth of the actor’s influence becomes even more obvious when you consider this: His final film appearance was more than two decades ago—in the 1998 Qila, not exactly a career highlight. And in the last 30 years, he appeared in only one other film, the 1991 Saudagar, best known for reuniting him with another veteran, Raaj Kumar, and for a song that went Ilu Ilu.
Which means Dilip Kumar had been out of the public gaze for a long, long time. Most of his seminal work, in any case, was in the 1950s and 1960s. And we are in an age when so much of our movie-watching is all about the here and now, about the OTT release of tomorrow, when even films made just a few years ago get quickly forgotten.
But he had cast a huge shadow. One of my memories of reading Hindi-film magazines in the 1980s was that when young actors were asked about their idols or inspirations, the answers seemed to follow a template. Among American favourites, the names “Brando” and “De Niro” were reverentially intoned. Among Indians, it was almost always “Dilip Kumar” or “Yousuf saab”.
At the time, I had seen and loved films like Karma and Shakti—and yes, even Kranti, with that Chana Jor Garam song where Dilip Kumar and Manoj Kumar were strung up by the comically evil Brits—but I had no firsthand experience of the much-idolised Yousuf saab of yore. This is what one gathered from those magazine pages and from parents’ conversations: He was so understated. The opposite of what Hindi cinema usually stood for. Gravitas, soulfulness, thehraav were his stock in trade. His performances were “realistic”.
This eulogising of subtlety—and the equating of quietness with realism—was a little puzzling to someone who was from a Punjabi clan and knew many boisterous or demonstrative people in real life. An obvious question was: What if Dilip Kumar were required to play a flamboyant character?
The answer would come over the years, as I discovered older cinema, and accordingly I would like to emphasise an aspect of Kumar’s screen persona that sometimes gets overlooked: Apart from everything else, he was a great matinee idol who knew how to work the camera to his advantage.
Some context may be useful here. When Yousuf Khan took on a new name and began his cinematic innings with Jwar Bhata in 1944, the default performative mode in Bombay filmdom was a theatrical one, deriving from stage traditions—even though a few stars like Ashok Kumar, Leela Chitnis and Motilal had started bringing naturalistic, casual line-readings to the screen. At the time, most Indian actors who fancied themselves as “serious” performers looked westward to the likes of Paul Muni, Jean Gabin, Luise Rainer and Spencer Tracy as role models. Dilip Kumar too absorbed some of the understatement of these performers. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, he was easily identified as a more subtle actor than those around him because of the contrast with his immediate rivals: His long-time friend Raj Kapoor operated in a showier, more hyper-dramatic idiom as both director and actor, while Dev Anand was a dashing poster boy almost from the start.
Kumar, on the other hand, was marvellous at what one might call studied understatement—even before the Marlon Brando juggernaut began a few continents away. Clichéd though it sounds, he is excellent as the sulky, limp-wristed non-lover in Bimal Roy’s Devdas. The quiet intensity is there in so many seminal films, starting with the 1949 Andaz and the 1951 Deedar. Or the 1957 Musafir, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s first film as director, in which he sang in his own voice for the first time on screen—the scene is a beautiful, plaintive one where the characters played by him and Usha Kiran, former lovers, recall their young and carefree days together. His performance here, a variant on the Devdas persona, perfectly captures the dimming hope of a man who essentially lives in the past but is pragmatic enough to know that the past now exists only for him, that others have moved on.
However, beneath the hurt lover withdrawing into himself was one of the most dazzling smiles in our cinema (after a Mumbai Film Festival screening of the Partition-era film Qissa, Tillotama Shome—who played a girl raised as a boy—mentioned that her director had asked her to watch early Dilip Kumar performances in films like Tarana, to look at how he smiled, even in tense situations). And there was a showman too, a man with style, panache, star quality.
Some Dilip Kumar fans—those who prefer to restrict him— might treat those descriptors as slurs. But I mean them as a tribute to a star-actor’s ability to shift registers.
Consider Kumar in Mehboob Khan’s 1952 epic Aan, a film that can be somewhat hard on the eyes today because of the overdone Technicolor (it was India’s first such production, meant to impress international viewers). He is required to swagger and preen and swashbuckle and get the better of a spoilt princess, and he does all this with conviction, but without relinquishing any of the softer qualities that most people associate with him. Watch the handsome young poseur bandaging his horse’s wounded foot while singing Maan Mera Ehsaan to a sullen Nadira, balancing genuine concern for the animal with the demands of being a dashing romantic lead—and treating the scene not just as a stand-alone musical interlude but as an important part of the film’s universe. It’s as if—to evoke the qualities of the Hollywood actors Kumar would have watched as a young man—the brash cockiness of Errol Flynn had somehow been mixed with the bashfulness, the poetic realism, of Henry Fonda. If you can imagine such a thing.
Many years later, there is Dilip Kumar bounding about on a podium in that bloated but often intriguing satire Leader, showing a fine sense of the absurd and even a knack for slapstick. Or playing the sitar like an expert—after months of practice—in a song in Kohinoor, a film that also let him show off his comic talents. Or throwing himself into the part of the gregarious, emotional Gungaram in Gunga Jumna, acing the Awadhi dialect, even performing Nain Lad Jaiyen—one of his first full-throated musical sequences—as if he had been singing and dancing throughout his childhood. Among the Hindi-film actors who were celebrated for their naturalism, only a select few could bring conviction to song performances (which involve a very different set of performative skills). Nutan was one, Kumar was another (and how good they were together in the first rendering of Dil Diya Hai, Jaan Bhi Denge in Karma).
Like almost every male star in Hindi cinema, Kumar could— when allowed to get out of control or over-indulged by a script—seem like a self-important ham. The 1970s was not a good decade for him as an actor—his finest moment in that period might be in a funny cameo he did in Gulzar’s Koshish, playing himself in a scene where, on being prank-called by a voiceless Hari (Sanjeev Kumar), he deadpans, “This fellow speaks even more softly than I do,” before hanging up.
But he righted the ship in the decade that followed, playing his age opposite a range of much younger actors for whom he had been an inspiration: from Anil Kapoor in Mashaal to Sanjay Dutt in Vidhaata, to Anil Kapoor, Sridevi, Naseeruddin Shah and Jackie Shroff in Karma. At a certain point in a star-actor’s life, some posturing is almost inevitable. But Dilip Kumar managed to deliver performances of seriousness and conviction even in his confrontations with Karma’s cartoonish Dr Dang (played by Anupam Kher)—staying in character in a larger-than-life canvas while being aware that the younger actors were in awe of him. To maintain integrity in such circumstances is heroic.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise, though—throughout his career, he had been very canny about how to modulate his own performance when working opposite other giants whose acting styles may have been mildly (or very) different: with Ashok Kumar in Deedar, Nargis and Raj Kapoor in Andaz, Prithviraj Kapoor and Durga Khote in Mughal-e-Azam, Amitabh Bachchan in Shakti. In doing this, he struck just the right balance between internalising a character and being a star, aware of his following and reputation and how a particular gesture—even a “subtle” one—would make him look on screen.
There are many instances across his body of work where you see both facets in the space of a few minutes of film. In the opening scene of Madhumati, as the car moves through the stormy night, he tosses off his lines with the carelessness of a mumbling American Method actor: chatting with his friend, peremptorily telling the driver to go faster. But just a short while later, in the Suhana Safar song, he stands on a rock and waves his arms like an orchestra conductor, as if he were really hearing the tune in his head—and as if he knew that the attention of every member of the audience should be on him.
In the best work of this actor, the two poles of realism and stylisation blended into one, and you could see how they might work together. It’s a lesson that most major performers working in mainstream Hindi cinema have had to learn, but one that very few could master.
Jai Arjun Singh is a writer and critic.
Where to start with Dilip Kumar
This romantic drama, directed by Mehboob Khan, was an early breakthrough for Dilip Kumar. He plays a young man in love with Nargis’ heiress, who turns out to be engaged to Raj Kapoor.
Another Mehboob Khan film, though in a different register, gave Kumar a big hit. India’s first film in Technicolor, Aan was a swashbuckler in which Kumar’s villager took on an evil king.
The first of Kumar’s three films with director Bimal Roy. His performance as a moody alcoholic obsessed with his childhood friend Paro earned him the sobriquet of ‘Tragedy King’.
Naya Daur (1957)
Kumar plays a tonga-driver in this B.R. Chopra film extolling rural values. The climactic sequence, with Kumar in his tonga racing Ajit Khan driving a bus, is a Hindi cinema classic.
Bimal Roy’s film is an atmospheric supernatural love story. Kumar falls for a village girl, who dies; he then comes across someone who looks exactly like her.
K. Asif’s long-gestating, ambitious epic has Kumar as the rebellious Mughal prince Salim, Madhubala as the courtesan he falls for, and Prithviraj Kapoor as Emperor Akbar.
Ganga Jumna (1961)
A film that had two brothers on opposing sides of the law, more than a decade before Salim-Javed wrote Deewar. Kumar plays a dacoit who comes up against his cop sibling.
Ramesh Sippy’s film was the only one to feature Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan. This tale of an honest cop and his wounded son is regarded as one of Kumar’s finest late career roles.