Dilip Kumar: Nehru’s Hero

Print edition : July 30, 2021

Dilip Kumar after receiving the Lifetime Achievement award at the 54th National Film Award ceremony in New Delhi on September 2, 2008. Photo: AP

Dilip Kumar and Madhubala in K. Asif’s ‘Mughal-e-Azam’, which took 16 years to make.

IN “Footpath” (1953), as a journalist-black marketeer.

In ‘Kranti’ (1981) , Dilip Kumar starred along with Manoj Kumar, Sashi Kapoor and Shatrughan Sinha.

With Raaj Kumar in “Paigam” (1959).

In B.R . Chopra’s “Naya Daur” (1957) with Vyjayanthimala.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh presenting the Padma Vibhushan to Dilip Kumar at his residence in Mumbai on December 13, 2015. Maharashtra Governor C. Vidyasagar Rao and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis are also seen along with Saira Banu. Photo: The Hindu archives

Dilip Kumar (1922-2021) was to some a tragedy king and to others a romantic hero who with his acting skills created a new era in Hindi cinema. But perhaps most importantly, he was to contemporary cinema what socialism was to an emerging India.

WRITING in A Hundred Encounters, noted editor-author Sham Lal observed, “Death was no stranger to Samuel Beckett. All his adult life he was on intimate terms with it and his passing away was no more than his final encounter with an old friend.” Sham Lal passed away in 2007. If he were alive today, he would have said the same thing about the Bollywood thespian Dilip Kumar who passed away in Mumbai on July 7 after a prolonged illness. For more than a decade, Dilip Kumar had a nodding acquaintance with death. Frequent visits to hospitals and admission to the intensive care unit did not provide optimism about life and longevity. But every time Dilip Kumar unfailingly defeated death to return home, and into the caring arms of his wife Saira Banu, who made relentless efforts to seek medical help to restore him to full health.

It was sorrowful for millions of fans of Dilip Kumar to see him go. But life for Dilip Kumar had become a journey to the end of the night; he breathed his last early morning. Melancholy, sadness, sorrow, indeed death hung over his vast cine canvas. Ordinary mortals would be afraid of the shadow of tragedy, Dilip Kumar, the consummate professional, revelled in it. Such was his masterful portrayal of a dejected lover in Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955) that no other actor has come close to replicating that role on screen. Not that Bollywood actors and even those in the regional film industry have not tried to play the role in other versions of the film. Dharmendra signed on for yet another version of Devdas in the 1980s. The film got shelved. Shah Rukh Khan played Devdas in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s opulent eponymous saga (2002). But none matched the subtle emotions and nuances Dilip Kumar lent to the character.

Therein lies the greatest contribution of Yousuf Khan who came from Peshawar (now in Pakistan) and went on to become famous as Dilip Kumar. Devika Rani, who was already a big name in the industry, made him change his name as she felt he would embrace higher realms of popularity with a name drawn from the majority community. A better prognosis could scarcely have been made.

Also read: Hindi cinema harking back to a cherished culture

Handsome that he was, Dilip Kumar etched out roles that transcended his good looks, making audiences forget the real-life debonair man and empathise with the doleful even delirious lover of Devdas; the crestfallen, angst-ridden protagonist of Nitin Bose’s Deedar (1951); the wayward lover boy of Jugnu (1947); and the journalist-black marketeer of Footpath (1953). More than a decade after Deedar was released, popular actor Manoj Kumar who was to later work with Dilip Kumar in Kranti (1981), took director Raj Khosla to watch the film in a repeat run popular in Hindi cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. The two ended up with a remake of sorts of Deedar in the form of Do Badan (1966). The film was a hit, but its contribution to Hindi cinema was like stepping in running waters. The original, that is, Deedar remains etched in the hearts of film aficionados.

From tragedy to romance

Sorrow and suffering, loss and loneliness, Dilip Kumar’s portrayals had them all in his films of the 1950s—Jugnu, Daag (1952), Amar (1954) and Musafir (1957), among others. In Amar, Dilip Kumar as a lawyer essayed a million shades of grey. He freed Hindi cinema of loud dialogues, exaggerated use of lung power and flailing of limbs, dramatics that were reminiscent of the early Parsi theatre, and introduced subtlety in acting. Daag and Footpath also saw the best of Talat Mahmood, that peerless master of songs whose playback singing was filled with a tinge of loss and loneliness, matching Dilip Kumar’s onscreen emotion. Mahmood’s “Ae mere dil kahin aur chal” and “Sham-e-gham ki qasam” could not have been used more appropriately.

However, Dilip Kumar’s incessant bid to soak himself in the spirit of the character led him to the brink of depression and to doctors’ chambers in the United Kingdom. Doctors advised him against playing tragic characters for his own good. Dilip Kumar took it in his stride. However, tragedy-filled roles were put aside and love and romance bloomed in the form of B.R. Chopra’s Naya Daur (1957) mesmerising his audiences in its own way. Incidentally, Dilip Kumar had turned down an offer to play the lead role in Guru Dutt’s timeless romantic saga, Pyaasa (1957).

Naya Daur literally ushered in a new era in the actor’s career. He played an effervescent romantic lead to Vyjayanthimala’s formidable charms. Incidentally, Vyjayanthimala was a late addition in the film, stepping into the shoes of Madhubala who was the director’s first choice. Madhubala was then said to be in a relationship with Dilip Kumar, a relationship her brothers did not approve of. Dilip Kumar allowed none of this to cloud his work in the film. Two songs of the film, penned by Sahir Ludhianvi, bespoke the journey he had made from his debut in Jwar Bhata (1944) to Mela (1948), Andaz (1949), Aan (1952) and Devdas before Naya Daur happened. One was the irresistibly charming “Udein jab jab zulfen teri” in which Mohammed Rafi and Asha Bhosle played a perfect foil to each other, and the other was “Saathi haath badhana, saathi re”. O.P. Nayyar’s foot-tapping music had hardly ever got a better reception. It was, however, Dilip Kumar who stole the thunder in these songs.

Also read: Opiate of the masses

When the film released at Novelty cinema in Delhi, there used to be long queues outside the cinema hall of young men, their hair styled like their hero’s in the chartbuster. Each one of them perhaps imagined he looked as dashing as Dilip Kumar with permed, neatly combed hair. Such was the hero’s magic.

Neo-realist cinema

Saathi haath badhana, saathi re” (again rendered by Rafi and Asha Bhonsale) was Sahir Ludhianvi’s compliment to Nehruvian socialism, a song that talked of the joys of egalitarianism, the need to take everybody along. Naya Daur, with all its limitations, was a remarkable advertisement for socialism and a cry against rampant industrialisation. Dilip Kumar played the romantic hero with a purpose that went beyond merely winning over the maiden. There were so many shades to his character that everybody could take a slice of it, but nobody could claim to have had the entire cake.

So impressed was the noted economist Lord Meghnad Desai with Dilip Kumar’s foray into neo-realist films that he read into the venture shades of Nehruvian socialism, and penned the book, Nehru’s Hero: Dilip Kumar In the Life of India.

Meghnad Desai wrote: “Dilip Kumar’s career is a reflection of the course of India since Independence…. In many of the roles he played, he embodied certain heroic ideals of Indian manhood…. As the mood in independent India changed, the screen characters he played also changed. Dilip Kumar’s career took off and rose to its peak during the time (1947-1964) when Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s Prime Minister: 36 of his 57 films were made in this period. And it was at this time that Dilip Kumar developed a range of highly popular characters that reflected the idealism and optimism of that period, characters that inspired Indian youth, and were often imitated by them.”

For evidence, one only has to look at K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960), a film that took 16 years to make and saw a change in its producer, hero and heroine along the way. Its producer Shirak Ali Hakeem migrated to Pakistan. Chandramohan, who was to play the lead role, passed away. Dilip Kumar became the hero, and Madhubala replaced Nargis as the female lead. What remained steady was Asif’s zeal for perfection. It went well with Dilip Kumar who played the role of a Mughal prince, the first time he played a Muslim character on screen. Asif even ordered golden shoes for the hero as he felt they would make him feel like royalty. The viewers though did not judge the prince by his golden shoes, but by a feather with which he touched and teased his heroine, a masterstroke of romantic understatement.

Also read: A century of Indian cinema

Incidentally, in keeping with Asif and Dilip Kumar’s keenness to recreate the era, the print of the film arrived on elephant back at a Delhi theatre. Despite its grandiloquence, Mughal-e-Azam was a benchmark film, reminding Indians of their shared past. Pakistan in 1960 was a little more than a decade-old saga. Our pluralism went back centuries, India was a land of Hindus and Muslims, Sanskrit and Persian, a place where love could blossom in the lap of music and poetry.

Helping hand of Nehru

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s modern India could not have asked for more: Naya Daur, Mughal-e-Azam, and films such as Gunga Jumna (1961), a social dacoit drama with its rustic dialogue of the Awadh region, and Leader (1964), a film that dealt with the criminal-politician nexus and was thus much ahead of its time.

Dilip Kumar was to contemporary cinema what socialism was to an emerging India. Many years later, he acknowledged the helping hand of Nehru in getting the censor board certification for Gunga Jumna. “I could understand how Panditji had been impressed by my ability to speak effectively. In the late 1960s, my film Gunga Jumna had been refused a certificate by the Film Censor Board.... My appeal to Dr B.V. Keskar, then Information and Broadcasting Minister, fell on deaf ears…. I sought a meeting with Panditji.... Convinced by my appeal, Panditji ordered a review of Gunga Jumna. The board cleared the film just days before its scheduled release,” he wrote in his autobiography, Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow.

Sometime before that meeting with Nehru, quietly, almost imperceptibly, Dilip Kumar had shed his tragedy king image. He was a young socialist of Naya Daur, a crusader of sorts in Leader and even a prince in Kohinoor (1960), a film for which he learnt to play the sitar for about six months before the shooting began. (Saira Banu revealed this in an interview to a Pakistani channel many years later.) Most importantly, Dilip Kumar was the ultimate dreamboat. Unsurprisingly, in real life, Saira Banu, fresh from the intoxicating success of Junglee (1961), fell for him. The two worked in Gopi (1970), and later Sagina (1974) based on the Bengali film Sagina Mahato (1971) in which they played the lead roles, and Bairaag (1976). Against all odds, they got married, with Saira Banu leaving her career to play a doting wife to the much older Dilip Kumar.

Life though was far from a cakewalk for Dilip Kumar. He had prolonged health issues at the fag end of his life and had to counter many allegations about his conduct before that. In cinema, there were audible whispers that he often ghost-directed his films. The names of Leader, Dil Diya Dard Liya (1966)—a film that worked magic in the morning show slot at cinemas many years after its release—and Ram aur Shyam (1967) are often thrown around with allegations of ghost direction by Dilip Kumar.

In the early 1990s, producer Sudhakar Bokade announced the making of Kalinga, which was to be officially directed by Dilip Kumar. The film was shelved. As was the case with Subhash Ghai’s Motherland, in which Dilip Kumar was to appear alongside Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, both of whom have made no secret of their admiration for Dilip Kumar. Amitabh Bachchan was more fortunate. He got to act opposite Dilip Kumar in Shakti (1982), which proved to be educative for Amitabh Bachchan and a box office delight for Dilip Kumar fans. The film got Dilip Kumar his eighth Filmfare award.

With Sagina and Bairaag (1976) failing at the box office, Dilip Kumar was forced to take a break in a period when Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan were ruling the roost. He announced his return with Kranti and Shakti, which was a blend of unadulterated commerce and unalloyed aesthetic delight, followed by Mashaal (1982), Vidhaata (1984) and Mazdoor (1983). Subhash Ghai signed him for Karma, and Ramesh Talwar for Duniya. The craze for Dilip Kumar refused to ebb.

Excelsior, a downtown cinema in old Delhi, patronised by daily wagers, used to run a festival of Dilip Kumar films every year from the late 1980s until 2015. Films such as Duniya, Ram aur Shyam, Sunghursh and Vidhaata were shown mostly with two films in one show, which was then a novelty. In the upmarket sections of the cine trade, distributors would meet owners of cinemas in the presence of Dilip Kumar to decide on the theatres that would show his upcoming films. Odeon and Novelty were such cinemas, the latter known as a silver jubilee theatre, or a cinema that only chose films that would have an uninterrupted run of 25 weeks. Naya Daur, Kranti, Vidhaata, and Mazdoor ran to a full house at Novelty. Even reported flops like Gopi and Yahudi played for weeks on end at Delhi’s Shalimar cinema, which was surrounded by houses of refugees from Pakistan.

Also read: Menace to free speech

First the Raj Kapoor-Dev Anand duo, then the Rajesh Khanna-Amitabh Bachchan duo came and enjoyed heady popularity. Among these sets of stars, Dilip Kumar remained like a river in the plains, quiet, unassuming but profound.

The Government of India conferred the Padma Bhushan on Dilip Kumar in 1991, the Dadasaheb Phalke award in 1994 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2015. He was made the Sheriff of Mumbai in 1980.

Despite all these honours, it was the Nishan-e-Imtiaz conferred by the Pakistan government that caused a huge controversy and considerable heartburning among right-wing politicians. Some of them advised him to go to Pakistan, others made filthier accusations about his loyalty to India. He kept his calm, his trademark humility and his unassuming nature helping him tide over the crisis. In fact, in real life he was among the most modest of men.

Though fond of his ties and shoes, he would often be seen in a simple Pathani salwar-suit at home. He used to sleep with a mosquito net around his bed to ward off mosquitoes, and keep his shoes wrapped in a foil to prevent moisture from affecting the leather. He spoke Urdu with relish, English with a flourish and Hindi with the rehearsed ease of a veteran. He could sing well and was conversant with Hindustani classical music. Once he landed at his mother-in-law’s house in the garb of a qawwal playing a harmonium, leaving everybody in splits.

Accessible to critics

Unlike today’s stars, he was accessible to film critics and reporters in the years gone by. A critic from The Hindu often enjoyed his hospitality at his Mumbai home, where besides the traditional Peshwari dishes, the Yousuf Khan household would whip up dosas and continental fare with ease. Dilip Kumar himself was fond of soups and used to add his own little novelties to traditional chicken or corn soups. For a man who spent the best part of his youth on film sets, he was very well read. Once, he recounted the importance of Ramzan in a conversation with a film critic. On his Umrah trip to Mecca-Medina, he was mobbed by fans at the Oberoi where he had stayed with his wife. The pilgrims from India-Pakistan forgot the purpose of their visit for a couple of hours. Meeting Dilip Kumar was a pilgrimage for them.

Prayer and philanthropy

Incidentally, until disease and death knocked at his door, Dilip Kumar used to be particular about his prayers and philanthropy; his faith was all about inclusion, not exclusion. On one occasion, a senior editor of a national daily found himself with Dilip Kumar at Ramnath Goenka’s residence in Chennai. The journalist confessed to the thespian that he knew nothing about cinema to strike a conversation, but Dilip Kumar surprised him by suggesting that they discuss the Mahabharata instead.

Also read: Changing values in Hindi cinema

Dilip Kumar kept his good deeds hidden, or at least tried to keep them hidden. He used to help many widows and orphans overcome their extenuating circumstances. He was a good neighbour to Sunil Dutt whom he helped during the illness of his wife Nargis and during the legal hassles of his son Sanjay Dutt. He was an elder brother to Shammi Kapoor, who always met him with a fond hug, and Dharmendra, who never concealed the love and affection Dilip Kumar showered on him.

Everybody had a bit of Dilip Kumar. For some he was a tragedy king. To others, a romantic hero, to still others an actor whose comic timing in Azad and Ram aur Shyam is yet to be bested. He was also a man who worked to build bridges between communities and who used his significant reach to help ameliorate the lot of millions. Yet, nobody can be like him. There can be only one hero and human being like him. Fond of watching sunsets, he gave birth to a new dawn in cinema. Sadness, sorrow, disease, even death, cannot take him away from his fans.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor