India’s biggest acting legend Dilip Kumar no more

Ayushi Kar Mumbai | Updated on July 07, 2021

From Jwar Bhata to Qila, it was an acting journey of unparalled brilliance

When a shy 22-year-old Yousuf Khan from Peshawar was picked to star in Bombay Talkies’ production Jwar Bhata in 1944,  the stage was set for the emergence of India’s biggest acting legend. Dilip Kumar, as Khan was renamed in his first screen appearance, who passed away in Mumbai on Wednesday at the age of 98, inspired generations of actors with his intense performances in films like Mughal-e-Azam, Devdas, Gunga Jumna, Jugnu and Deedar. His last film appearance was in Qila in 1998.

His role as the tragic loner and romantic hero in Devdas (1955) led to the moniker ‘Tragedy King of Bollywood’. But he demonstrated his acting prowess across genres from comedy to crime. He had his audience in splits in Azaad (1955) and Ram aur Shyam (1967), got under the skin of his princely character in Mughal-e-Azam(1960) perfectly and was equally convincing in social drama Daag (1952). He was a dedicated actor, devoting his time, attention and energies to only one film at a time, even as his contemporaries rushed from one film shoot to another, working on 2-3 films at once. 

Also read: Dilip Kumar’s unmatched brilliance

And yet, in one of his early TV interviews, the actor revealed that he considered his entry into cinema as the ‘biggest accident’ of his life. He did not intend to join films because he never saw cinema when he was growing up. However, while studying in Khalsa College in erstwhile Bombay, a series of vocational career talks were held at the college that eventually led him to Bombay Talkies. 

His most challenging role was playing Prince Salim in Mughal e Azam. In an interview with BusinessLine in 2012, Kumar said,"There were no references to go by and no material to study as far as the character was concerned. There was enough and more textual material on the period and the events that were going to be depicted but the questions on my mind were about the conduct, bearing and characteristics of Salim that would help me achieve a palpable likeness to the character."

Awards and accolades followed with the legend winning the first-ever Filmfare award for Best Actor for Daag. He went on to win 7 more Filmfare awards, a feat that has been recognised as a Guiness World Record for the maximum number of awards by an Indian actor.  

His wife, Saira Banu, reveals little-known facts about the legend in a foreword to his autobiography, Dilip Kumar – The Substance and the Shadow.  He was a voracious reader, consuming novels and plays from a wide range of writers, including Tennesee Williams, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Joseph Conrad and Eugene O’Neill. He would read late into the night and the early hours of the morning. Such was his passion for books that he did not just have a library, but huge storage rooms filled with thousands of books. She also reveals that Dilip Sahab (as she fondly called him) was a prankster and great mimic. He mimicked Helen’s song-and-dance number, Monica, O My Darling with a towel wrapped around his waist, through which he seductively projected a leg out of the slit!

Kumar described himself as an actor who evolved a method, “I learned the importance of studying the script and characters deeply and building upon my own gut observations and sensations about my own and other characters,” Kumar wrote in his autobiography.

The norm for Hindi films half a century ago was to churn out homogenous, Bombay-centric content. It was here that Kumar decided to go against the norm, to deliver dialogue in Awadhi. This was inspired by the memories of Kumar’s gardener and his wife's cantankerous fights in this dialect that had livened up Kumar’s childhood.

Besides being touted as the ‘Hero of Tragedy’, Kumar is also considered a ‘Socialist Hero’, with Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru being a major admirer of his work. In his book ‘Nehru’s Hero: Dilip Kumar in the Life of India’ Indian born British Economist, Lord Meghnad Desai recounts how India's socio-political changes in the 50s reflect in the late actor’s career. In Dilip Kumar and his movies between 1944 and 1964, Desai sees India gaining its voice since independence.

Kumar’s 1948 film Shaheed fired his imagination to dabble into exploring socially consequential subjects in his movies. Released at a major juncture just after India’s independence, Indian artists finally had the liberty to explore a wide array of issues pertinent to the country for the first time. 

The impact he had on people’s life was evident  on Wednesday with condolences pouring in for the legendary thespian from his fans all across the world, including stalwarts of Bollywood and Indian cinema. “An institution has gone," said the Big B of Bollywood Amitabh Bachchan. "Whenever the history of Indian Cinema will be written , it shall always be 'before Dilip Kumar, and after Dilip Kumar' .. My duas (prayers) for peace of his soul and the strength to the family to bear this loss...Deeply saddened,” Bachchan added. 

Not just contemporaries, Kumar inspired the current generation of Bollywood stars. “The power of his being lies in his unmatchable body of work. Every time I have watched him portray legendary characters I felt like I was being swept away and yet being educated. Educated by his nuances, his silences, his unparalleled depth and his sheer aura” said actress Alia Bhatt.

Kumar had been ailing for some time and had been admitted to Mumbai’s PD Hinduja hospital on June 30, after experiencing breathlessness. His last rites were conducted at the Juhu Qabrastan in Mumbai on Wednesday evening. He leaves behind a rich legacy of over 60 films spanning six decades. Kumar is survived by his wife of 75 years, actress Siara Banu


Published on July 07, 2021

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