'More than the King of Tragedy', Dilip Kumar (1922 - 2021) - A Tribute

System Administrator Monday July 12, 2021

It would not be wrong to state that Dilip Kumar, who passed away earlier this week after a long illness related to age issues and pancreatic cancer, will be regarded as the greatest actor Indian cinema has ever produced. One may add that at the jet-paced speed today with which actors come and go, it is doubtful whether any Indian actor will be able to reach the peak that he did.

DILIP KUMAR ( 1922 - 2021)
DILIP KUMAR ( 1922 - 2021)


He was 98 years old and had stopped acting in films since his last film Qila (1998) flopped. This is 23 years ago. But he has never been out of the media, not of his own will but because his fans still worship him for his multi-layered, versatile performances enriched by his very personal touches of silence, pause between dialogues, small movements with his hands, his body and most importantly, his eyes that remain without parallel in the history of Indian cinema.

There are dozens of young actors who took him as a role model and tried to do everything he did including copying his hairstyle. A few of them did make a name for themselves but they could not be compared to Dilip Kumar precisely because they tried to “copy” him instead of evolving their own, distinctive style. But many of them fell by the wayside, forlorn and forgotten. Dilip Kumar after all, is/was and will remain Dilip Kumar now and forever.

Dilip Kumar was born in Qissa Khwani Bazaar, Peshawar, when Pakistan was a part of British India, on 11th December 1922 as one among 12 children to his father, a fruit merchant. The family later came down to Deolali and then Bombay and his father continued with his fruit business. Dilip Kumar studied at Barnes School, Deolali in Nashik district. He later studied for his graduation in a Bombay college and had no dreams of stepping into films. He quarrelled with his father and shifted to Pune to look after the military canteen there and also run a small fruit shop in front of the camp.

One day, he happened to meet Devika Rani, wife of Himanshu Rai who co-owned and managed Bombay Talkies. Devika Rani asked him how much he earned per month and Yusuf Khan said he earned roughly around Rs.150/ per month.  Devika Rani told him that she would pay him Rs.450/ per month if he agreed to work in her film. The money was the main attraction and he at once said “Yes.” The story of Dilip Kumar began to get written.

Like his contemporary Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar’s screen image offered a complex, cultural/psychological terrain displaying the anxieties of Independence and the nostalgia of pre-Partition childhood. Unlike Raj Kapoor however, Dilip Kumar’s naturalistic underplaying often presented him as an innocent loner caught in, and destroyed by, conflicting social pressures such as in Andaz, in which he played one angle of the triangle with the other two played by Raj Kapoor and Nargis. In Deedar, pitted against the extremely versatile and gifted actor Ashok Kumar, he held on to his own without allowing the others to overshadow him.

Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand formed the wonderful triumvirate in what is famously known as the Golden Era of Indian cinema. Among these three actors, there was no rivalry at all because they knew that each of them defined an exclusive screen image and lived by it. But Dilip Kumar, whose name was changed from Yusuf Khan to Dilip Kumar when he began his career with Jwar Bhata (1944) was the most versatile of them all. Dev Anand stood for the handsome, chocolate boy hero the heroine loved to fall in love with through song and dance even if he featured as a pickpocket or a card-sharper. Raj Kapoor, on the other hand, became famous as the 'Charlie Chaplin of Indian cinema', since he often portrayed a tramp-like figure, who, despite adversity, was still cheerful and honest. But Dilip Kumar stood out without any stereotypical label attached though many have labelled him 'Tragedy King' which is not true because he proved himself equally in lighter roles such as in Azaad, Aan, Kohinoor, and many others.

Dilip Kumar and Vyjayantimala | Still from Madhumati
Dilip Kumar and Vyjayantimala | Still from Madhumati


All eyes in the audience in the darkened theatres moistened with tears when in the final scene in Shaheed (1948), his fourth film, directed by Sasadhar Mukherjee, the hero dies. This became the film where the young actor revealed himself as a serious worker with total commitment to his work. In this final scene, Dilip Kumar’s martyred corpse was taken out in procession against the lines of the famous song, watan ke raah mein watan ke nawjawan shaheed ho.

This film crowned Dilip Kumar as the 'tragedy king' as he went on living up to the sobriquet in one film after another – Andaz, Footpath, Shikast, Mela, Babul, Deedar and Uran Khatola. Tragedy on celluloid became his identity card and a time came when his producers felt that if he did not die at the end of the film, his fans felt betrayed! Around this time, this astute, extremely well-read, erudite and intelligent actor took stock of his bearings. He realised that being typecast as tragedy king could become self-defeating enough to stop his growth as an actor. One story goes that he took pains to consult a psychoanalyst who suggested he change his screen image to reflect a more swash-buckling, romantic side in order to discover avenues of histrionics he had not explored till then.

His romantic screen presence was overwhelmingly magnetic and made every female in the audience identify with his lady-love on screen. He had a naughty smile when he would crinkle up his eyes and smile mischievously at his lady love. This marks his ability to command romance in characters such as the ones he portrayed in Naya Daur, Leader, Ram Aur Shyam, Azaad, Kohinoor, Aan, Gunga - Jumna, Insaaniyat and many more. Looking back on his performance in these films, one feels that the crown of 'Tragedy King' he has been made to wear is too limiting for an actor of his range and durability not only in terms of his histrionic talent but also in his popularity among his huge fan following. In many of his films, his love scenes are memorable more for what he left unsaid than what he actually did.

His song numbers are archived in the history of Indian film music for all time. Among these are  Ai Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal, Seene Mein Sulagti Hai Armaan, or, Suhana Safar Aur Yeh Mausam Haseen in Madhumati or, Maangke Saath Tumhara and Ude Jab Jab Zulfein Teri in Naya Daur not to forget the beautiful duet he sang himself along with Lata Mangeshkar in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s directorial debut film Musafir after much persuasion by Lata Mangeshkar who accepted him as the elder brother she never had. 

He was as much in command of his performance in singing - dancing - fisticuffing actor as he was as the tragedy king. He delighted his audience with his adorable, charismatic antics, especially in the song-dance sequences and his naughty love scenes. In Gunga - Jumna, he plays his naughty self in just a couple of frames in the song sequence – dhundo dhundo re saajana more kaan ka bala. The song-dance number was picturised on Vyjayantimala. The two scenes with Dilip Kumar as his naughty self on the morning following the suhaag raat are very sensual. Gunga - Jumna is the only film he produced in his entire career. Its release had been stalled for almost six months since the CBFC found certain things unacceptable - scenes which would be regarded as kinder garten stuff by today’s standards.

He took up one film at a time and that was his absolute commitment and focus. He also raised his fee to Rs. 1 lakh, the highest amount paid to any actor in India at the time which, adjusted to today’s inflation, would approximately amount to Re.1 crore. This also kept producers he did not want away from queueing outside his door.

When his films where he played the hero did not do well, he took a sabbatical of five years and then came back in senior roles beginning with Kranti directed by Manoj Kumar. He gave one hit after another in films like Karma, VIdhata, Shakti and so on.

When he was nominated as member of the Rajya Sabha, he utilized a significant portion of his MP LAD fund towards the construction and improvement of the Bandstand Promenade and the gardens at Bandra Fort at Lands End in Bandra.

He is the only actor to have won the Filmfare Award for Best Actor eight times. This was followed by the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the nominated membership of the Rajya Sabha,  the Padma Vibhushan and the  Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award (1993), and last but not the least, the highest civilian award conferred by the Goct of Pakistan in 1998 - the Nishan - e - Imtiaz. The ruling political party in Maharashtra had objected to this award and questioned Kumar's patriotism. However, in 1999 in consultation with the then Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Kumar retained the award. He was honoured with CNN - IBN Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.

Few people are aware of his erudition, some of which spilled over into his acting. According to his wife Saira Banu, he loved to read Eugene O’ Neill, Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Tennessee Williams, when he was not engrossed in the writing of a script or a scene that waited to be picturized the following morning. He was fluent in Urdu, Hindi, English and Gujarati. His knowledge of the Holy Quran and his recitation of verses which he had memorised in childhood were no less brilliant than his knowledge and recitation of the Sanskrit verses from the Bhagvad Gita. “He was the most secular human being I have ever met” says Saira Banu. And that, it can be said, signs off the story of Dilip Kumar.

-- Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji

-- Edited by Latika Padgaonkar

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