Dilip Kumar: Superstar who made the vulnerable look venerable

On May 7, 2006, I opened the newspaper in the morning to know that the legendary music director Naushad had passed away. I was taken aback because in an age of 24×7 news channels, I still got to know about his death from a newspaper. The previous day we had a 12-hour power cut at home and I missed the news completely. I immediately switched on the TV to see Dilip Kumar break down in the middle of an interview, unable to speak any further on his favourite music director and long-time colleague Naushad. A part of me sank as I watched it, because Naushad was also my favourite music director and Dilip Kumar was my favourite actor.

A phenomenon is a strange interplay of destiny and genius. In 1944, when Dilip Kumar made his debut with Bombay Talkies’ Jwar Bhata, Kundal Lal Saigal reigned supreme. Having attained massive stardom across the nation with Devdas (1936), Saigal won over with a voice that tugged at everyone’s heart. Nobody spoke of Saigal as an actor; it was and still is about his singing. Cinema then was just improvising on theatre in terms of music and performance, waiting for that breakthrough in its grammar. But soon, playback became popular and producers were no longer specifically looking out for singers who could manage to act.

Timing is of great significance in the creation of history. Bring something a little before or a little later and the result is spoilt. The rise of playback and the death of Saigal in 1947 forced shut the era of singing stars by the end of 1940s. It also marked the parallel rise of Lata Mangeshkar, Shamshad Begum, Geeta Dutt, Asha Bhonsle, Mukesh and Mohammed Rafi as playback singers. In 1947, Dilip Kumar had his first hit with Jugnu. In an era of loud theatrical performances, Dilip Kumar’s natural approach to acting was torn down by critics as whispers on the screen. He swam against the tide of opinions to craft a style that would be his own. The very next year, he hit gold with successes like Mela and Shaheed. And in 1949, with Mehboob’s blockbuster Andaz, Dilip Kumar was here to stay.

The 1950s saw the rise and rise of Dilip Kumar (and singers like Talat Mahmood and Mohammed Rafi, who lent Dilip Kumar their voice). It was perhaps destiny that got all great artistes together at one point of time to create the golden era of 1950s. Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar took off in the late 1940s and became the reigning superstars for the next two decades. Long before the macho heroes of 70s and 80s made it uncool to look vulnerable and sensitive on-screen, Dilip Kumar expressed love, longing and the bottomless abyss of agony like none other could ever do after him. He wept and made the masses weep with him.

Some believe that the highest form of love is unrequited love and Dilip Kumar became a symbol of it in the 1950s. His characters burnt in the fire of love not returned in Jogan (1950) and Deedar (1951). They dealt with alcoholism and failed romances in Daag (1952) and Devdas (1955). He sold not just the colourful fantasies of Aan (1952) but also the grim realities of Footpath (1953). No actor ever played Devdas to perfection the way he did. His aimless eyes conveyed the pain of depression in a way that reams of articles on the subject could never do. So intense was his involvement with the portrayal of Devdas that he had to seek the support of a psychiatrist to get out of it. And then came an era of light and swash-buckling characters in Azaad (1955), Kohinoor (1960) and Ram aur Shyam (1967).

Dilip Kumar played the the alcoholic lover Devdas in this Bimal Roy classic. Seen here with Vyjayanthimala who played the courtesan Chandramukhi

Female fan following and superstardom go hand-in-hand. But how many actors got that fandom immortalised in the form of a song? Dilip Kumar’s unkept hair style became a craze in the 1950s among both men and women, so much so that even the ever serious Sahir Ludhianvi wrote Ude jab jab zulfen teri, kunwariyon ka dil machle for BR Chopra’s man vs machine drama Naya Daur (1957).

Dilip Kumar was not the first actor exactly to bring in natural acting. Even before him, Ashok Kumar and Motilal came with new-age mannerisms that were sophisticated and closer to life. Ashok Kumar could also manage his songs. But Dilip Kumar definitely made it mainstream and soon, every actor was supposed to do it his way. As it is famously said, actors after him either tried to imitate him or not to imitate him.

Was there a defining moment when the star Dilip Kumar became a superstar? It is tough to point it out. Perhaps it happened somewhere between 1955-57. With Devdas he had touched the apogee as an actor and with Naya Daur (1957), he began playing to the gallery, playing characters that won the game much to the joy of the audience. It saw the birth of a new kind of mannerism that went on to grow with his persona. The pinnacle of his career reached with the magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam (1960), which became one of the highest grossing films in the history of Hindi cinema and the very next year, with his home production Gunga Jumna (1961), which he wrote and produced, he peaked as a commercial superstar.

People always associate sorrow and tragedy with Dilip Kumar, which he undoubtedly humanised and owned completely on screen. But his greatest strength was romance. No actor played a lover with his intensity or flirtatiousness and they invariably borrowed a leaf out of Dilip Kumar’s performances whenever they did so. Just to see him look at Madhubala in Tarana or Amar and see her return the emotions with a mix of mischief and foreboding was a splash of poetry on the screen. A lot of that spontaneity got lost with time as his performances became more stylised.

The cinema of 1970s and the persona of the ‘angry young man’ owe a lot to both Mother India and Gunga Jumna. Both Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar accepted how they liberally borrowed from these movies. Amitabh Bachchan often said that the history of Hindi cinema would always be divided into Before Dilip Kumar and After Dilip Kumar. Had he not been there, Hindi cinema would not have known what standard of excellence had to be met to be called a complete actor. And perhaps, there never will be one like him. 

Coming back to that interview I wrote about in the beginning, they closed it with a song which was composed by Naushad on Dilip Kumar – O door ke musafir, hum ko bhi saath le le re, hum reh gaye akele. With the passing away of Dilip Kumar, the trio consisting of him, Raj Kapoor Dev Anand is now history.  Let me finish this story with another song, which Naushad had composed for Mughal-e-azam. The irony of the lines now strikes at a different level.

वह आई सुबह के परदे से मौत की आवाज़
किसी ने तोड़ दिया जैसे ज़िन्दगी का साज़

ख़ुदा निगेहबान हो तुम्हारा
धड़कते दिल का पयाम ले लो
तुम्हारी दुनिया से जा रहें हैं
उठो हमारा सलाम ले लो

Had he not passed away in times of covid, the greatest actor of Hindi cinema would have perhaps got a more befitting farewell. But his hard core fans, the ones who slept in queues to watch him on the screen, are either gone or old. His last blockbuster was Saudagar in the early 90s, which means the 90s kids will hardly know what being Dilip Kumar meant at one point. But it doesn’t matter. He was the last emperor who lived a full life and changed the way actors acted for good. And if anything, it teaches how ephemeral fame is. No point chasing it for one day all of us will be forgotten

PS: Dilip Kumar was also a gifted singer. He even learnt to play the sitar for a year to shoot the song Madhuban mein Radhika nache re. Listen to him sing a duet in the pre auto-tune era in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s debut movie Musafir.

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