Tragedy grips India, King is no more - GulfToday

Tragedy grips India, King is no more

Saibal Chatterjee


Indian national award-winning film critic

Dilip Kumar

Dilip Kumar

The screen persona of Dilip Kumar, who passed away on Wednesday in a Mumbai hospital at the age of 98, symbolised the hope and idealism of independent India’s Nehru era like little else in Hindi cinema did. The gentleman and the actor represented a genteel period of social and national construction when a newly-independent India was in the process of being built, brick by brick, idea by idea, under a towering national leader who could see the future and carry the people with him towards it.

Dilip Kumar, born Yusuf Khan to a Peshawar fruit merchant in 1922, stood for that spirit. One of the finest film actors born on the subcontinent, he built a massive and enduring fan following on both sides of the India-Pakistan border. With an eventful Hindi cinema career that spanned over five decades, he was a showbiz icon who shone as bright as anybody has ever done.  

Dilip Kumar elevated screen acting to an all-new level. He broke away from the theatricality that held sway in his time and developed a subdued mode entirely his own. Acting in Hindi cinema prior to Dilip Kumar’s advent was rooted in Parsi theatre and various Indian folk forms. He gave it a modern, modulated veneer.

A Muslim who adopted a Hindu name and played an array of Hindu characters on the screen – the only Muslim figure Dilip Kumar ever impersonated in his long career was Prince Salim in Mughal-e-Azam – he denoted India’s, and the film industry’s, intrinsically pluralistic ethos, which is increasingly under threat today.

All the more reason why he will be sorely missed. His presence in our midst kept reminding us of our more generous selves. That apart, Bollywood is today dominated by stars trapped in their own limited bandwidth defined by their individual mannerisms. They can only play themselves on the screen. Dilip Kumar would have been an asset of immeasurable versatility in this era of mediocrity.

Yusuf Khan was in his teens when his family migrated to Mumbai. He made his debut in the Bombay Talkies production Jwar Bhata (1944). As he delivered hit after hit in the 1950s and 1960s – Andaz, Jogan, Aan (the first Hindi film to receive wide commercial distribution in the West), Daag, Footpath, Amar, Devdas, Madhumati, Leader, Mughal-e-Azam, Ganga Jamuna and Ram Aur Shyam, films that revealed his awe-inspiring versatility – his name became synonymous with perfection.

At the peak of his career, he was in a league of one. His mastery over nuance set him apart. His dialogue delivery was flawless and his emoting so to the point that he never seemed to be acting. Many Mumbai actors have attempted to imitate him but none has ever managed to replicate the same unfaltering finesse.  

In the 1950s, Dilip Kumar was part of a remarkable triumvirate (with Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand) that gave Hindi cinema some of its greatest ‘golden era’ hits. He, however, shared screen space with his two great contemporaries once each – with Raj Kapoor in Andaz (1949) and with Dev Anand in Insaaniyat (1955).  

Almost three decades later, playing dad to Amitabh Bachchan in Ramesh Sippy’s memorable Shakti (1982), he demonstrated that age had not dulled his instincts. In fact, the films that he featured in after a five-year hiatus in the late 1970s following the failure of B.R. Chopra’s Dastaan and Asit Sen’s Bairaag, demonstrated that he was as good as ever.   

His later films – Vidhaata, Mazdoor, Mashaal, Karma and Saudagar, the last-named pitted him against the notoriously temperamental Raaj Kumar – are cases in point. Saudagar, directed by Subhash Ghai in the early 1990s, was the last major hit of Dilip Kumar’s glittering acting career. His final big-screen appearance was in the 1998 film Qila in which he, as he often did, played a dual role.

Although Dilip Kumar was known as the ‘Tragedy King’ all through his career, he had a flair for lighter roles too, as films like Aan, Azaad and Kohinoor established beyond doubt. But no matter how you look at his life and work, three films will always stand out – Naya Daur (1957), Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Ram Aur Shyam (1967).

The three performances bear testimony to Dilip Kumar’s phenomenal adaptability as an actor. In Naya Daur, he was a villager. In Mughal-e-Azam, he transformed himself into a Mughal prince. And in Ram Aur Shyam, he played the double role of two brothers, one a simpleton and the other a man about town.

Dilip Kumar was one rare Hindi movie actor who blended popular appeal with creative gravitas whether he was playing the lead in a swashbuckling entertainer or the tragic hero in an intensely emotional drama. He could move from one mode to the other with stunning ease. But, above all, as has been already emphasized, he embodied the polish and refinement of a professional of a bygone era of cinema that defined the parameters of true stardom. He was more, however, more just a star. He was, to fall back on a cliché, an institution that can never be replaced.        

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