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BOLLYWOOD LOSES ITS BRIGHTEST STAR

Dilip Kumar passed away at the age of 98 in Mumbai on Wednesday. His death brings down the curtains not only on a glorious career, but also marks the end of an era in Bollywood.

GAUTAM CHINTAMANI

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During the making of Mashaal (1984), Dilip Kumar would routinely call screenwriter Javed Akhtar and ask him to narrate the script repeatedly. One half of the iconic screenwriting duo “Salim-Javed”, Akhtar had previously penned Shakti (1982) with his former partner Salim Khan that featured the thespian in the lead, and as a result, knew how the actor approached his characters. Yet Akhtar couldn’t put his finger on why Dilip Kumar constantly asked for a narration. Kumar’s body of work included some of the landmark films in Hindi cinema—Andaz (1949), Aan (1952), Amar (1954), Devdas (1955), Naya Daur (1957), Madhumati (1958), Mughal-e-Azam (1960), and Ganga Jumna (1961)—and he excelled at playing complex characters. Akhtar finally asked the actor why he insisted on endless narrations, and he was surprised when the actor told him that the intensity of his character “Vinod Kumar” was unlike he had ever encountered. Anyone who followed Hindi cinema from the 1950s onwards would assume that someone like Dilip Kumar would find a film like Mashaal to be a cakewalk. After all, he was the “tragedy king” and peerless when it came to the genre Mashaal fell into, but the actor still gave it his all. Dilip Kumar’s death at 98 brings down the curtains on not only a glorious career as a screen legend but also marks the end of an epoch in more ways than one could count.

Born “Yusuf Khan” in 1922 in Peshawar, Dilip Kumar hailed from a well-to-do family of fruit merchants. In the shadow of the looming Second World War, his father, Ghulam Sarwar Khan, began exploring business opportunities in Bombay. Initially, Sarwar Khan’s family stayed back in Peshawar, but a stray incident where he picked up a baby in a pram because he reminded him of his son, Yusuf, started a chain of reactions leading the entire family shift to Bombay. Sarwar Khan set up a thriving business in Bombay’s Crawford Market but Yusuf’s elder brother, Ayub Khan, developed a respiratory disorder, and the family shifted to the hilly terrains of Deolali, an Army station located at a distance of 180 kilometres from Bombay. In Deolali, Yusuf enrolled in Barnes School, learnt to speak English, fell in love with football, and for the rest of his life referred to himself as a Deolali boy. During vacations, the family went to Peshawar, and Yusuf spent time with his grandparents and cultivated a lifelong friendship with someone who would become one of his most famous contemporaries—Raj Kapoor. In Peshawar, the Khan family was friendly with the family of Dewan Basheshwarnath Kapoor, Raj Kapoor’s grandfather, and many years later, Yusuf and Raj would meet again in then Bombay’s Khalsa College. Family hardships forced Yusuf to leave home and work as manager of a British Army canteen. He set a sandwich business for a while and even took over the family’s fruit supply operations before landing a contract with Bombay Talkies in 1942 for a monthly salary of a princely sum of Rs 1,250.

Devika Rani, the prima donna of India films and the boss of Bombay Talkies, gave Yusuf Khan his screen name “Dilip Kumar”. It was in the first meeting that Devika Rani spotted Yusuf’s potential, she had done this on another occasion a few years ago when she transformed Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly into “Ashok Kumar”. Unlike Raj Kapoor, who was trying to break into films and got a monthly salary of Rs 170, Dilip Kumar was a star from the moment he set foot in Bombay Talkies. He maintained that aura all through the course of his career. His debut Jwar Bhata (1944) did not create the kind of dent Rani would have imagined, however, he zoomed past the likes of Ashok Kumar, Dev Anand, Motilal, and Raj Kapoor in a short period. Kumar’s first box office success came in the form of Jugnu (1947), and although films such as Shaheed (1948) and Mela (1948) were successful, nothing announced his arrival as Mehboob’s Andaz (1949). Mehboob’s Andaz featured Nargis and Raj Kapoor as well, and the casting couldn’t have been better, but Dilip Kumar stood out, and there was no looking back. Dilip Kumar possessed the star quality that filmmakers often seek. This is why the likes of Mehboob Khan and Bimal Roy, arguably two of the most prominent filmmakers in Hindi cinema in the 1940s and the 1950s, picked him over the others. Kumar featured in Mehboob’s technicolour extravaganza Aan and Amar and was the first choice to play the role of Birju in Mother India (1957). Kumar wanted to play the double role of the father Shamu, later played by Raaj Kumar as well as the elder son, Ramu, eventually played by Rajendra Kumar as he couldn’t wrap his mind around playing son to Nargis, a heroine that he had romanced on screen. Bimal Roy’s version of Devdas (1951) cemented Kumar’s status as the unparalleled tragedy king of Hindi cinema, a style first noticed by the fans in Deedar (1951).

Nehruvian socialism heavily influenced the hero of post-Independence popular Hindi cinema. Dilip Kumar, along with Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, often imbibed certain personality traits of India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in one way or the other while portraying characters. Kapoor’s early films—Awaara (1951),Shree 420 (1955), and Boot Polish (1954)—drew a lot from classic Soviet literature and ideas and his loveable tramp was supposed to represent the average Indian with a heart of gold despite the hardships that seemed to stem from the institutional model of the country. Dev Anand represented the modernism of Nehru, but it was Dilip Kumar who was nestled in between and offered the ideal mix of traditions and modernity. In films such as Naya Daur and Ganga Jumna, Kumar enmeshed all the qualities that defined the socialist model that Nehru’s pitched with the right balance. The dacoit-saga Ganga Jumna was the first film that Kumar directed, although Nitin Bose was credited, and the Censor board nearly stopped its release until Kumar approached Nehru to help him out. Both the film and Kumar’s performance are counted amongst the greatest to date and have inspired films such as Deewar (1975). The other aspect that separated Dilip Kumar from the ilk was that unlike the other two, Anand and Kapoor, or even the later stars who followed, he and his films did not seem interchangeable. The dark underbelly of newly-independent India’s commercial capital Bombay explored by Kapoor in Awaara or Shree 420, and Dev Anand in films like Baazi (1951), CID (1956), Jaal (1952), Kala Bazar (1960), Jaali Note (1960)seem to be near-perfect substitutes. On the other hand, Dilip Kumar films were his own, unique, and singular in every aspect of the word, and the fans knew this and remained steadfast to Kumar even when he reduced his output.

Right from the onset of his career, Dilip Kumar was never hurried or rushed. He refused more films than most of his contemporaries put together and was more adept at shifting gears than everyone else. Kumar’s career peaked between 1947 and 1964, a period where 36 of his 58 films released, and there was hardly anything left for him to prove. He had achieved more than what could have been expected from a film star. Perhaps that is why he refused Pyaasa (1957), as it seemed to remind him of some of his tragic roles and even said no to David Lean. The latter wanted to cast him as Prince Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) as he felt he would not have been comfortable in the Hollywood setup. This was when Dilip Kumar agreed to do lighter roles in Kohinoor and Ram Aur Shyam (1967), reportedly at the suggestion of his psychoanalyst. In his autobiography, The Substance and the Shadow, Kumar writes how he almost decided to quit acting after the success of Ram Aur Shyam, but was dissuaded by his wife, Saira Banu. The advent of Rajesh Khanna and later Amitabh Bachchan changed the template of Hindi films, and like most stars of the earlier generations, Kumar had a tough time finding his space. No matter what Dilip Kumar did, he would always be larger than life. Perhaps this is why the mainstream everyman roles in the 1970s, dominated by the angst-driven Angry Young Man persona popularised by Salim-Javed films, were a kind of misfit for him. The 1970s were not too kind to Kumar with films like Gopi (1970), Dastaan (1972), Sagina (1972) and Bairaag (1976) that hardly mattered, and he took a sabbatical before returning with Manoj Kumar’s Kranti (1980). Kumar rediscovered his rhythm in the 1980s not because he found his sweet spot but thanks to the filmmakers who finally came up with scripts that would justify his talent and stature without being ostensibly larger than life. The decade saw him featured opposite younger and up and coming stars such as Amitabh Bachchan in Shakti, Sanjay Dutt in Vidhaata (1982) and Kanoon Apna Apna (1989), Anil Kapoor in Mashaal (1984), and Karma (1986) that also had Jackie Shroff and Sridevi, Rishi Kapoor in Duniya (1984), and Govinda and Madhuri Dixit in Izzatdaar (1990).

A true pioneer, Dilip Kumar’s films in the 1980s had created a space where a former superstar could manage to feature in meaningful roles. However, the 1990s with Saudagar (1991) and later Qilla (1998), Kumar’s last film, did more harm as the template went back to the larger-than-life template both in terms of the film’s scope and the character. Through the 1990s, Kumar tried to complete his directorial venture Kalinga, the story of a judge and his two sons played by Raj Kiran and Raj Babbar, but the film went over budget and the producer, Sudhakar Bokade backed out. Off-screen, there were some instances where Kumar’s actions generated controversy as well; such as in the early 1980s, when he publicly declared his second marriage to a divorced Hyderabad-based socialite Asma Sahiba or the time where he refused to return the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s highest civilian honour, in the wake of the Kargil war in 1999.

When one thinks of Dilip Kumar, the peerless legacy that he left behind as an actor, something that continues to shape the craft of acting to this date, comes to mind. The path that he blazed was followed by generations of actors right from Manoj Kumar, who took his screen after a character played by Dilip Kumar, to Kamal Haasan, who considered him one of the finest ever. There is more to Dilip Kumar than his onscreen persona that inspired people in real life. He was not without his flaws, no human can ever be, but his demeanour and how he conducted himself in public life was far greater than the screen icon that he was. Dilip sahab’s grace and dignity are what many would remember him for besides his brilliance in front of the camera.

Gautam Chintamani is a film historian and author of the bestselling ‘Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna’, ‘The Film That Revived Hindi Cinema’ and ‘Pink: The Inside Story’. His last book, ‘Rajneeti’ was the first biography of Rajnath Singh. His upcoming book ‘The Midway Battle: Challenges at Home and Abroad for Modi 2.0’ will release in 2021.

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