Indiscriminate use of adjectives by copywriters in advertising and hackwriters in journalism has robbed them of their meaning, which is why when one has to write about a person whose contribution in a particular field is worth its weight in gold, one is at a loss for words. This is what has happened to this writer when asked to pen a piece on the greatest film actor in South Asia, Dilip Kumar, who turned 90 in December.
I think a very appropriate compliment was paid to the thespian by no less a person than the megastar of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan, who has time and again praised Dilip Kumar. He tweeted “The history of Indian actors shall be written [in two chapters] before Dilip sahib and after Dilip sahib.”
One can’t agree with Bachchan more, for the style of acting before Dilip Kumar appeared on the scene was theatrical, a trend that came to the cinema from the Parsi theater. The high priests were Sohrab Modi and Prithviraj. Motilal and Ashok Kumar deviated to some extent, but it was left to Dilip to evolve a completely natural style. He under-acted somewhat, communicating eloquently through facial expressions and movement of his hands. There were meaningful pauses in his delivery of dialogue.
A number of clones surfaced on both sides of the Wagah border, some of them remained so all through their careers. The most noteworthy being Rajendra Kumar, who had several silver jubilee hits to his credit, but he is hardly remembered for he could never evolve a style of his own.
Lord Meghnad Desai, a member of the British Parliament, who wrote a very well-researched book on Dilip Kumar, unearthed some reviews of the thespian’s films by the subcontinent’s first serious film critic, Clare Mendonca. Writing in the most widely-circulated English daily of South Asia about performances in Mehboob’s Andaz, where Dilip shared the marquee with Nargis and Raj Kapoor, she said “Dilip Kumar runs away with acting honors
Dilip shared stellar honors with a good number of talented female actors – Kamini Kaushal, Nargis, Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rahman, Vyjaynthimala and Saira Bano, to name a few. He enjoyed a rare chemistry with Madhubala - more than with anybody else.
in the central role, which he portrays with an inimitable grace of which his entire naturalness and spontaneity are the chief ingredients. He does not act but lives the role, displaying the genius of the born actor, who is unaware that he is acting...” (March 26, 1949).
From the late forties to the mid- fifties, Dilip Kumar did 13 films, most of which were successful at the boxoffice, but in no film was his acting less than outstanding for he had realised that familiarity bred contempt. By appearing in about sixty films in a fruitful career that spanned 54 years, he got the time to study in depth each character he was to portray and infuse life into. Thus, the spineless lover in his earlier movies like Babul, Dagh and Devdas was vastly different from the Mughal Prince in Mughal-e-Azam and the rustic characters in Naya Daur and Ganga Jumna. What was common to all his performances was the finesse with which he approached each character.
Normally, successful actors are too reluctant (read afraid) to change their style and assay completely different characters, but not so Dilip Kumar. When he was termed the ‘ Tragedy King’ of the Indian screen who more often than not met with death at the end, he opted for comedies, winning four out of his record eight Filmfare Best Actor trophies in lighter roles. Never once did he cross the thin line that divides acting with over-acting in non-serious roles. Even in the slapstick mirror scene with Jeevan in Kohinoor, or in a scene where he mimics a Parsi character in Ram aur Shyam, he did not go overboard. And when he graduated to what are called character roles, he played the lead, be it in the company of the great Amitabh Bachchan (Shakti), the actor par excellence Naseeruddin Shah (Karma) or the sensitive Raj Kumar (Saudagar), he got an edge over them. His grace and poise remained unmatched.
Dilip shared stellar honors with a good number of talented female ac- tors – Kamini Kaushal, Nargis, Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rahman, Vyjaynthimala and Saira Bano, to name a few. He enjoyed a rare chemistry with Madhubala - more than with anybody else. He is on record to have said that he enjoyed working with her, as also with Nargis, Meena Kumari and later Saira Bano, but he thought that his most competent co-star was Nalini Jayant. “She’d be quite extraordinary even in the first rehearsal we would have. She was highly professional,” commented the inimitable actor.
As someone who has interviewed a number of luminaries, from I K Gujral, when he was the prime minister of India and Mohammed Yunus, a Nobel laureate, to music director O P Nayyar and renowned social workers like Prof Adeebul Hasan Rizvi, this writer regrets not having had the chance of interviewing Dilip Kumar. I came quite close to doing so, when I met him at Kardar Studios in Bombay in 1965. He had promised to meet me after his return from Madras, where he had a shooting stint scheduled, but sadly three days later war broke out between Pakistan and India and there was no question of meeting a man who was falsely accused of spying for Pakistan. However, years later when I met him on the sets of Shakti, it was a pleasure listening to him. Two other members of his audience were Amitabh Bachchan and Javed Akhtar, who too listened to the charming conversationalist with rapt attention. Now I believe he doesn’t talk and when he does he is incoherent. What a pity!
I can’t think of a better way to end this piece than by recalling Shabana Azmi’s birthday greetings to the thespian “Happy birthday Dilip Sahib. There has not been another like you. We continue to draw inspiration from your performances and your commitment.”
Asif Noorani is a seasoned journalist and writes on art, literature, travel, music and movies.