The Ul­ti­mate

Southasia - - Cinema - By Asif Noorani

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.

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