In my Mirror/TOI Plus column this week:
Born in Peshawar and brought to Bombay, he was the true child of a country that revelled in its linguistic and regional variety, rather than craving to homogenise it.
|Dilip Kumar greets Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan at Meenambakkam Airport, Chennai (c. 1960). Kumar is the only Indian recipient of Pakistan's highest civilian award, Nishan-e-Imtiaz. (Source: Wikipedia)|
Like the country it claims to represent, the public culture of Bollywood has a tendency towards hagiography. We like to anoint heroes, inflating even their minor talents into grand achievements, and painting an unrealistically spotless picture of their greatness. Bhakti leaves no room for considered evaluation of a person’s strengths and flaws, or even for placing someone in the context of his time, looking at how he may have responded to his professional and historical milieu. It is as if we have never got our heads around the relationship between the individual and society: Either the individual’s achievements are credited entirely to his being from x community or y institution, or else he is pronounced sui generis in some unbelievable way.
The actorly legend of Dilip Kumar is no different. The stories of his dedication abound - of his being a ‘method actor’ before Marlon Brando, or learning to play the sitar in reality from Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffar Khan for the 1960 film Kohinoor, or refusing the role that eventually went to Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia. Some of these narratives say less about Dilip Kumar than about the Indian desire to lay claim to an actor who was the equal, nay superior, of anyone Hollywood could throw at us.
That path of global comparison, though, feels to me like a red herring - not because Dilip Kumar was not a fine actor, but because the style he developed was so specifically Indian. He may have been understated, using a mixture of gently caustic dialogues and brooding silences and dropping his booming voice to a whisper in the throes of love or pain, but there was never any doubting the intense ebb and flow of emotion under that surface. Dilip Kumar was drama – just conducted with dignity.
Still, it is true that he was among the first Indian leading men to step away from our previously theatrical histrionics – and I mean theatrical here quite literally; the exaggerated gestures and loud oratory were characteristic of the spectacular Parsi Urdu theatre, from which early Bombay cinema emerged. Actors like Motilal and Ashok Kumar were his predecessors in this change. Ashok Kumar, in fact, was the first actor he met at Bombay Talkies, telling him to “just do what you would do in the situation if you were really in it” – and young Yousuf took the big star’s naturalistic instructions to heart.
Despite a rocky start with the lost 1944 film Jwar Bhata (in which the outspoken FilmIndia critic Baburao Patel called him “the new anaemic hero” whose “appearance on the screen creates both laughter and disappointment”), by 1947, Dilip Kumar had made the screen his own.
But to me, what made Dilip Sahab a true legend (and he was always called Dilip Kumar Sahab, making the PM’s condolence tweet calling him “Dilip Kumar ji” sound strangely off) was not his acting, or even his perfectionist attention to detail, or even his undeniable mastery of both voice and language. Though that last quality was shaping, both of him and the film industry he strode like a colossus for decades. Born in Peshawar in 1922 and brought to Bombay as a toddler by his fruit-merchant father, Dilip Kumar was a true child of that polyglot city - and of an India that revelled in its regional and linguistic variety rather than craving to homogenise it.
Other than his renowned flair for Urdu (he told a young Tom Alter that the secret of good acting was “sher-o-shairi”), he was fluent in Hindi/Hindustani, Pashto, Punjabi, Marathi, English, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindko, Persian and the Awadhi and Bhojpuri dialects. You can watch the words roll off his tongue in old YouTube interviews, or read the many remembrances in which he made people feel deeply at home by speaking, literally, in their language. For 10 years from 1960 on, a special train ran annually from Bombay to Poona on which people bought tickets for the sheer pleasure of travelling with Dilip Kumar – but it seemed he took enormous joy in it too, talking to people in Tamil, Telugu, Konkani and all of the languages mentioned above.
Which brings me back to the qualities that really seem to define Dilip Kumar: His warmth and integrity and feeling for people, across the bounds of religion and background and age. You didn’t need to know him personally to be able to see the strength of his relationships. It is enough, for instance, to read Rishi Kapoor talk about his father Raj Kapoor’s lifelong camaraderie with “Yousuf Uncle” - extending from their shared Pashto-speaking childhood to the superb playing-off of their personas in the hit love triangle Andaaz (1949), through the many schemes they hatched to raise funds for national causes, all the way to Dilip Kumar addressing an unconscious Raj Kapoor in his hospital bed just before Kapoor passed away in 1988 – as filmi as it gets, and yet real and deeply felt.
It is enough, also, to watch Dilip Kumar reach out, mid-speech on stage and hold the hand of the much younger Shah Rukh Khan, turning what might have been just another filmi commemoration into something memorable and intergenerational and true. Or Dharmendra, visiting for his birthday a few years ago, clasping his hands with a fraternal love you could not stage – or cradling the late thespian’s head after his death, tweeting “Maalik mere pyaare bhai ko Jannat naseeb kare”.
Dilip Kumar came of an age in a film industry that was, as anthropologist William Mazzarella points out, then in a rare period of organic synch with the nation-state. If filmmakers between the ’30s and early ’60s seemed to voice the hope and popular enthusiasm of the new nation, the nation could also see itself in the cinema. In 1955, the chair of a Sangeet Natak Akademi seminar could welcome Prime Minister Nehru as “the Director of one of the greatest films in history – the film of New India’s destiny…”.
Dilip Kumar was a great admirer of Nehru, whom he called Panditji, like so many of his generation. In his memoir, he speaks fondly of Nehru singling him out on a rare visit to a film set, and in later years, giving his 1961 film Ganga Jumna a hearing against decisions by Nehru’s own information and broadcasting minister BV Keskar. Screenwriter Salim Khan, writing at the end of Dilip Sahab’s memoir, makes the fascinating argument that the legendary pauses in his dialogue delivery were modelled on Nehru’s Hindi speeches, where the pauses were because he was translating from English in his head.
In 1962, Nehru only had to say the word for Dilip Kumar to agree to campaign for the Congress Party, for the great VK Krishna Menon. Kumar later served for a year as Sheriff of Bombay and as a nominated INC member to the Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra from 2000 to 2006. This was also a man whom Pakistan had awarded the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, leading Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray to cast public aspersions on his nationalism. And yet Dilip Kumar’s book makes a point of mentioning not only his hurt, but also the Thackerays’ later invitations to him and his wife Saira Banu.
In his grace and his depth of feeling, for India and the cross-subcontinental culture he spoke for, Yousuf Khan had few equals. Dilip Kumar exemplified an era, and his life and character seem to sum up what was best about it. He could only have emerged in a time and a place where we believed in stitching things together – not tearing them apart. Long may his memory live.
Published in TOI Plus/Mumbai Mirror, 10 July 2021.