Every single Bollywood actor wants to be Dilip Kumar – even Amitabh Bachchan. Well, the unchallenged Emperor of Cinema vacated his throne on Wednesday after dominating the hearts of adoring fans for five decades. The word ‘thespian’ seems to have been coined and reserved for just one man – him. And yet, for all that, Peshawar born, one of twelve children, Muhammed Yusuf Khan, remains a man of mystery to most – perhaps by design.
Aloof, soft-spoken and aristocratic in his bearing, how Dilip Kumar became the ‘ultimate actor’, starting with his first film Jwar Bhata (1944) for Bombay Talkies and ending with his last screen appearance in an entirely forgettable Qila (1998), deserves several hefty books. Each performance was a master class in acting. In an era where movie stars in India have frequently chalked up a filmography of 100 and more films in two decades, here was a fastidious professional whose 50 years in front of the camera saw him perform in just 65 films – that’s 13 films per decade. Nothing. And yet, everything.
A meeting with the legend
During his life, he became the most revered actor of all time, spawning countless wannabe Dilip Kumars and giving birth to the ‘Dilip Kumar School of Acting’, as it were. Every newcomer referenced and happily channeled his inner Dilip Kumar without the slightest embarrassment or hesitation. As if! His brand of dialogue delivery was mimicked and mangled by many. The specific ‘Dilip Kumar gaze’ became a standard that nobody could reach. Let’s not even try to count those who fell by the wayside doing a Dilip Kumar.
What was it about this man? I am stumped for an appropriate response. I have to admit I am no authority on either his personal or professional life. I watched a handful of his films way back when, and interviewed him just once, on the lawns of the Cricket Club of India in Mumbai (he was a cricket enthusiast). Much to my annoyance, my purana-wala bulky tape recorder misbehaved and the tapes got hopelessly entangled. We were seated on the edge of the cricket field, on a low ledge. A bit awkward for me, because I had to balance the tape recorder on my knees, take notes with one hand, and hang on to the machine with the other.
He was polite, lofty, distant and unbothered by the circumstances and my discomfort. He was Dilip Kumar – in full legend mode. Erudite, profound and articulate, he was quoting Urdu couplets and Shakespeare, English poets and German scholars (his reputation as a linguist and well-read man was on full and unabashed display). All this, while looking dreamily into the distance, like he was ensconced on a gilded throne in his own kingdom with a humble court historian obediently chronicling his utterances for future generations. His sense of personal ‘legacy’ was intact.
‘Prince’ of our hearts
We all cherish our Dilip Kumar ‘moments’ in cinema, and like other film buffs, mine is frozen as well. Dilip Kumar as Prince Salim (in the epic production Mughal-e-Azam, 1960) managed to bring rare dignity into a cheesy sequence – the one where he strokes a white plume over the face of his beloved (the exquisite Madhubala, playing the doomed slave woman the Prince is in love with), languidly stretched out feigning deep sleep. He brought such a powerful erotic charge into that simple gesture, it left countless women panting for more.
And then came the beauty who captured his heart and bagged the most desirable hero of Indian cinema. His devoted begum for more than 50 years, Saira Banu was with him till her ‘Saheb’ took his last breath.
In that one scene in Mughal-e-Azam, what Dilip Kumar achieved with a graceful flick of his wrist, could never be matched by all the violent and vulgar pelvic thrusts of the three Khans put together – Dilip Kumar retains his position as the First Khan of Bollywood. Prince Salim became the unchallenged prince of our hearts – the Badshah and Shahenshah of Romance, the supreme King of Tragedy… and there he stays.
Dilip Kumar was the first recipient of the Filmfare Award for Best Actor (1954), and went on to create a record by bagging eight more. The list of his multiple trophies and honours is endless. He is now being immortalised as ‘The Actor-e-Azam’ by his worshipful admirers here and across the border. Although Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray has announced that the last rites of the actor “will be held with full state honours”, I, frankly, was expecting a national holiday in India. And flags at half-mast – or some such grand gesture. How silly of me! In this environment? That too, for a legendary actor who had been recognised by Pakistan, when he was bestowed the highest civilian award – Nishan-e-Imtiaz (1998) by our neighbours? Tauba! Remember, even back then, hyper-patriots back home had gone into overdrive and frothed at the mouth at the audacity of it all. How dare they? What does Pakistan think? Dilip Kumar is ours! He belongs exclusively to India! Shiv Sena bossman Bal Thackeray had been enraged – ‘return it!’ he told him after the Kargil War. Sensibly, Dilip Kumar did no such thing.
Yes, Dilip Kumar is the recipient of the Padma Vibhushan (2015), India’s second-highest civilian award. But hey – it isn’t the Bharat Ratna, okay?
Dekho – abhi bhi time baqui hai.
The author is a columnist, social commentator, journalist and opinion-shaper. She has written 20 books. She tweets @DeShobhaa. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)