Dilip: The complete actor

When Dilip Kumar enters heaven on July 7, the entire Bollywood wing is delirious with excitement. “Did you hear, did you hear?” Dev Anand asks Raj Kapoor.

“Yusuf is joining us.”

Raj: Such? He breaks into a song “Dilipayya vastavayya”, reminiscent of his dance at the Dilip-Saira wedding ceremony in 1966.

Dilip Kumar and Madhubala.
Dilip Kumar and Madhubala.

A welcome reception is held for Dilip. A bevy of leading ladies of his films line the entrance to receive him with bouquets and smiles. The galaxy comprises Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Nargis, Noor Jahan, Suchitra Sen, Nimmi, Nadira, Nutan, Nalini Jaywant.

“You ladies were behind my hit films,” says Dilip gallantly. He hums Tu kahe agar jeevan bhar mei geet sunata jaoon, the famous Andaz song of 1949. There is laughter and applause. “No, our careers soared when we acted in your films,” responds Meena Kumari, as she recites a couplet. Dilip greets Suchitra Sen, and she quips: “More people discuss Devdas than the 60 other films I acted in”.

Nargis and Dilip embrace. Remarks Nargis: “I acted in seven films with you, a highlight of my career. But you always stole the show — be it Babul, Andaz, Mela or Deedar.” “But I always lost, my sweetheart, you eluded me all the time,” Dilip responds. Nargis chuckles.

All the stars make way for Devika Rani, the first lady of Indian cinema, who discovered Dilip. It’s an emotional moment as the two hug each other. “You transformed my life,” Dilip says. “No, you transformed Bollywood,” responds Devika Rani. “I knew you would conquer hearts, but you conquered all of India.”

With Vyjayanthimala in Devdas (1955).
With Vyjayanthimala in Devdas (1955).

The stunning Noor Jehan known for her magnificent voice, shoves others aside to hug Dilip. His heroine in Jugnu (1947), she was one of the heart-throbs of the 1940s before moving to Pakistan.

Dilip reminds Noor Jehan about her famous, much-awaited visit to Bombay from Pakistan in 1982. When it happened, the city was agog and all of Bombay turned out for the reception. Dilip asked Noor Jehan to sing her signature song Awaaz de kahan hai from Anmol Ghadi. The splendid voice was magical as ever, and the celebrity audience went wild.

“The ladies are falling all over you,” says Raj Kapoor, “Just as they did on earth.”

“Look who’s talking,” responds Dilip, giving Raj a playful punch.

Dilip submerged his personality so completely into the screen character, his agony in tragic roles was so vivid and intense, that people forgot that he was acting.

Madhubala greets Dilip with an aadab and a glowing smile. “You are as beautiful as ever,” says Dilip and she blushes. She remarks, “Bollywood won’t be the same without you”.

Madhubala is right — Bollywood without Dilip Kumar just can’t be the same.

He was described as the tragedy king, as an acting institution, as the ultimate method actor. Meghnad Desai called him “Actor-e-Azam”. Dilip acted only in 67 films from 1944 to 1998, but his influence in both India and Pakistan was profound — on the way people thought, spoke, dressed, emoted on screen or stage. He was a manual for actors. In 1982, when Raj as director was not satisfied with Rishi Kapoor’s acting in the 1982 Prem Rog, he told his son: “Think of how Yusuf would act here.” Rishi finally got it right. After seeing the 1982 film Shakti — in which police officer Dilip is pitted against son Amitabh who works with a gangster — Raj phoned Dilip saying, “You are indeed the greatest.”

Dilip Kumar with Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand (behind).
Dilip Kumar with Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand (behind).

Satyajit Ray described him as “the ultimate method actor”. Dilip submerged his personality so completely into the screen character, his agony in tragic roles was so vivid and intense, that people forgot that he was acting. Anupam Kher called him the “complete actor”.

He learned the sitar for six months before shooting began for the film Kohinoor as he has to play this instrument in the song Madhuban mein Radhika nache re (sung with mesmeric exuberance by Mohammed Rafi). To prepare for his blind singer role in Deedar, Dilip spent several days with a blind beggar near Dadar station. For his home production Gunga Jumna, Dilip travelled throughout Uttar Pradesh for several months to study people’s speech and gestures, colloquialisms and mannerisms. He mastered Bhojpuri, and coached Vyjayanthimala, who wasn’t even fluent in Hindi, to speak it right. Dilip involved Prime Minister Pandit Nehru himself to clear the film when it ran into censor trouble as a dacoit film.

When Dilip Kumar had to travel a short distance to the theatre from the Grand Hotel the teeming crowd of fans physically lifted the limousine and carried it all the way to its destination!

Vyjayanthimala says she was humbled and inspired by Dilip’s perfectionism, the amount of time he spent to rehearse a single line. He similarly inspired three generations of actors. “There is a Dilip Kumar in every actor,” she said. Amitabh Bachchan, Manoj Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Dharmendra, Shashi Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Irrfan Khan — all of them are unabashed admirers of Dilip and speak feelingly about the debt they owe him. Javed Akthar says Dilip mastered the craft of “method acting” much before Marlon Brando, the known pioneer of this technique.

Audiences were initially flabbergasted when the tragedian of Andaz, Deedar, Babul and Yahudi wielded a sword in Aan. But the elan he displayed with swords and horses, and the taunting ease with which he vanquished armed guards and tamed an arrogant princess in Aan left them tongue-tied.

 

Dilip about his family

Dilip said his family was central to his life. He did whatever he could for his six brothers and five sisters and their children. He would have been happy if they had surpassed him in fame and fortune. His 67-film career was made possible by Devika Rani. Apart from her, he felt grateful to those behind his “second innings” after 1980 — Manoj Kumar for Kranti (1981), Ramesh Sippy for Shakti (1982), Subash Ghai who made Vidhaata (1982), Karma (1986) and Saudagar (1991), all of which were hits, dispelling perceptions that Dilip’s popularity had slided after the 1970s.

With his ‘Paro’ Suchitra Sen in Devdas.
With his ‘Paro’ Suchitra Sen in Devdas.

Dilip said he wanted to be a sportsman when he was young, he was particularly fond of football and cricket. “Football helped me greatly as an actor, it gave me a strong flexible body.” He recalled that during the shooting of the 1952 Footpath, he was not in the right mood for an intense scene. He went to the Brabourne Stadium, played cricket, hit a couple of boundaries and felt good! He told the director that he was ready for the shot.

Manoj Kumar pointed out that Dilip used to carry a large transistor to studios to hear commentary whenever a cricket test match was on. (His friend Vijay Merchant was his favourite commentator.) He predicted that India would win the World Cup and was overjoyed when it happened in 1983 and again in 2011.

Dilip and Raj Kapoor often led two Bollywood cricket teams playing against each other in charity matches. One of Raj’s favourite boasts was that his team defeated Dilip’s in the charity cricket match of 1962.

 

Dilip nostalgia

“His mass impact was unbelievable,” said journalist Bunny Reuben, perhaps Dilip’s first biographer. He travelled with Dilip to Tanzania in 1970 for a charity event and was stunned at the hysteria the actor inspired. It seemed as if the entire population of Tanzania had turned up at Dar-es-Salam airport. All avenues to and from the airport were jampacked. At the Calcutta premiere of Naya Daur in 1957, Dilip Kumar had to travel a short distance to the theatre from the Grand Hotel. The teeming crowd of fans physically lifted the limousine and carried it all the way to its destination!

Saira Banu says Dilip was often an irrepressible comic in real life. He could mimic Helen, of all people, batting his eyelashes and projecting his leg out of the slit of a towel while doing the dance Monica O my darling! He could mimic Gopi Krishna’s dances from Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, and on one occasion did so in the presence of Gopi Krishna. He would convulse relatives by mimicking Saira.

Dilip loved good food, being a Punjabi Pathan. In 1995, Screen magazine wanted to start its own awards and invited Dilip to head an awards jury. He said yes — on condition that Screen accepted the interval snack menu he set out! The snacks came from Dilip-Saira’s kitchen, much to Screen’s delight and relief!

Many film personalities have referred fondly to Dilip’s care and concern for others. Hrishikesh Mukherjee said that when once he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Dilip took him away from the studio and drove him to Khandala and kept him there for three days. No work, only cricket, gupshup and fun. Hrishikesh was a changed man when he returned to Bombay, more relaxed and self-assured.

With music director Naushad.
With director Bimal Roy.

Rishi has said (in his autobiography) that when Raj Kapoor lay critically ill in Delhi in 1988, Dilip was traumatised. He had just landed from Pakistan in Bombay. He flew to Delhi and went straight to Apollo Hospital. He spoke to the inert Raj and sobbed uncontrollably.

Sunil Dutt, a close friend of Dilip, has pointed out that when Dilip was sheriff of Bombay, he conducted a special fundraising train ride every year when he walked the length of the train and interacted with passengers. As sheriff, he helped fund many worthy causes — schools, hospital equipment, gardens and parks, a joggers’ park and a bandstand in Bandra. He visited and entertained border troops, he took part in special rallies for the armed forces.

He was an excellent speaker in Urdu and English. (Of course he had the huge advantage that being Dilip, he always compelled attention!) Lata Mangeshkar was speechless at his tribute to her before a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London, March 1974. He compared the universality of her music to a flower’s fragrance, the waters of a brook, a mountain breeze, the sun’s rays, a child’s smile!

Lata reminded Dilip of this speech when she called on him before his final illness. She says he smiled with pleasure.

 

S R Madhu is a senior journalist and a member of the Rotary Club of Madras South.

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