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Dilip Kumar: Indian cinema's first method actor and Bollywood’s greatest character star

7th Jul 2021 08:44 PM | Piyush Roy

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Bollywood film lore has a rare popular anecdote that as much reveals about an era, as it inspires about its character. This is from the time when the legendary actor Dilip Kumar (b. 1922) had taken that decisive five-year break in the late 1970s, between his last lead role sign-off in Bairaag (1976), and subsequent return in powerful character roles in Hindi cinema’s blockbuster multi-starrer, Kranti (1981). The Indian film industry by then had witnessed the consolidation of its biggest superstar of all time, Amitabh Bachchan, and the fall of another, Rajesh Khanna; both of who were two decades younger than Kumar. His illustrious contemporaries, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, the other two big star influences from ‘The Golden Triumvirate’ of Indian Cinema’s ‘Golden Age,’ the 1950s, had long switched on to careers in direction. Times were changing. Endorsements and advertisements were fast emerging as windfall lucrative assignments for stars, old and new. The greatest of them, and an acclaimed living legend by then, Dilip Kumar too was approached to appear in advertisements. Touching 60, and already out-of-work for four years, Kumar had famously retorted in his signature soft-spoken hallmark of gravitas – “Hum ishtahaar ke liye nahi bane hain (I was never meant to be for advertisements!).” 

Once again, Dilip Kumar reiterated the legacy, the values, the style and the aura of a generation of great actors and greater individuals that had been the source of some timeless and cherished moments in Indian cinema, both on and off screen. Kumar was that rare actor, who happened to be acknowledged while still in work, by both the film industry and the critics as an artiste nonpareil – an institute of acting for generations of subsequent actors in his country; an inspiration, who became a legend in his lifetime. Dilip Kumar never liked doing retakes of very intense shots. He said, “Normally, when I do important things, I do it at one go so that if an emotion clicks you lead on with it to the point of orgasm as they say… Learning the lines or committing them to memory is one thing. And ‘owning’ them is another. It’s got to go into the third layer of memory, so that you can ‘own’ the words rather than remember them.”

Preferring Bollywood to Hollywood

Dilip Kumar lived up to that reputation, almost diligently through actions that rarely compromised that halo. This also had been one of the major holdbacks for Kumar to refuse David Lean, when he approached him for a stellar role in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). He was unsure about the eventual character graph and the meatiness of his part, wary that he might be compromising the expectation and aspirations of an entire sub-continent. He had later explained, “Going to the West might have had a novelty value, but an Indian star cannot think of a permanent career in Hollywood. If the whole thing had turned out slightly different, as with most Asian actors in the West and Hollywood, I feared it would affect my own standing among my own people, my permanent market.” That role eventually went to Omar Sharif.

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The Modern Hero

It is no coincidence that one of Bollywood’s most admired hero got his career’s first big hit Jugnu (Firefly, 1947) in the year that India got its independence. Dilip Kumar was the favourite actor of independent India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a founder leader of India’s secular and liberal democratic system and a philosopher politician. Naturally, his choice was India’s first philosopher-actor. 

Kumar chose responsibly, opting for quality over quantity. “It is repetitive only when you keep repeating the same personality over and over again. It is a very painful thing. But not if you keep on changing your personality” – had remained a lifelong tip. Kumar’s approach to acting filled in well the need of the hour of a newly independent nation that wanted a ‘modern hero’, who while overcoming the hurdles of the theatricality of the yore, was also natural and un-stylised enough to be able to depict the complexities of the emerging socio-political milieu. 

A Performer Nonpareil

It’s been more than two decades since the release of the thespian’s last film, Qila (1998), yet the mystique of Dilip Kumar remains and how; more alluring than current superstars, coming three generations after. His is, perhaps, the smallest filmography for a thespian performer, with just 62 films in an acting career spanning over five decades. But what a rich repertoire – be it the sheer diversity of parts (from a blind beggar to a handsome prince, a rapist to a judge, a vigilante, a mafia don, bandit, buffoon, horse-cart driver, farmer, aristocrat, activist, mill worker, trade union leader, politician…); number of literary adaptations, East or West (Devdas to Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre); and at least one class act in every genre – social drama (Ganga Jumna, 1961; Shakti, 1982; Mashaal, 1984), supernatural thriller (Madhumati, 1958), historical (Mughal-e-Azam, 1960), mafia (Vidhaata, 1982), costume adventures (Aan, 1952; Kohinoor, 1960), grand romances (Andaz, 1949; Aadmi, 1968), comedies (Azaad, 1955), tragedies (Deedar, 1951; Devdas, 1955) and masala fare (Ram aur Shyam, 1967). Just when the media had anointed him as Indian cinema’s ‘ultimate tragedy king’ after playing a series of memorable on-screen sufferers, Kumar not only changed track but also won a Best Actor award for his comic timing in Azaad (1955).

Dilip Kumar is the only Hindi cinema actor to have a Best Actor hattrick (Azaad, Devdas and Naya Daur) at the Filmfare Awards (Hindi) for the years 1955-57. His overall record reads 8 wins and 19 nominations from the 40 plus films that he did after the commencement of the Filmfare awards in the 1950s. He also was its first Best Actor winner for Daag (1953). Little wonder, Kumar remains the greatest acting reference in the Indian sub-continent still, for actors hailing from a variety of performing styles – realistic, melodramatic, methodical or underplaying. 

The Method Actor

The ideas and approach to cinematic acting in India can be broadly divided into two eras – the one before and after Dilip Kumar. His was a tectonic influence on Bollywood as profound and game-changing as the entry of Marlon Brando in Hollywood. To a cinematic idiom, privileging stylised theatricality over the natural, Dilip Kumar’s soft-spoken dialogue delivery was reminiscent of real-life conversations, as his silence and subtle expressions spoke volumes. According to the thespian, “It’s not that I consciously developed a style of delivering dialogue in a soft voice. That’s the way I speak in real life too. My father never shouted or ranted even when he was upset. My mother was gentle and docile. And even at work I befriended people who were simple and refined – Sashadhar Mukherji, Anil Biswas, Amiya Chakravarthy, Gyan Mukherji, Ashok Kumar… Real-life influences impacted my acting styles because that’s where I found my inspiration, especially since I had to be my own instructor.”

Indulgent critics have often said that ‘you picked up more from a Dilip Kumar back shot than a full-frontal monologue of other stars’. To many, he also evoked the underlaying of Paul Muni and the intensity of Montgomery Clift. Kumar never lost his aura, or compromised on the truth of his characters born from the empathy of a detailed researching of their backdrop and respect for every audience member, mass or class. He says, “If I make a film on a peasant, the peasant must be able to appreciate it, and react to it. So often we become so academic in our rendering that we find the intelligentsia and the people with cars and the critics giving very good reviews to them – but the same peasant is missing from the auditorium. I have tried to direct my efforts towards people so they react to it.” This perhaps was the reason for the spot-on achievement of one of Kumar’s most acclaimed performances of a boisterous peasant outlaw in Gunga Jumna, the first blockbuster in a Hindi dialect (Bhojpuri) for a leading Bollywood star, after courting acclaim with a series of urban and aristocrat heroes. 

The Character Star

Dilip Kumar’s signing off from lead roles happened a decade-and-half after Gunga Jumna with a rare box-office failure in a hero part in Bairaag (Asceticism, 1976). He had attempted another acting first, playing the triple role of a father and his twin sons in the film. Kumar didn’t hang around like other fading stars – another attitudinal difference between a legend and a superstar. Five years later, he came back in a meaty character part in a star-studded independence drama, Kranti (1981), retaining his sparkler status of a diamond, as always. Next, came Shakti (1982), with then reigning superstar Amitabh Bachchan. It got Dilip Kumar his last Best Actor award, and was followed by 11 acting gems, frequently in a crowded ensemble of competent actors, helmed by directors new and veteran. Dilip Kumar, not the younger generation of stars, remained the point of interest in the films as neither his co-stars nor his audience would ever want to see him in the shadows. These films arguably were also the only saving grace in Bollywood’s weakest decade of storytelling – the 1980s. 

By the end of the 1990s, Kumar hung up his acting boots after a failed go at direction, scripting a grand sign-off with an epic melodrama spanning three generations, Saudagar (1991), and a psychological thriller Qila (1998), which had him play both the hero and the villain, clocking another acting first in his career’s last film. 

In his passing away, at 98, the lone, oldest, and most influential Indian cinema connect between the glory of its finest era and the inspiration of its ambitious present, is gone. Legends like him are getting rarer by the day. Most superstars donning his mantle are not even half the actor that Dilip Kumar was in his heydays. Indeed, Bollywood and the world of cinema has stopped making men like him anymore – artistes with an appeal beyond borders and an ability to inspire across callings by the sheer bequest of work and a life lived exemplarily in each of its 24/7 frame. 

The writer is an Indian national film award winning critic, author, filmmaker and dean/professor of film studies at School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, RV University, Bengaluru. Dilip Kumar’s interviews and anecdotes are excerpted from his latest book in world cinema studies, Bollywood FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Greatest Film Story Never Told (Globe Pequot / Applause USA 2019)

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