Dilip Kumar, Indian cinema's greatest actor ever

·7-min read

After watching a film, the legendary Dilip Kumar would often imagine someone else playing the protagonist. Only when he couldn’t think of any other actor would he consider it an outstanding performance. On one such occasion, much to the joy of his lifelong friend Sunil Dutt, Dilip Kumar told him that his son Sanjay Dutt was born to play the lead in Vaastav.

If one were to apply the same parameters to Dilip Kumar, it would not be surprising why the thespian was considered the greatest actor ever, not only when it came to Hindi films but Indian cinema in general. 

In a career spanning four and a half decades, nearly every single role that Dilip Kumar portrayed was unique and singularly his own. With Dilip Kumar’s death at 98, not only has the world lost one of its most popular screen icons, but it’s also the end of an epoch in every sense of the word.

Born in 1922 in Peshawar as Yusuf Khan, Dilip Kumar’s father ran a successful fruit supply business. Young Yusuf grew up in Peshawar, where his family was close to Raj Kapoor’s family, the two would remain lifelong friends, and had it not been for the looming clouds of the Second World War, his father, Ghulam Sarwar Khan, would not have considered moving to Bombay. 

Sarwar Khan once saw a bonny baby in a pram in Bombay and, without uttering a word, lifted him as he reminded him of his young son Yusuf. In his autobiography The Substance and the Shadow, Dilip Kumar writes this incident probably triggered Sarwar Khan to ask his wife and children to join him. 

When Yusuf’s elder brother Ayub Khan developed a respiratory problem, the family shifted to a hill station called Deolali in Maharastra. Yusuf studied in Barnes School, and such was his bond with the small town that he always called himself a Deolali boy.

A few years later, family hardships forced Yusuf to leave his home and work as a manager in a British Army canteen in Poona. Later he tried to run the family business as well, but a chance meeting with Devika Rani, the legendary screen star and the proprietor of Bombay Talkies, saw him land a contract with the studio at Rs 1,250 per month in 1942.

It was Devika Rani who also gave Yusuf the screen name of ‘Dilip Kumar’, and while he debuted with Jwar Bhata (1942), it was the success of Mehboob Khan’s Andaz (1949), the only film that he did with Raj Kapoor, that turned him into a star. 

In a short time, Dilip Kumar surpassed the likes of Ashok Kumar and Motilal as the leading star of his time and formed the fabled triumvirate of the first post-Independence stars with Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand.

In the 1950s, the Nehruvian socialist ideology was often captured on screen by the Dilip-Raj-Dev troika.

Each one highlighted some aspect of India’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, on screen. If Raj Kapoor perfected the everyman in his affable tramp in Awaara (1951) and Shree 420 (1955), and Dev Anand reflected the modernism of Nehru, it was Dilip Kumar who struck the right balance of forward-looking and traditionalism in films like Naya Daur (1957) and Ganga Jumna (1961). 

It’s no surprise then that Pandit Nehru also found Dilip Kumar to be his favourite of sorts. Dilip Kumar’s fluency in English, Hindi and Marathi made Nehru want the actor to canvas for Congress in elections. Later, when Kumar’s Ganga Jamua was stuck at the Censors, Nehru’s personal intervention on the actor’s request saw the film get the nod from the Censors. 

In the period spanning from 1947 to 1967, Kumar achieved nearly everything that one could expect from a superstar — he became the best-known actor of his era. He excelled at almost all genres with tragedy (Sangdil, Deedar, Devdas, Yahudi) and swashbuckling dramas Aan, (1952), Azaad (1955), and Insaniyat (1955), the only film to feature Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand together) featuring his best.

The other testimony to his stardom was that Dilip Kumar was the first choice of nearly every prominent filmmaker in the 1950s and 1960s. This was also the period where he refused many films that went on to become milestones in their own right, such as Guru Dutt’s Pyasaa (1957), which reminded him of his tragic roles, and Mehboob’s Mother India (1957). 

Mehboob wanted him to play the role of Birju, but Dilip Kumar reportedly could not wrap his mind around playing the son to Nargis, a heroine that he had romanced onscreen. He asked Mehboob to cast him in the double role of the father, later played by Raaj Kumar, and the elder son that was portrayed by Rajendra Kumar. 

Kumar also refused David Lean’s offer to play Prince Ali in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) that made Omar Sharif a global name. It is said that Kumar did not want to be the second-lead, and somewhere also believed that he would be an outsider in the set-up. Raj Kapoor had offered Dilip Kumar either of two male leads in Sangam (1964) that were played by Raj Kapoor and Rajendra Kumar.

In the 1960s, Raj Kapoor had practically given up playing the lead, and Dev Anand was making his mind to switch to directing, he had reportedly ghost directed Teen Devian (1965). Around that period, Dilip Kumar had reduced his output considerably and contemplated leaving films with the success of Ram Aur Shyam (1967). 

He felt nothing was left for him to prove, but Saira Banu put her foot down. The advent of newer stars such as Rajesh Khanna and Dharmendra changed the scenario and the lexicon of films, and once the Amitabh Bachchan phase started with the Angry Young Man roles, Dilip Kumar found himself at odds. He was larger than life, and the kind of films being made proved to be a misfit for him. 

This can be seen in Gopi (1970), Dastaan (1972), Bairaag (1976), Sagina (1974) - and he even tried to do a multi-starrer with Nasir Hussain’s Zabardast. The film also featured Dharmendra, Rishi Kapoor and Amajd Khan but after shooting a few reels, creative differences between Kumar and Husain prompted the filmmaker to shelve the project.

Dilip Kumar took a sabbatical to return with Manoj Kumar’s Kranti (1980) and found that filmmakers like Subhash Ghai, Ramesh Sippy and writers like Javed Akhtar had managed to come up with films that justified his talent, and at the same time, the narrative did not bow down to Dilip Kumar’s larger-than-life persona. 

Films such as Vidhaata (1982), Shakti (1982), Duniya (1984), Mashaal (1984), and Karma (1986) introduced him to a younger generation of fans. Even the films that were not in the same league, such as Kanoon Apna Apna (1989) and Izzatdaar (1990), proved to be better than the films that Dilip Kumar featured in the late 1970s.

In many ways, Dilip Kumar also created a kind of character that former superstars could play where they didn’t have to look lesser than their younger co-stars in terms of the narrative and not be burdened with carrying the film. Unfortunately, the 1990s reverted Dilip Kumar to the old setting where both Saudagar (1991) and Qilla (1998), also Dilip Kumar’s last film, portrayed him as a forced deus ex-machina. 

The 1990s could also have been the decade where Dilip Kumar ‘officially’ directed a film after Ganga Jumna, which credited Nitin Bose as the director. Dilip Kumar’s Kalinga was a story about a judge, played by him, and his two good for nothing sons, Raj Babbar and Raj Kiran but the long time in the making film went over budget and producer Sudhakar Bokade plugged the plug.

A true trailblazer, Dilip Kumar remained the final word when it came to acting. He continued to inspire generations of actors that followed. Although there had been some instances where Kumar’s actions generated controversy as well, he remained dignified till the end. 

In the early 1980s, he publically declared his second marriage to a divorced Hyderabad-based socialite Asma Sahiba. He refused to return the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s highest civilian honour, in the wake of the Kargil war in 1999. 

There are few legends both on and off the screen and more than his histrionics, the grace with which Dilip Kumar conducted himself would be the thing that millions of people around the world shall remember him for a long time.

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