Dilip Kumar is regarded as arguably the greatest actor ever to grace the Indian silver screen. His performances have been regarded as the epitome of emoting in Indian Cinema. Though he has done all kinds of films – he balanced a lightweight Shabnam (1949) with the intense love triangle Andaz (1949), the ultra-serious look at alcoholism, Daag (1952), with the swashbuckling Aan (1952), the heavy Devdas (1955) with the entertainer Azaad (1955), he is mainly remembered as the King of Tragedy.
Dilip Kumar was born in Peshawar (now Pakistan) on December 11, 1922 as Yusuf Khan in a Pathan Family of 12 children, who later moved to Maharashtra as fruit merchants. From being the assistant manager in an army canteen, he set up his own fruit stall. In Bombay, he was given his first break by Devika Rani, who cast him as the hero of Bombay Talkies Jwar Bhatta (1944). Films like Pratima (1945) and Milan (1946) at Bombay Talkies followed before he attained stardom with Jugnu (1947) opposite singing diva Noor Jehan.
The success of Shaheed (1948) and Mela (1948), a Devdas type of film set Dilip Kumar off in a chain of films were he played a doomed lover – Andaz (1949), which made him a superstar and which also co-starred Raj Kapoor, the only time they came together in a film, Babul (1950), Jogan (1950), Deedar (1951), Udan Khatola (1955) and of course, Devdas. But while he was highly appreciated in these films, at times, his studied mannerisms, influenced by Hollywood actor Paul Muni, especially in his tragedy roles gave his characters a heavy-handedness that could be quite difficult to take – like in parts of Devdas and particularly in the adaptation of Wuthering Heights – Dil Diya Dard Liya (1966).
Playing mostly serious roles, however, began to take its toll on him and on psychiatric advice, Dilip Kumar switched over to do more light-hearted musical films and what’s more actually appeared quite at home in them. In fact, in films like Azaad, and Kohinoor (1960), he showed an unhibited sense of freedom and enjoyment, a marked difference from his tragic roles.
Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Kohinoor and Gunga Jumna (1961) marked the peak of Dilip Kumar’s career. But though his performance as Prince Jehangir in the former has often been rated as among his best ever, he actually looks strangely uncomfortable and labored in the film. In fact, even Filmfare gave him the Best Actor Award that year – his 5th – for Kohinoor and not Mughal-e-Azam. Gunga Jumna, however, was a flawless performance as a young man forced to become a dacoit and perhaps the greatest of his career. His Bhojpuri dialect in the film was perfect, he made a most convincing anti-hero and it was shocking he lost the Filmfare Award that year to Raj Kapoor for Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960). He did, however win one for his next, Leader (1964). The other films that Dilip Kumar won the Filmfare Award for Best Actor till then were Daag, Azaad, Devdas and Naya Daur (1957).
Interestingly, Dilip Kumar refused Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) feeling that the character of the poet Vijay in the film was just an extension of his role in Devdas. He also turned down 20th Century Fox’s offer of The Rains Came and David Lean’s offer of the role which ultimately went to Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and which made a major Hollywood star out of Omar Sharif. However to quote Dilip Kumar, “In your own bazaar you enjoy a certain status. What’s the point of venturing out into fields unknown where you have no say? No contact with the subject matter.”
On the personal side, he is said to been involved with actresses Kamini Kaushal and Madhubala. There were also talks about the likelihood of him getting married to Waheeda Rehman but he finally married Saira Banu in 1966. He was absolutely brilliant in the comedy Ram Aur Shyam (1967) essaying a double role of twins, one timid and one full of bravado. Though a tad too old for the roles, he more than made up for it with his performance(s) as he displayed some razor sharp comic timing, winning yet another Filmfare Award for Best Actor. However, post Ram Our Shyam, his career ran out of steam in the late 1960s and 70s as his films began to come unstuck at the box office. He also got into a second marriage with socialite Asma Rehman later in the early 1980s but ended that marriage within two years returning to Banu.
Meanwhile, taking a break from acting after the disastrous box office performance of Bairaag (1976), where he, it has to be said, effectively played a triple role, he made a grand comeback in central character roles with Manoj Kumar’s Kranti (1981), Subhash Ghai’s Vidhaata (1982) and Ramesh Sippy’s Shakti (1982), where his larger than life author-backed role confirmed his legendary status. It was yet another brilliant performance. To quote one of the writers of the film, Salim Khan, “We were amazed that he has given a whole new dimension to the character we had written. It happens very rarely that you have a competent script and the film goes beyond what you imagined. Dilip Kumar understood the character and enhanced it his own way.”
Shakti was also perhaps Director Ramesh Sippy’s best film, Sholay notwithstanding. But unfortunately, the film, co-starring him and Amitabh Bachchan playing an estranged father-son duo, failed at the box-office. But it did win Dilip Kumar yet another Filmfare Award for Best Actor, his 8th.
Dilip Kumar continued to do strong central character roles to the mid 1990s. Sadly, his first official directorial venture Kalinga still lies unreleased.
Dilip Kumar also served as Sheriff of Bombay in 1980. The Government of India bestowed the Padma Bhushan on him in 1991 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2015. He was also awarded the Dadsaheb Phalke Award for his contribution to Indian cinema in 1995 at a function honouring the best films of 1994 in the country. Besides these, the Government of Pakistan conferred Kumar with the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, the highest civilian award in Pakistan, in 1998.
Dilip Kumar’s acting has inspired many Indian actors to try and copy his style but none have even remotely been able to match him. Which just goes on to prove that Dilip Kumar was, sorry… is truly one and one of a kind.