Dilip Kumar is regarded as arguably the greatest actor ever to grace the Indian silver screen with many of his performances regarded as the epitome of emoting for the camera. 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 fun entertainer Azaad (1955), he is mainly remembered for his tragic love stories and was known, in fact, as the ‘King of Tragedy’.
Dilip Kumar was born in Peshawar (then in undivided India, now in Pakistan) on December 11, 1922 as Mohammed Yusuf Khan in a Pathan family of 12 children, who later moved to Bombay, now Mumbai, in Maharashtra and settled there as fruit merchants. Due to a disagreement with his father, he moved away to Pune for a while. From being the assistant manager in an army canteen there, he set up his own fruit stall. Returning to Bombay, he was spotted and given his first break by Devika Rani, no less, who cast him as the hero of Bombay Talkies Jwar Bhata (1944). He was given a rather royal salary of Rs 1,250 a month by the Studio and took on the screen name he would forever be associated with – Dilip Kumar. Initially, the going was tough. His performance in Jwar Bhata made no major impact and in a review of the film, Filmindia editor Baburao Patel cruelly remarked that his acting in the film amounted to nil. However, Bombay Talkies persisted with the young man. Films like Pratima (1945) and Milan (1946) at the studio followed before he finally broke through and attained stardom with Jugnu (1947), the tale of an ill-fated romance, opposite singing diva Noor Jehan. Incidentally, the film was also the breakthrough film for singer Mohammed Rafi, who would go on to have a long, long association with Dilip Kumar as his ‘voice’. There was a period in the early 1950s, though, when it was Talat Mahmood who was, in fact, Dilip Kumar’s go to voice. Mahmood’s silken and quivering voice helped build Dilip Kumar’s tragic lover image immensely.
The success of Shaheed (1948), wherein he played a freedom fighter who fights against the British and sacrifices his life for the Nation, and Mela (1948), a Devdas type of film reiterated his aptness for tragic romances and set Dilip Kumar off in a chain of films were he played the doomed lover – Andaz , a performance duly appreciated by Filmindia and which made him a big star 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 method acting and studied mannerisms (influenced by Hollywood actor Paul Muni) gave his characters a touch of the heavy-handedness, particularly in AR Kardar’s adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights – Dil Diya Dard Liya (1966).
The bigger side effect of playing mostly serious and tragic roles, however, began to take its mental toll on him and so on psychiatric advice, he switched over to do more light-hearted musical films between his serious ones and what’s more, he actually appeared quite at home in them. In fact, in films like Azaad, where he played a Robin Hood type of character, and Kohinoor (1960), an entertaining costume drama, he showed an uninhibited sense of freedom and enjoyment, a marked difference from his more-famous serious roles.
After typically strong performances in Mehboob’s Amar (1954), playing a shaded character, who in a weak moment, rapes a woman, BR Chopra’s Naya Daur (1957), Musafir (1957) where he even did his own playback and rather well for the song Laagi Naahi Chhute – a duet with Lata Mangeshkar, Yahudi (1958), Madhumati (1958), both helmed by the great Bimal Roy, and SS Vasan’s Paigham (1959), Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Kohinoor, for which he specially learnt to play the sitar, 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, it has to be said that he was, perhaps, overshadowed in the film by by Madhubala who gives a performance of a lifetime as the doomed courtesan, Anarkali. In fact, even Filmfare gave him the Best Actor Award that year – his 5th at the time following Daag, Azaad, Devdas and Naya Daur – for Kohinoor and not Mughal-e-Azam. Kohinoor saw him excel in comedy, a highlight being the scene where he does a ‘Groucho Marx’ with Jeevan in the famous mirror scene inspired from Ducksoup (1932). Gunga Jumna, however, leaves no room for such doubts. It is a flawless act by him in a film that is perhaps his all time best as he portrays a young man forced by circumstances to become a dacoit. He responds with perhaps the greatest performance of his career. Said to be ghost-directed by him though officially the film credits Nitin Bose with the direction, his Bhojpuri dialect in the film was perfect and he made a most convincing anti-hero to say the least. It was shocking that he lost the Filmfare Award for Best Actor that year to Raj Kapoor for Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960). He did, however win one for his next, Leader (1964), though he is better than the film, and subsequently for the overtly commercial but enjoyable potboiler Ram Aur Shyam (1967) – playing the titular roles – and Shakti (1982).
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 Sharif. Justifying his decision, Dilip Kumar had remarked, “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 was involved with actresses Kamini Kaushal with whom he did 4 films – Nadiya Ke Par (1948), Shaheed, Shabnam and Arzoo (1950) – and later, Madhubala. The Madhubala-Dilip Kumar romance began when they were filming Tarana (1951) together. They then co-starred in Sangdil (1952), an adaptation of Jane Eyre, Amar and of course, Mughal-e-Azam. The two were also starring together in Naya Daur but Madhubala’s father, who was against the romance, refused to let her go for the film’s outdoor schedule. This led to her being replaced in the film by Vyjayanthimala. Madhubala’s father took Chopra to court for dropping her from the film, while Chopra filed a counter suit against him. In court, Dilip Kumar took Chopra’s side even as he publicly admitted his love for Madhubala. Her father lost the case and their love story came to a tragic end. In fact, they shot some intensely romantic portions for Mughal-e-Azam after their break up! There were also talks about the likelihood of him getting married to Waheeda Rehman but he finally married Saira Banu in 1966.
Meanwhile on the professional front, he was absolutely brilliant in the comedy Ram Aur Shyam 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 fine comic timing, winning yet another Filmfare Award for Best Actor. However, post Ram Aur Shyam, his career ran out of steam in the late 1960s and 70s as his films began to suffer qualitatively and what’s more, 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 and returned to Banu.
After taking a break from acting after the disastrous box office performance of Bairaag (1976), where he 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 of an upright police officer 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 (1975) notwithstanding. But unfortunately, the film, co-starring him and Amitabh Bachchan playing an estranged father-son duo, did not do anywhere as well as expected at the box-office. It did deservedly win Dilip Kumar yet another Filmfare Award for Best Actor, his 8th.
Dilip Kumar continued to do strong central character roles like Mazdoor (1983), Mashal (1984), Karma (1986) and Saudagar (1991). His last rebased film was Qila (1998). Sadly, his first official directorial venture, Kalinga, could not be completed and still lies unreleased.
Dilip Kumar also served as Sheriff of Bombay in 1980. The awards and honours have been, as expected, plentiful. The Government of India bestowed the Padma Bhushan on him in 1991 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2015. He was also awarded the prestigious 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 truly a one of a kind thespian. He passed away in Bombay on July 7, 2021 at the ripe old age of 98. With his death, yet another connection with Hindi cinema’s golden age has come to an end.