Dilip Kumar, first of the Khans of Indian cinema

Tracing journey of 'ultimate method actor'

Cinema

July 8, 2021

/ By / Kolkata

An era of a magical smile and deep impressionism on celluloid took its final bow as Dilip Kumar, the thespian of Indian cinema, died yesterday in Mumbai's Hinduja Hospital at the age of 98. He was suffering from prolonged illness and was admitted to the hospital last Wednesday as he complained of breathlessness.

As cinema slowly achieved the position of the single largest disseminator of popular culture in India post-independence, Dilip Kumar, whose real name was Mohammed Yusuf Khan, slowly emerged as the first romantic icon of the country. With films such as Devdas (1955) and Mughal-e-Azam (1960), he became the pioneer and was the last surviving star of the ‘Golden era’ of Indian cinema. His last film was Qila (1998), directed by Umesh Mehra.

The recipient of Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and the Dada Saheb Phalke award in India and Pakistan’s highest civilian honour, Nishan-e-Imtiaz, Dilip Kumar’s demise is mourned by both countries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan PM Imran Khan have expressed their condolences and paid tributes to the actor.

True to the standing the legend enjoyed, not just on the silver screen, Dilip Kumar’s residence in Pali Hill in Bandra, Mumbai witnessed VIPs from across professions who had come to pay their last respects. Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray personally visited his bungalow and the state government also accorded the thespian a State funeral, with a 21-gun salute and a police band performed during his final journey. He was laid to rest at Juhu Qabristan (burial ground) in Mumbai. Hundreds of people gathered outside the graveyard, honouring the star that had ruled the Hindi cinema for decades. Funeral prayers were also offered near his ancestral house at Mohallah Khudadad, Qissa Khawani Bazaar in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Early career

A career that spanned for almost six decades, 58 years precisely, was bestowed with performances that saw immaculate dialogue deliveries and deep expressions, Dilip Kumar leaves a body of work reminiscent of unforgettable memories that defined Indian cinema. In a tweet expressing his condolences, actor Amitabh Bachchan rightly pointed out that there will be an era before and after Dilip Kumar whenever Indian cinema would be discussed.

He made his debut in 1944 with Jwar Bhata and then Jugnu (1947) with Noor Jehan. It was his second film that gave propelled him into the limelight and it was the first major hit for the rookie actor dreaming to make it big in a city that was called Bombay at that time. Jugnu was the highest-grossing film in the year of India’s independence and the success followed him to his next project with childhood friend Raj Kapoor and Nargis, Andaz (1949). The story that delved into a love triangle once again became the highest-grossing film in India.

Back-to-back hit films followed as Dilip Kumar kept on mesmerising the Indian cine lovers with films such as Deedar [1951]. He also played Devdas in the eponymous 1955 film, an adaptation of a Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay novella and it instantly made Kumar the ‘Tragedy King’ of Bollywood, the only superstar who excelled in this form at the time of Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand.

Later, in several interviews, he spoke of the toll that playing these tragic roles took on his mental health. Later on, as suggested by his psychiatrist, Kumar decided to do light-hearted roles and did entertaining films such as Aan (1952), Azaad (1955) and Kohinoor (1960).

It was again in 1960 that the thespian gave a masterpiece of a performance as Mughal Prince Salim in another tragedy that, however, went on to define his entire career and indeed has left an indelible mark on the entire Indian film industry. Mughal-e-Azam, the landmark film of Indian cinema as well as Dilip Kumar’s career, came in the year 1960. A film that made INR 55 million at the box office, Mughal-e-Azam became the all-time highest-grossing film of Indian cinema.

Second innings – Character roles

After being the iconic romantic young man of Indian cinema and romancing the best in business, Dilip Kumar took a break of five years from mainstream cinema in 1976. He perhaps realised his fading magic as a lead actor and then resolved to get back stronger. He returned to the silver screen in 1981 with the film Kranti and from there on he continued to do character roles in memorable films such as Vidhaata (1982), Saudagar (1991), Mashaal (1984) and Karma (1986).

Dilip Kumar also got an opportunity that was rare in the Indian film industry of the epoch to act in an international project. He was offered the role of Sherif Ali by British director David Lean for the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Kumar, however, declined the offer.

Dilip Kumar is the only actor in Indian cinema to hold a Guinness World Record for winning the highest number of awards for an Indian actor. He was conferred with 8 Filmfare awards for Best Actor and one lifetime achievement award along with one Special Recognition Filmfare Award for being the first actor to win the Best Actor Award.

Indian cinema of the era had three famed princes in the likes of Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar. With the demise of Kumar, the last of the triumvirate leaves us with a legacy of work that will inspire generations of actors and filmmakers to come. An erudite Pathan from Peshawar, a person who had command over multiple languages such as Hindi, Urdu, English, Bengali, Marathi, Punjabi, Awadhi and Bhojpuri and a man who was well-versed with the Quran as well as the Bhagavad Gita, Kumar and his stories can be better read and contemplated from his autobiography, The Substance and the ShadowAn Autobiography.

The era of smiling romanticism and tragic heroism comes to an end, but Dilip Kumar’s rich legacy will continue to tell the stories to generations to come.

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