Dilip Kumar aka Mohammed Yusuf Khan passed away at the age of 98. Beginning with his first film Jwar Bhata in 1944, to his last acting venture Qila (1998), Dilip Kumar’s career in Hindi cinema spans more than five decades. He won the Filmfare Award for Best Actor, a record eight times (now matched by Shah Rukh Khan). Together with Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, he formed the formidable troika of actors who came to be known as the ‘Big 3’ of Hindi cinema in the 1950s. It could, however, be argued that Kumar was indeed the first among these equals so far as acting skills are concerned. In the book Bollywood’s Top 20: Superstars of Indian Cinema, film critic Maithili Rao is quoted as saying, “Kumar towered like a mountain in the middle of Hindi film history, obscuring his predecessors and dwarfing his contemporaries.”
With a heavy heart and profound grief, I announce the passing away of our beloved Dilip Saab, few minutes ago.
We are from God and to Him we return. – Faisal Farooqui
— Dilip Kumar (@TheDilipKumar) July 7, 2021
Dilip Kumar’s legacy, therefore, is too big to reduce to a couple of paragraphs. But in the nascent Hindi film industry of the 1940s, which was still coping with technical advancements in the medium, Kumar’s greatest contribution was that he was original. As legendary scriptwriter Salim Khan notes in Kumar’s autobiography, Dilip Kumar: The Substance and The Shadow, “When Dilip Sahab joined films in 1944, he observed that actors in films were loud and dramatic, thanks to the influence of the Parsi theatre. He was among the first to underplay a role and bring nuances to a performance: for example his use of long pauses and deliberate silence created a very unusual impact on audiences.”
It is extremely difficult then to shortlist a handful of films for a man, whom many have regarded as an institution on acting. But if one wanted to contextualize his genius, these ten films would be a good starting point.
A seminal film in Hindi cinema for its portrayal of Western modernity. Kumar acted in Andaaz after a string of hits that included Jugnu (1947), Nadiya Ke Paar (1948), Shaheed (1948) and Shabnam (1949). Andaaz is a love triangle, featuring Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Nargis. Kumar’s character has shades of grey, and eventually gets killed, but while he is on screen, he brings many layers to his performance. He is heroic as the spurned lover in his confrontation with Kapoor’s character, but is equally repulsive when he assaults Neena (Nargis). The film journalist Rauf Ahmed, in his essay, ‘An Emperor Among Actors’ on Dilip Kumar for Bollywood’s Top 20: Superstars of Indian Cinema, remarks of Kumar’s character in Andaaz, “Even though both Raj Kapoor and Nargis were at their best as the couple in love, Dilip towers over them with a brilliantly calibrated range of expressions, which gives his character with negative streaks a new dimension.”
Dilip Kumar plays the suave, sophisticated lawyer, Amar, who on the cusp of his wedding, rapes a village girl in this Mehboob Khan film. This kind of criminal characterization was something of a bold choice for Kumar, because the Hindi film hero of the 1950s was always steeped in decency. He could be a man of the streets, but he was always the ‘good guy’. This perhaps was the reason that the film didn’t do too well. Author Madhulika Liddle, who also writes about classic Hindi cinema on her popular blog Dustedoff, calls it “the most radical role Dilip Kumar played.” She adds, “Amar’s life becomes a vortex of guilt and anguish: a side of an otherwise likeable character that could have been ruined by melodrama. But Dilip Kumar plays this complex character with so much realism and subtlety that he makes even a very grey personality relatable.”
Essaying the titular character of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s classic novel especially after KL Saigal had already played the role in the 1936 film was always going to be a difficult task. But Kumar brought out the pathos and suffering of Chatterjee’s protagonist in a way that only he could. Kumar, as Devdas, strikes such a despondent note as he broods for his love interest Paro (Suchitra Sen) that even the most hardened man is left teary-eyed. His delivery of that emotional zinger, “Kaun kambhakt hai jo bardaasht karne ke liye peeta hai”, plumbs the depths of absolute hopelessness. In an interview to rediff almost two decades ago, Kumar spoke on the difficulty in playing Devdas at such a young age. “It is difficult to cope when you are a youngster and brimming with interest,” he said. “You have to give a lot of your spirit and emotion, you begin to introspect and it gets you down in the long run.”
Championing the cause of Nehruvian socialism, Dilip Kumar plays the spirited Shankar in this BR Chopra classic. Shankar exemplifies the dignity and spirit of the working class against the ruthless march of mechanization. Unlike most of his other acclaimed roles, which saw him wallow in tears and tragedy, Kumar, as Shankar, is brimming with self-confidence. This film also has two memorable songs picturized on Dilip Kumar, ‘Ude jab jab zulfein teri’ and ‘Yeh desh hai veer jawaano ka’. Yash Chopra, who worked as an assistant director on this film, had an interesting anecdote about how Kumar came on board Naya Daur. When the Chopras first approached him, Kumar turned the film down because he was doing two films at the time. Kumar did not do more than two films simultaneously. However, because the director of one of the films passed on, Kumar called up the Chopras and told them that he was available for Naya Daur.
Watching Dilip Kumar in, ‘Tootey huey khwaabon ne’, is a master class on how to convey pain and suffering through song. Starring in this Bimal Roy film that had a paranormal subtext, Kumar comes up with his signature doomed romantic performance as he unravels the mystery of his missing lover Madhumati (Vyjayanthimala). Incidentally, Kumar forged a formidable partnership with the actress, starring opposite her in a number of acclaimed films such as those mentioned on this list and including Paigham (1959), Leader (1964) and Sunghursh (1968). According to Rinki Roy Bhattacharya, Bimal Roy’s daughter, Madhumati went over budget since nearly 80% of it was reshot. Kumar arranged a special screening of the film for the distributors and said he was giving up Rs. 70,000/- to help Roy. The actor asked the distributors if they would do the same. The distributors agreed and when the film became a hit, they all recovered their costs.
Mughal-e-Azam was made on a whopping budget of approximately Rs. 1.5 crores when the average budget for a film with big stars at that time was Rs 12-15 lakhs. Many would argue that Kumar’s character (Salim) actually played second fiddle to the core dramatic conflict between Shahenshah Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor) and Anarkali (Madhubala) in the film. But Kumar shone in what was a remarkably understated role. Audiences felt for him even though he did not have a single song to express his passion for Anarkali. Amusingly, Saira Banu, Kumar’s wife, remembers the love story unfolding between her and Kumar while Mughal-e-Azam was nearing its release. “For an entire week before the premiere of Mughal-e-Azam, I prepared myself for the event, draping my mother’s saris, applying and reapplying nail varnish, wearing high heels and practising to walk confidently in them just to be noticed and acknowledged by Dilip sahab,” Banu recalled.
Kumar delivers a paisa-vasool performance as he plays the elder sibling Ganga. He rages against the vile zamindar (Anwar Hussain), but he turns emotional too when he thinks of how he has failed his brother (Nasir Khan). He romances Dhannu (Vyjayanthimala) with a distinct sense of mischievousness, but we also see his helplessness when he is chased by the villagers. Nasreen Munni Kabir, author and documentary filmmaker, notes: “In the early ’60s, there were three ‘daaku’ films: Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1961), Mujhe Jeene Do (1963) and Ganga Jumna. But GJ stands out entirely because of Dilip Kumar’s exceptional powers. He is both actor and star as Ganga. He gets the accent and diction right, the humour and intensity right, the vulnerability and anger right. No wonder he has set the bar so high.” Kumar’s contribution to this film, though, goes beyond his acting since he wrote its story as well.
Playing a pair of twin siblings, with absolutely contrasting personalities, Dilip Kumar stood up to the challenge with sheer aplomb in this remake of a Telugu film. He is shy and cowardly as Ram, but brings much laughter and swag in his other avatar as Shyam. Even when he is over-the-top in some of the situational comedy scenes in the film, he is good enough to not let his performance turn into a poor caricature. Perhaps it was this versatility that led legendary actor Pran, who played the villain Gajendra in Ram Aur Shyam, to pick Kumar as the better actor over his other illustrious peers. In his biography, …and Pran, the actor is noted saying, “Dev Anand has developed a certain style for himself. Raj Kapoor did develop as an actor but one he reached a certain point, he stopped developing and growing as an actor. On the other hand, Dilip Kumar is still growing.”
The Ramesh Sippy film where Kumar locks horns with Amitabh Bachchan. The duo play father and son, but are on opposite sides, with Kumar enacting a cop and Bachchan’s Vijay having run foul of the law. Both men are conflicted between their own ideals and filial ties. If Vijay is simmering with hurt, then Kumar’s character holds back his paternal love in the name of duty. Squaring off against the Angry Young Man, Kumar gives a terrifically restrained performance. Apparently when fellow contemporary, and good friend, Raj Kapoor saw Shakti, he telephoned Kumar at midnight, and told him, “There is just one Dilip Kumar!” Bachchan, who has consistently revered Kumar, said about his idol, “I have admired his performances… I have admired his clarity of speech. Clarity in speech is to me the greatest acumen for an actor. You cannot have clarity of speech without the understanding of its graph and tenor.”
Kumar plays the role of the elderly jailor, Rana Vishwa Pratak Singh aka Dada Thakur. After the vile Dr. Dang (Anupam Kher) break free from his prison, Dada Thakur enrolls three convicts in his mission to bring Dang back to justice. The good thing about Kumar’s role is that he looks absolutely comfortable playing his age. He is unafraid of Dang and his henchmen, but is most fatherly with his younger wards. As he attempts to make them turn a new leaf, he remains a strict disciplinarian, but reveals his softer side when the need arises. Subhash Ghai, who made Karma, directed Kumar in two other films, Vidhaata (1982) and Saudagar (1991). He told the film journalist Roshmila Bhattacharya on the huge impact Kumar had on his filmmaking. ‘Dilip Kumar taught me how to understand the philosophy of my film’s story and the psychology of my characters,” Ghai said.