"Koi mere dil mein khushi banke aaya…"
Sometimes the lines of a song can truly be prophetic. They cease to be limited by temporal and spatial constraints, and are ever-reaching, long-lasting and seem to almost exercise a magical influence over the lives of individuals who are born decades, sometimes entire eras, after they were originally created.
The line that begins this piece is the opening of a beautiful number by Lata Mangeshkar – 'Koi Mere Dil Mein' from the film Andaz (1949). When I first watched the song on a television programme dedicated to songs from the black-and-white era on a winter night a good three years ago, I had little idea of how these lines would come back to me, this July, and haunt me as to how immensely prophetic they proved to be. For this song was my formal introduction to the thespian, the God of Acting as it were, the legend himself…Dilip Kumar.
As a child, I had heard of Mughal-e-Azam being constantly fêted, praised and appreciated to the extent that I would wonder what was so 'amazing' about it. I watched it first in my mid-teens and decided it was not for me. The beauty of the language was lost on me. The actors seemed too unfamiliar, unknown – merely names and faces from an era long past. Little did I know that I would revisit it, years later, at the age of seventeen, now a committed Dilip Kumar fan.
When I first watched 'Koi Mere Dil Mein', my sole motivation was to watch Nargis, for as a child of nine or ten, I had eagerly watched all of her films with Raj Kapoor and even enjoyed them. And then he entered, in one of the scenes towards the end of the song, his steps at first enthusiastic and then slowing down, as he appreciatively took in the sound of her mellifluous voice – a voice that had been silenced by tragedy in the scenes prior to this song, as I later discovered.
The plot of the film seemed interesting to me when I heard of it and so I decided to watch it. In January, a month after I had seen the song, in the midst of my preparations for my board exams, I found time to watch the film. And less than half an hour into the film, I knew why everyone said what they did about Dilip sahab. There was something inexorably, irresistibly captivating about his performance as the lovelorn Dilip (his character in the film) who loses his heart to the already engaged Neena (Nargis). The first half detailed their friendship while the second half was derailed, for me at least, by plot twists that hinged on suspicions of infidelity and a moral code that is definitely outdated and therefore alienating to twenty-first century audiences. But the first half drew me into the world of Neena and Dilip – the summer afternoons spent horse-riding and playing badminton, their social lives and milieus oddly familiar because they seemed to draw heavily from the classic novels that I had grown up reading.
But what enthralled me more was that the character of Dilip seemed to represent an era that I found myself craving. In the age of 'swipe right', as a teenager who had constantly read English classics that contained the most flowery proposals and charming male protagonists, I fell hopelessly in love with a character who loved his dearest friend with all his heart and soul, was kind to her and cared for her in the face of tragedy. On a more superficial level, he was mostly attired in sharp suits, brought flowers almost every time he came to meet a young lady and always addressed her with the respectful "aap". This was wonderful to see and hear in an age when the delicacy and formal elegance of spoken and written language are gradually being relaxed in favour of more casual speech.
But what drew me even more to Dilip sahab's performance was his commitment to always underplay. As someone deeply interested in writing and acting, I admired him for his ability to quietly understand the subtext and the subtle unfolding tensions in an ongoing scene and yet remain focused on making a character seem believable. The reason many performances of a certain era may not be appreciated by some of my generation, whose see them as theatrical, loud and almost unbelievable, is perhaps being exposed to the subtleties of acting in world cinema and recent Indian cinema. Dilip Kumar rose above all that. He was someone who could convey an entire emotional journey in just the delivery of one line. For example, a line in Andaz goes thus – "Kabhi na kabhi? Iss kabhi mein toh bada intezaar hai." Delivered in a low voice but filled with a intense ardour, we are immediately made aware of how deeply he has fallen in love with Neena. But much earlier, he conveys this to us by not even speaking a word. We watch him look as Neena exits a room, his hand ruffling his hair, an impish smile on his handsome face conveying an emotion for which other actors may require entire scenes. A better example of this is the song 'Toote Na Dil Toote Na' from the same film. His character discovers that the love of his life is already engaged to another man, Rajan (Raj Kapoor). He is urged to sing a song for both of them and he begins, in characteristic Bollywood hero style, crooning a ballad of heartbreak. And it is here that I realised the full extent of his acting prowess. Other actors would have attempted to go the conventional way, showing a quiver of the lips, the eyes filling with predictable tears. But not Dilip sahab. He shows a rare depth and allows for fresh interpretations of heartbreak, conveying it with a small wry smile. And yet, in the oceans of his dark haunting eyes, one sees nothing but sadness.
Perhaps one of the hallmarks of a great actor is that they are able to convince you to briefly forget your own perspective and to look at the world through the eyes of the character. When I watched Deedar, I realised that I found a major decision taken by his character at the climax of the film not entirely appropriate. In fact one could say, viewing the film from the standpoint of the twenty-first century, it almost seems to glorify his decision. But keeping this aside, if one were to view it from the lens of performance alone, then Dilip sahab draws you into the headspace of his character in those five minutes or so – a man besieged by conflicting voices in his head, a man who must decide what is greater for him, his own life or the purpose of his life, the woman he loves. Must he decide to make use of the gift of new vision that he has been granted at the expense of seeing his ladylove with a man who is not him? Or would eternal darkness be more bearable?
Of course no article or essay on Dilip sahab is complete without a mention of Mughal-e-Azam. Revisiting the film after I had become an ardent fan, I realised that I was hopelessly in love with the world of the film – with the beauty of its language, with its poetic songs, but most of all with the intensity of its performances. It is a film that not only encapsulates the personal histories and trials and tribulations of its characters, but that also has the haunting subtext of imitating life (Dilip Kumar was in love with Madhubala, and they play lovers in the film). And yet it is Dilip sahab's quiet yet powerful performance of a man torn between love and duty that remains unforgettable.
We live in an age of shortcuts. But when one looks at Dilip sahab, all one sees is his extreme commitment to his craft. His intense desire for perfectionism. I watched 'Madhuban Mein Radhika Naache Re', a song from Kohinoor, a month ago and was simply mesmerised by how authentically he seemed to be able to lip-sync the sargam. Later I read that he had trained for a good six months in the rigours of classical music for the film.
In the recent weeks preceding his demise, I found my thoughts somehow going back to him. I reflected on his life, on the multiple roles he played, on the treasures of performances he gifted us. Just two days before the heartbreaking 7th of July, I found myself revisiting 'Toote na dil toote na', the song almost seeming to reflect an unconscious fervent prayer from within myself.
But in a long life of 98 years and a career spanning over four decades, Dilip sahab ensured that with his range of performances, every successive generation would be able to watch his work and find in it a glimpse of the oceans of talent that he possessed.
To conclude, I return to the lines of the song that I began this piece with – Koi mere dil mein, khushi bannnke aaya – and to continue: andhera tha ghar, roshni banke aaya. These two lines perfectly encapsulate what Dilip sahab meant to generations of film-goers.
Farewell, Dilip sahab. There will be no one like you. We will miss you.