In the 40s, when the legendary actors K.L. Saigal, Prithviraj Kapoor and Ashok Kumar were still running the show in the Mumbai Film Industry, three superstars
burst into the scene with their debut films lined up within a couple of years to each other – Dilip Kumar with Jwar Bhata (1944), Dev Anand in Hum Ek Hain (1946) and Raj Kapoor with Neel Kamal (1947).
They changed the concept of stardom and in the process revolutionized Indian Cinema!
One of the most popular heroine of the time, Devika Rani and her husband Himanshu Rai, the owner of the famous Bombay Talkies studio spotted young Dilip Kumar and gave him his first break.
And thus, at the age of 22, Mohammed Yusuf Khan, the son of a fruit merchant from Peshawar and at the time a canteen manager by profession, changed his name to Dilip Kumar and tried his luck in acting.
But his first film Jwar Bhata was a big flop and all the critics doubted the debutant’s acting capability! Little did they know that this debutant’s career will span over the next six decades and with over 60 films; that this aspiring actor will be the first recipient of Filmfare Best Actor Award (1954) and will also eventually hold the Guinness World Record for the maximum number of awards won by any Indian actor ever (8 Filmfare Best Actor awards and 19 Filmfare nominations). And in 1993 he was given the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award too.
Dilip Kumar is honored by the Government of India with the Padma Bhushan award in 1991, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1994 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2015 for his contributions towards Indian cinema and is also nominated to Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Indian parliament for a term.
Even the Government of Pakistan honoured him with their highest civilian honour Nishan-e-Imtiaz in 1997!
Dilip Kumar’s image as an actor was primarily that of the ‘Tragedy King”. Hulchul, Jogan, Tarana, Deedar, Daag, Madhumati, Gunga Jumna – in all these films he specialized in playing the intensely passionate, sensitive yet doomed lover (no wonder he was also the ideal ‘Devdas’ for Bimal Roy‘s famous tragic drama Devdas 1955).
Such was his involvement in these tragic roles that he soon suffered from depression in his personal life and following his psychiatrist’s opinion Dilip Saab started acting in light-hearted films and social dramas as well. Such films were Aan, Azaad, Naya Daur, Musafir, Kohinoor.
In the films Ram Aur Shyam and Dastaan he played double roles and in Bairaag he even did a triple role!
His acting capability was probably most appreciated in Mehboob Khan‘s superhit film Andaz (1949) where he was paired opposite to Raj Kapoor and Nargis. And also (towards the last phase of his acting career) in the film Shakti (1982) where he clashed with superstar Amitabh Bachchan.
But Dilip Kumar’s most popular role till date will be as Prince Saleem in K. Asif‘s magnum opus Mughal-E-Azam (1957). His performance – the emotional duels with Prithviraj Kapoor (who played the part of Akbar) and the romantic chemistry with Madhubala (who played Anarkali) have become some of the most proud moments in the history of Indian Cinema.
Dilip Kumar’s use of silence in certain scenes was legendary. Many a times he managed to convey a lot without even speaking a word, only through his eyes, expressions and body language.
And he mastered the technique of turning his back to the camera, hiding his facial emotions from the audience and intensifying the drama of the scene in a unique way.
A famous scene with Raj Kapoor from the film Andaz is a perfect example of such technique.
He was recognized as “the ultimate method actor” by Satyajit Ray himself.
By the way, Dilip Kumar refused the role of “Sherif Ali” which was offered to him by the famous British director David Lean for his film Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The role eventually went to the Egyptian actor, Omar Sharif.
Dilip Saab had great regards for director Bimal Roy with whom he had worked in classics such as Yahudi, Madhumati and Devdas. He fondly remembered him with his kind words: ‘Today we have institutions, they teach cinema, acting etc. We did not have these in our times. We had instead directors like Bimal Roy’.
As Dilip Kumar recently touched 90, we wish him good health and thank him for not only his enormous contribution to Indian Cinema but also for entertaining us for decades by his sheer enigmatic screen presence.
A living legend indeed!
Written By: Souranath Banerjee