Bollywood’s ‘tragedy king’ Dilip Kumar passes away at 98

Mohammed Yusuf Khan, known to the world as Dilip Kumar, was an edifice of the Hindu film industry in an era of black and white montages with smidgens of infrastructure and budget.

It is said of Dilip Kumar, who passed away in the early hours of Wednesday, that he was at the vanguard of character acting and his Hollywood counterpart would be Marlon Brando. Bollywood soared new heights with Dilip Kumar.

Dilip Kumar had been admitted to the PD Hinduja Hospital on 30 June for a variety of age-related issues.  “With a heavy heart and profound grief, I announce the passing away of our beloved Dilip Saab a few minutes ago. We are from God and to Him we return,” said the thespian’s longtime aide Faisal Farooqui in a tweet. He was 98.

Dilip Kumar was always the benchmark. He had a direct impact on many actors who worked in his time, from the forties to the nineties. He continues to indirectly impact actors post nineties too, for those who fashioned their acting after him continue to influence many rank newcomers of today.

Perhaps that is the mark of a legend – when the trademark style of your art continues to outlive you, and find new ways to reinvent itself through budding talents who started out long after you quit.

For the record, Dilip Kumar quit acting in 1998. That was the year Yusuf saab – as he was widely known to friends and fans alike – last faced the camera for Umesh Mehra’s Qila. If the actor was never seen on screen over the past two decades since its release, the rest of the film’s primary cast including Rekha, Mukul Dev and Mamta Kulkarni have also all but vanished, and director Mehra stopped making films nearly two decades ago. Qila, an otherwise forgotten attempt, will continue to garner recall value because it was the last film of one of Bollywood’s greatest.

There are tales about Dilip Kumar’s method acting. The most widely-known pertains to the self-produced Gunga-Jumna, the Nitin Bose directorial of 1961 that, many whisper, was ghost-directed by the actor himself.

Coming immediately after his 1961 superhit Mughal-e-Azam, Dilip Kumar is said to have run all around the studio premise, to the point of collapsing, in order to get the right look and feel for his death scene in the film.

The performance is counted among one of the finest by any male actor in mainstream Bollywood, and plot of the film would find resonance in many subsequent Hindi hits, notably Deewar.

If the subject of method acting largely defines Dilip Kumar’s oeuvre, the actor himself tried to deconstruct it in his autobiography Dilip Kumar: The Substance And The Shadow, released in 2015.

“I am an actor who evolved a method, which stood me in good stead,” he says.

That alone explains the consummate acting we saw in all his films, right from his debut effort Jwar Bhata (1944), as well as other notable early roles in Milan  (1946) and Jugnu (1947).

By 1948, only four years into the industry, Dilip Kumar was a busy star.

He had as many as five releases that year – Ghar Ki Izzat, Shaheed, Mela, Anokha Pyar and Nadiya Ke Paar. By the time the last film of the year released and went on to become the biggest hit of 1948, Dilip Kumar was one of Bollywood’s exciting new sensations along with two others – Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand.

The trio would go on to define Hindi cinema in the next decade, and be called Bollywood’s Triumvirate. While each of them carved a niche to ensure greatness, somewhere their individual images as stars summed up the essence of an era that continues to be regarded as the classiest that Hindi cinema has seen.

Dilip Kumar would collaborate with Raj Kapoor, incidentally said to be his childhood friend from Peshawar, on Mehboob Khan’s 1949 love triangle Andaz that co-starred the inimitable Nargis. The film was a superhit upon release and, for the second consecutive year, Dilip Kumar would be part of the year’s highest-grossing film with Andaz.

That was just the start of a dream run. The fifties saw him deliver innumerable superhits including “Jogan” and Babul (1950), “Tarana” and “Deedar” (1951), “Aan” (1952), “Footpath” (1953), “Amar” and “Daag” (1954). “Devdas”, “Azaad” and Uran Khatola” followed in 1955, “Musafir” and “Naya Daur” released in 1957. The spate of memorable roles continued with “Yahudi” and “Madhumati” in 1958, and Dilip Kumar ended the decade with “Paigham” in 1959.

If the decade that ended established the method about Dilip Kumar’s stardom in its versatility, it also prepared fans for the one role that continues to draw automatic recall when you think Dilip Kumar.

The decade started with K. Asif’ s epic Mughal-e-Azam for Dilip Kumar, after the successful Kohinoor the same year. The film became the highest grossing Hindi film of all time upon release.

After the success of Gunga Jumna in 1961, Dilip Kumar would again essay a dual role of a very different mood in Ram Aur Shyam (1967). His other memorable roles in the decade were Aadmi and Sunghursh (1968).

He started out in the seventies with Gopi (1970).

The sixties and the seventies, however, saw the actor slow down in terms of solo releases. The advent of Rajesh Khanna’s brand of romance in the late sixties, and Amitabh Bachchan’s Angry Young Man in the mid-seventies, changed Bollywood trends. The great socials of the fifties and the sixties seemed to be on the wane. Dilip Kumar decided to take a break in 1976, after Bairag.

He would come back, of course, in Manoj Kumar’s 1981 release Kranti.

The film was a multi-starrer, Bollywood’ chosen genre of the eighties, and Dilip Kumar found ready takers in such lavishly-mounted productions that needed multiple heroes across age groups.

He was notably seen in the Subhash Ghai multi-starrers Vidhaata (1982) and Karma (1986) as well as Saudagar in 1991. Two-hero or multi-hero projects as Shakti (1982), Mazdoor (1983), Mashaal (1984) and Duniya (1984) mark his last phase as an actor.

The five decades of acting is balanced by the irony that Dilip Kumar never released a film as director.

In his lifetime, he is said to have been involved with direction twice. He is said to have directed the 1966 drama Dil Diya Dard Liya along with the officially-mentioned helmer, Abdul Rashid Kardar, though he isn’t credited as a director for the project.

Decades later, he would launch the self-starring Kalinga, with Jackie Shroff, Meenakshi Sheshadri and Amitoj Mann. Some say the film was shot, though it never saw light of day.

For a man known to take an active interest in all departments of some of the biggest projects of his heydays, it remains a mystery why Dilip Kumar lost interest in releasing Kalinga. Perhaps the phenomenon, one of 12 children born to a Peshawari fruit merchant, knew when to go cold on a bad business prospect.

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