Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Dilip Kumar, who brought realism to Bollywood, dies at 98

As one of the country's earliest method actors, he was often compared to Marlon Brando, another early adopter of the technique, even though Kumar credited himself with using it first

By Baradwaj Rangan
Published: Jul 7, 2021

Dilip Kumar, who brought realism to Bollywood, dies at 98Image: Jonathan Evans / Reuters

Dilip Kumar, the last of a triumvirate of actors who ruled Hindi cinema in the 1950s and ’60s, died Wednesday at Hinduja hospital in Mumbai, India. He was 98.

His death was confirmed by Faisal Farooqui, a family friend, who posted a brief statement on Kumar’s official Twitter account.

In post-independence India, Kumar and two other stars set about defining the Hindi film hero. Raj Kapoor reflected the newly minted Indian’s confusion: his signature role was that of the Chaplinesque naïf negotiating a world that was losing its innocence. Dev Anand, known as the Gregory Peck of India, embodied a Western insouciance that still lingered; he became a stylish matinee idol.

Kumar, though, delved deeply into his characters, breaking free from the semaphoric silent-movie style of acting popularized by megastars like Sohrab Modi and Prithviraj Kapoor.

As one of the country’s earliest Method actors, he was often compared to Marlon Brando, another early adopter of the technique, even though Kumar credited himself with using it first.

“I learned the importance of studying the script and characters deeply and building upon my own gut observations and sensations about my own and other characters,” Kumar said in his autobiography, “The Substance and the Shadow” (2014). “The truth is that I am an actor who evolved a method.”

His preparation for roles became the stuff of legends. For his death scene in the 1961 megahit, “Gunga Jumna,” he ran around the studio so that he could enter the set at a point of exhaustion.

For a song sequence in the 1960 film “Kohinoor” (“Mountain of Light”), he learned to play the sitar. For emotional sequences in the 1982 movie “Shakti” (“Power”) and the 1984 movie “Mashaal” (“Torch”), he drew from memories of when his brother died, recalling the pain that registered on his father’s face.

Kumar was born Yousuf Khan in Peshawar (then part of British India, now in Pakistan) on Dec. 11, 1922, the fourth of 12 children to Ayesha and Mohammad Sarwar Khan. His father was a fruit merchant. and moved the family to Bombay, now known as Mumbai, then to Deolali, in west India, where Dilip attended the Barnes School. He then enrolled in Khalsa College in Bombay.

He wanted to play soccer or cricket professionally, but the family’s economic situation forced him to look for work elsewhere. For a time he was an assistant in an army canteen in Poona (now Pune).

A chance encounter with a former teacher changed his life. When he said he was looking for a job, the teacher introduced him to the pioneering Indian actress Devika Rani, who, along with Himanshu Rai, had established the Bombay Talkies studio. The idea was to get a job, any job, but Rani asked if he would consider becoming an actor. Kumar, who had seen only one film in his life — a war documentary — was flummoxed, but the money persuaded him. Rani also said that taking on a Hindu screen name to obscure his Muslim background would help his career. He became Dilip Kumar.

His first film, “Jwar Bhata” (“Ebb and Flow”), in 1944, was a flop, with Baburao Patel, the acerbic critic of Film India, calling him “an anemic addition to our film artistes.” But in 1947, his performance in “Jugnu” (“Firefly”), alongside Noor Jehan, received more favorable attention. By the time “Shaheed” (“Martyr”) was released a year later, Patel was singing his praises: “Dilip Kumar steals the picture with his deeply felt and yet natural delineation of the main role.”

The hits kept coming, including “Nadiya Ke Paar” (“Across the River”), “Shabnam” (“Dewdrops”) and Mehboob Khan’s “Andaz” (“Style”), where Kumar was cast with Kapoor and the actress Nargis. In 1954, Kumar won the newly instituted Filmfare Award for best actor for his performance as an alcoholic in the tragic love story “Daag” (“The Stain”). He won seven more Filmfare statuettes for best actor in addition to a Lifetime Achievement Award. Guinness World Records honored him on his 97th birthday for his “matchless contribution” to Indian cinema.

Many of his early films had him chasing unattainable women. The 1950 melodrama “Jogan” (“Nun”), ends with him weeping at his lover’s grave. That same year, he played a Heathcliff-like character in “Arzoo” (“Desire”), one of three variations of “Wuthering Heights” that he acted in.

He earned the nickname “Tragedy King” after acting in a series of dramas that a psychiatrist later said took a toll on his health. In one of them, the 1951 movie “Deedar” (“Sight”), he plays a blind man whose eyesight is restored through surgery. But he blinds himself again when he realizes that he and the surgeon are in love with the same woman. (To prepare for the role, Kumar observed a blind beggar at Bombay Central Railway Station.)

One of Kumar’s best-known tragedies is Bimal Roy’s “Devdas” (1955), about a man who becomes an alcoholic when his childhood sweetheart deserts him.

Kumar’s love life also made news; he had relationships with actresses Kamini Kaushal, Madhubala (they made the 1960 blockbuster “Mughal-e-Azam,” about thwarted lovers, long after they broke up) and Saira Banu, whom he married in 1966 when he was 44 and she was 22. In the 1980s, while still married to Banu, Kumar married socialite Asma Rehman in secret. The news was quickly outed and it became a scandal, but Banu stuck with Kumar, who ended the second marriage. He is survived by Banu.

Professionally, Kumar’s record was spotless, with films that have not only been successful but have left a lasting impact. Films like “Naya Daur” (“New Era”) in 1957, “Yahudi” (“The Jews”) in 1958, “Madhumati,” also in 1958 and “Ram Aur Shyam” (“Ram and Shyam”) in 1967 are still remembered today.

In the 1970s, Kumar found fewer roles as younger, more agile actors were cast as heroes, and he took a break.

He returned in 1981 with a blockbuster, “Kranti” (“Revolution”), that reshaped his screen persona as the older moral center. He had similar roles in star-heavy mega-productions like “Vidhaata” (“The Creator”) in 1982, “Karma” (1986), Saudagar (“The Merchant”) in 1991 and especially “Shakti,” when he was cast for the first time opposite the reigning Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan.

Kumar’s last film was “Qila” (“Fort”) in 1998. By then, his style felt “more than just outdated,” a reviewer wrote in India Today. “It’s prehistoric. Dilip Kumar’s long, drawn-out dialogue delivery is out of sync with the times.”

Kumar received the Padma Bhushan, one of India’s highest civilian awards, in 1991, the Dadasaheb Phalke, India’s highest award for cinematic excellence, in 1994, and the Padma Vibhushan in 2015. From 2000 to 2006, he served as a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament.

But these honors from the Indian government consumed far less newsprint than the decision by the Pakistani government, in 1998, to confer on him their highest civilian honor, the Nishan-e-Imtiaz. Amid heightened religious tensions, Kumar was branded an anti-national by Hindu politicians who asked him to return the award to Pakistan. He did not. He said in his autobiography that returning it “could have only soured relations further and produced bad vibes between India and Pakistan.”

Those words proved Kumar was a tactful diplomat offscreen.

Onscreen, his characters would launch into more rebellious rhetoric. In the 1970s period drama “Sagina,” when labeled a traitor, he responded: “If you’ve drunk your mother’s milk” — meaning, if you’re man enough — “then come get me.”

Even in this larger-than-life context, there was a dash of the realism that defined him.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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