Dilip Kumar reflected the best of this country at the best of its times

In this extract from the book ‘Nehru's Hero: Dilip Kumar In The Life Of India’, Meghnad Desai talks about Dilip Kumar’s growth as an actor at a time India was being shaped as tolerant, secular nation

Photo courtesy: Twitter
Photo courtesy: Twitter

Meghnad Desai

When Dilip Kumar started acting in films in 1944, there was an ideal: of India being freshly fashioned in the run up to Independence, of an India which would be tolerant, secular, modern and bear universal values. Indeed, the ideal was to show that Indian values, on which the Independence struggle had been fought were universal in themselves. These values projected a culture that was democratic and based on mass participation, broadly consensual and as far as possible, non-violent. It believed that freedom, when it came, had to be meaningful to everyone from the most poor person upwards, and that India had to achieve unity amidst its diversity—ethnic, religious, regional. India was a pioneer in the field of Human Rights. The Indian Constitution embodied Human Rights as a chapter even before the UN promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was an India that Nehru was to establish on a high pedestal in the international arena. For 17 years while he was Prime Minister (1947-1964), India and Indians could hold their own with anyone in the world as a country which was poor but proud, working towards a better future, perhaps not as fast as some would have liked, but along a democratic path and peaceably. As a song in Naya Daur put in lyrically, Yeh desh hai veer jawano ka (This is a country of brave young men).

But Dilip Kumar also arrived when Indian cinema was going through a genuine renaissance. When the Talkies arrived, the world was gripped in a Depression that was not cured before the World War broke out. It was only after the War that a new era dawned for cinema everywhere. In India, it witnessed an influx of fresh young talent among the actors, music directors, playback singers, directors and it was this which was to dominate our lives for the next 26 years. Lata Mangeshkar defined that era as much as Dilip Kumar did. Older directors like Mehboob Khan and V. Shantaram were joined by new ones such as B.R.Chopra, K.Asif, Raj Kapoor and GuruDutt. Naushad and Anil Biswas were soon competing with Shankar-Jaikishen, O.P. Nayyar and Salil Chowdhury.

The new talent reflected the new generation of young men and women who would be the first of many future cohorts of citizens of Independent India. Their outlook and hopes were very different from those of their parents. The difficulties they were to face were qualitatively different. They were growing up in a free but poor nation, an old nation which was the first creature of the decolonisation revolution. They could, if they wished, reject the West, adapt to it or even migrate to live abroad. Their attitudes to their parents, to the other sex and indeed to morals and mores were changing fast. In a sense they were redefining what it was to be Indian in a way that had not been open to previous generations.

Independent India had a lot to discover about itself and films joined in this process of discovery. People became aware of remote tribal areas and other languages. Film songs began to reflect the multiplicity of languages even as they made fun of other regional cultures. (Yeh Duniya Roop Ki Chor in Shabnam). Dance styles ranging from classical to folk and tribal were another sign of the size and range of Indian films such as Kalpana, Chandralekha and later Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje and Madhumati popularized such dances. Film locations ranging across Kashmir, (Barsaat), the Assam-Burma border (Shabnam) hill stations in the various corners of India (Azaad , Madhumati) showed the viewers their large country. It would be years before Indians began to travel to such locations as tourists. India was brought to them beautifully packaged. Hindi cinema became a national cinema, though not always the best in quality (Bengali films were perhaps better) or even in the amount of money invested (South Indian film studios were much better equipped). It had a national market reaching beyond the North and the West, which were the areas where Hindi was spoken or at least understood. Talented people from all parts of India converged in Bombay to make Hindi films–Hindus and Muslims, Parsees, Sikhs and Christians. There were Punjabis, Sindhis, Bengalis as well as the local Gujarati and Marathispeaking artistes and technicians. Then the South Indian incursion began in the 1950s. Hindi films began to be made in the South as well as in Bombay reflecting the economic clout of the South Indian studios.

A new nation thus acquired a national institution, indeed a national storyteller in the Hindi cinema. A common set of men and women began to have a following across regions, languages and religions. Only a small number of politicians, mainly famous because of their contribution during the Independence struggle has the same wide reach that this small common set of filmstars has. Nehru was of course the principal politician with a national reach. He was engaged in nation building in a unique way, giving Indians a sense of national togetherness by creating a secular state and a sense of international standing by pursuing non-alignment. This effort inspired everyone including filmmakers to play their own part in the national story-telling. This is where Dilip Kumar’s life in the films of the Nehru era becomes a vital part of the national story-telling. As Indians were defining themselves as individual men and women trying to fashion a new society with new approaches to personal and social morality and to place themselves as citizens vis-à-vis their fellow Indians, they looked to their Prime Minister’s speeches for didactic guidance but to their film heroes and heroines for the models.

Dilip Kumar reflected the best of this country at the best of its times. This is why he is still fondly remembered and regarded by generations after mine that thrilled to his young heroic portraits. He is the ideal of India of that age imaged in his many roles—rural and urban, active and quiescent, tragic and comic, rich and poor. In all his films he was only trying to entertain, not preach. He can be proud that he was always a box office hit and remains so to his last film. It is no mean achievement to please and to embody the aspirations and ideals of a nation. Few have done it. Dilip Kumar a.k.a. Yusuf Khan is one of these few.

This extract from the book ‘Nehru's Hero: Dilip Kumar In The Life Of India’ by Meghnad Desai has been taken with permission from the publishers, Roli Books

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Published: 07 Jul 2021, 4:34 PM