Dilip Kumar: The unforgettable actors' actor

With death of many a legend, we are often left groping for words, and loosely use a phrase like “end of the era”. With Dilip Kumar leaving for his journey to eternity, it truly is: the end of an era

Dilip Kumar: The unforgettable actors' actor
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Namrata Joshi

It was for special package to mark Dilip Kumar’s 95th birthday that I had asked Irrfan Khan to list his favourite performances of the legendary actor. “I can’t do it,” he shot back going on to tell me that, for him, there were not five, ten or twenty but way too many to make a short roster of. That he would, perhaps, include them all.

No wonder there is a reason why Dilip Kumar is called India’s quintessential actor’s actor. There are actors and then there are those who are a school of acting. There have been many who graduated from the one embodied by Dilip Kumar. Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Irrfan Khan and more... They have all had their craft grounded in the tenets laid out by Dilip Kumar. And it all got so perfectly summed up in one sentence in an Instagram post by Shahid Kapoor on the passing away of the icon: “We are nothing but versions of you Dilip Saab”.

There are many aspects to dwell on about the magnificent actor, who debuted in Bombay Talkies’ Jwar Bhata in 1944. The most significant, for me, would be how, with his much talked about naturalistic style of acting, he gently guided Indian mainstream cinema into becoming more “cinematic” than what it used to be. He was the bridge, along with Motilal (who he credited as his own prime influencer), who made our movies grow beyond their Parsi theatre roots to find an acting idiom in the real. He was the earliest ones to truly act for the screen than the proscenium and deployed his entire persona to a most persuasive effect for the camera. The eyes that you could plumb deep into, that could reflect mischief as easily as melancholy. The face that captured and immortalised the most fleeting of expressions and, most of all the voice, which never declaimed the dialogue but spoke as we talk to each other for real—at times in resonant whispers and mumbles that were so characteristically his own. All this with a perfect and clear pronunciation, enunciation and inflection to boot. He was an actor who cared for the written word and the language as much as its author. An ability very few actors possess.

Tragedy King may have been his official title but there was nothing that Dilip Kumar didn’t take a shot at and give his best to. To every maudlin Deedar and emotional Devdas, there have been swashbucklers like Aan and Azad and comedies like Kohinoor and Ram Aur Shyam, actioners like Ganga Jamuna and historicals like Mughal-E-Azam. His second innings as a senior actor was just as glorious, studded with hits like Kranti, Shakti, Mashaal, Karma, Vidhaata and Saudagar.

There is nothing Dilip Kumar couldn’t do. He even sang a tough classical music-based composition—“Lagi nahin chhoote”—mellifluously at that, in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s debut Hindi film Musafir. A duet with none other than Lata Mangeshkar.


He practiced hard on the singing, just as he learnt playing the sitar for Kohinoor. The method actor that he was, he had to get every nuance and detail of his character right. He worked on their interiority not just the externalities.

From a Pathan family that moved from Peshawar in Pakistan to Maharashtra, Dilip Kumar may have had to change his name from Yusuf Khan but he started his journey into acting and flourished in the industry in a period—specially the late 40s and 50s—which was the most gentle, humane, literate, literary, secular and progressive.

The modernism reflected the most in the romances. I still marvel at the lack of coyness and a sense of ease and abandon in the man-woman interactions in the films of the day, not just Dilip Kumar’s but of the entire triumvirate. The gaze with which he held his heroines can still make one go weak in the knees.

Like for many others, Dilip Kumar has been someone of the family. My father’s favourite hero. The one he, till date, roots for loyally, and predictably over the other two members of the immortal threesome—Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand. As a fan you had to pick one of them, couldn’t like them all equally.

Dilip Kumar has also been the instigator of many an argument and a marker of generational conflict. The most ferocious one I have had was over Ramesh Sippy’s father-son saga, Shakti. My father was all for the principled, stoic father Dilip Kumar. I thought Amitabh Bachchan was brilliant in the way he grounded the resentment of the son. But his logic was that Bachchan had internalized the role and made it come alive from within; like Dilip Kumar. I had to let my father have the last word: “It’s an ultimate tribute by an actor to Dilip Kumar while working in the same film alongside him.” Actor’s actor after all.

With the death of many a legend, we are often left groping for words, and loosely use a phrase like “end of the era”. With Dilip Kumar leaving for his journey to eternity, it truly is: the end of an era.

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