Dilip Kumar: The Star of a Bygone Era
By Dr Asif Javed
Way back in the 40’s, a producer approached DK--then a struggling actor--and offered the lead role in one of his stunt movies. DK was tempted: the money was very good and he was hard pressed financially so much so that he had asked his studio for a loan. There was one problem, however: stunt movies were considered C-grade stuff; Having thought it over, DK declined the role. Many years later, when he was making Koh-i-Noor, he found out about a scene that required him to play sitar in a song sequence. Naushad suggested that Ustad Jafar Khan would play sitar in the scene while the camera would focus on his fingers and the audience will not know. DK did not like that and instead spent months training himself on Sitar. When the day came for shooting, he was ready to play sitar. “Jadoogar Qatil” is the song that can be seen on you tube by those who wish to confirm this. So there you have it; DK knew early on how to be selective and had an unmatched dedication to his work.
Yousaf Khan who was born in a conservative Pathan family in Peshawar, was forced to move to Bombay because his older brother fell from a horse and sustained a serious back injury. It so happened that the nearest back specialist available was in Bombay, so the whole family moved on to Bombay. As luck would have it, Ashok Kumar, the established star of Bombay Talkies, was about to leave the studio and Devka Rani, the owner was desperately looking for his replacement. Unbeknownst to his conservative father, Yousaf interviewed. It is not known exactly what impressed Devka Rani about the shy lad but he was hired. She chose his filmi name Dilip Kumar in preference to Jahangir and Vasudev. DK’s journey had begun and what a ride it has been! The horse in Peshawar as well as Devika Rani deserve our gratitude for their role in making DK out of Yousaf Khan.
DK did not become a sensation overnight; he passed through a painful phase of successive flops. Film India, the leading film journal of the time almost gave up on him, calling him “an anemic addition to the actors whose acting effort was nil” in Jawar Bhata, his first movie. DK was not a born actor, as he has admitted on occasions. But he had something even better: a burning desire to excel. Over the years, he was to hone his craft by painstakingly studying the leading Hollywood stars—Paul Muni, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, John Gielgud, James Stewart and Marlon Brando. Brando was a proponent of the method school of acting and DK seems to have acquired it too. DK became a colossus with his relentless pursuit for excellence. His attention to detail is legendary: for Ganga Jumna, his own production that was based upon a dacoit storey from UP, the dialogues were written in the local Purabi dialect at Naushad’s suggestion who came from the area. It took almost a super human effort to get the cast that included South Indian Vajantimala, deliver the lines in the local accent. Those who have seen Ganga Jumna, today best remember it for the dialogues.
DK was soon to become synonymous with the tragic roles. Mehboob Khan’s Andaz started this trend that continued well in to the early 60’s. In that period, the tragedy king gave his admirer’s Deedar, Sangdil, Devdaas and Ganga Jamna among others. As time wore on, he started to move away from the tragic roles at the advice of his psychiatrist and began to accept lighter roles, the examples being Azad, Koh-i-Noor and Leader. The staff at Bombay Talkies were encouraged to read. The studio had a well stalked library. Over the years, DK became fond of English classics, particularly the writings of Bronte sisters; he has done four movies based upon their novels—Sangdil, Arzoo, Helchel and dil diya dard liya; it is sad that none of these did well at the box office but that may be a reflection of the taste of audience than of the movies.
Over his long and distinguished career, DK has worked with most of the leading ladies of his time. Guess who impressed him the most? It wasn’t Nargis or Madhubala; it wasn’t the tragedy queen Meena Kumari either; it was Nalini Jayawant. He did only two movies with her: Shikast and Anokha Pyar; years later, he would remember her as, “punctuality personified who would bring extra warmth to her performance and would be extraordinary even in her first rehearsal.” When asked as to who does he consider his mentor, DK did not name Mehboob who had catapulted him to stardom with Aan and Andaz or Bimal Roy who directed him in Devdaas---that heart wrenching saga of the doomed love that many consider to be his finest role; Daleep instead named Nitin Bose who had directed him in Milan, Deedar and GangaJumna.
A question is often asked as to which of his roles was the best one. Many will point to Devdas and Ganga Jumna being ones that defined him. DK himself has never answered this question. The consummate artist in him is perhaps too proud to choose one among many.
DK had the reputation of being choosy about his roles. He took his time before making a commitment. Whereas, he generally made the right decision, there were roles that he turned down that with the benefit of hindsight, he should have accepted. His biographer Sanjit Narwekar reports that back in the early 60’s, DK was approached by David Lean and offered the role of Sharif Ali in his epic Lawrence of Arabia; DK asked for the lead for which the Irish actor Peter-o-Toole was already signed up. Besides, the role required a Caucasian. David Lean politely refused but may have wondered about the audacity of this Indian actor. The same role was then offered to Omar Sharif who accepted it. We are told that DK turned down Baju Bawra (given to Bharat Bhushan), Mother India(given to Sunil Dutt), Piyasa—a cult classic that ranks the highest, among all Indian movies, on the internet (done by Guru Dutt himself, a role tailor made for DK).
His admirers include Amitabh Bachan who says that had DK been in Hollywood, he would surely have collected multiple Oscars. Shah Rukh Khan calls DK his ideal. But perhaps the best tribute to DK has come from Manoj Kumar. Manoj who had often been accused of being an imitator of DK said, “Tell me which actor in the last forty years has the guts to keep his hand on his heart and say that he has not imitated or tried to imitate DK.”
Despite being reserved and very private person, DK has not been spared the gossip and scandals that is almost a job hazard in the movie industry. In the 50’s he had a well publicized love affair with Madhubala; her inability to choose between her stubborn father and DK ended it on a sour note. Before that, Kamni Kaushal, one of his early heroines, was ready to leave her husband for him. Well educated Kamini Kaushal, a graduate of Kinnaird College, Lahore and the daughter of the Dean of Punjab University. She was only dissuaded by Ismat Chughtai whose husband Shahid Latif was making Arzoo with Dilip and Kamini Kaushal at the time. Dilip remained single until 43 and then suddenly married Saira Bano. People were aghast: SB was considered a B-class actress, almost 20 years younger and had an ongoing affair with already married Rajinder Kumar. Besides, she had done some roles considered quite offensive for those times. She was the daughter of Naseem Bano, herself an actress from the early 40’s. Naseem’s mother had been a well known courtesan. Manto has written a sketch of Naseem Bano in his mater piece Gajay Farishtay. DK’s marriage with Saira Bano has survived although there was that bizarre Asma Begum incident in the early 80’s that did strain it. Asma was a divorced socialite from Hyderabad whom DK had married in secret. His repeated denials of second marriage were swept away when Nikahnama was published in news papers. The episode did tarnish DK’s image somewhat. Asma was eventually divorced. Dilip moved on and today, the episode is almost forgotten.
DK naturally had his detractors too. Industry insiders have known for years that DK has a habit of changing the script to enhance his role at the cost of others. Sanjeev Kumar who worked with DK in Sungarsh was very vocal about this. Mahbook Khan refused to change Mother India’s script for DK’s role; DK was not thrilled but Mahboob refused to budge and gave the role to Sunil Dutt. AR Kardar, one of the senior and highly respected directors, always blamed DK for changing the script of Dil diya dard liya so much that the movie bombed. Kardar pointed finger at DK for the disaster that effectively ruined him. “DK was my Waterloo. He has never given happiness to anyone. He has always made life difficult for filmmakers”, Kardar said once.
DK had a fair share of tribulations in his career: his one attempt at production, Ganga Jumna was stuck with censor board for almost a year. There were whispers that this was done to allow Raj Kapoor’s Jis desh mein Ganga bahti hey a free run in the market. DK had to go all the way to PM Nehru. Nehru saw the movie, liked it and cleared it. The episode so embittered DK that he vowed never to produce a movie again. He has been accused of being a Pak spy too and had to endure the indignity of a police raid on his house that came to nothing. His visit to Pakistan in the 80’s and acceptance of Nishan-i-Imtiaz created a furor in India. Undeterred through all that, DK has stood tall with poise and class of his own.
The recent death of Dev Anand leaves DK the sole survivor of the famous triumvirate—Raj Kapoor having died many years ago—that ruled the box office from mid-forties through late- sixties. Nowadays, he lives quietly at Pali Hill, Bombay, leading a retired life. Years ago, there was a brief foray in politics as member of Rajia Sabah. The crowds of admirers are long gone as are the producers who were only too willing to pay him exorbitant amounts for roles he would usually decline. Like a lion in winter, he is quiet and slowly fading away. We are told he will celebrate his 90th birthday soon. From a fan of his who lives far away in North America, I say, happy birthday to the ever young hero of our rapidly diminishing generation.
Duke of Wellington once said that he regretted not having thanked those who served him so well. On behalf of thousands of DK’s admirers who are scattered across seven seas, this writer therefore says, thank you Dilip Sahib for the happiness, excitement and the tears that you brought to our eyes. Despite your flaws, you have been and will always be remembered as truly one of a kind. You are the king, as late Khalid Hasan once described you.
( The writer is a physician based in Williamsport, PA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )
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