Kaun kambakht bardasht karne ko peetha hai, main to peetha hu, ki saans le saku. Pain throbs through every syllable. Existential angst, mocking self-pity, despair at having to endure yet another day. There is no drunken slur to dull the clarity of words of a lovelorn man who makes self-pity into spoken poetry that resonates through time. These lines are at the top of many film buffs’ favourite dialogue. They sum up Devdas. Dilip Kumar conveys all these emotions with stoic fortitude through a magical voice with more nuances than a musician.
He is the original voice of Indian cinema. He made it an instrument that evoked myriad meanings and glided over a range of emotions. Then came the restrained body language – the raised finger he made so uniquely his – followed by the artful pause that seemed so spontaneous and eyes that could speak of love, hurt, anger, amusement – anything that a camera lens could capture. When those eyes looked up from under the heavy brows, the image made the transient momentous.
This is craft, but it’s invisible. He could bring variations to make the familiar different. DCP Ashwini Kumar of Shakti (incidentally, Ramesh Sippy’s finest film in my book), burdened by the pain of his only son’s rejection, mutes articulation of sorrow because duty overrides pain. It is only at the end that his pain is a silent shriek as he holds his dying son, different from Devdas’ self-destructive resignation.
Even Devdas’ drinking doesn’t cause brawls like Shankar of Daag (it won Dilip Kumar Filmfare’s inaugural award), who veers between sentimental apologies and anger, railing against God who only favours the rich. Devdas sinks deeper into melancholy, the aimless train journeys taking him far from home, but not from the death wish that shadows his every waking moment. The despair in his eyes haunts us long after the film is over. Amiya Chakraborty directs Daag’s conventional narrative at a raised pitch, while Bimal Roy is a master of restraint who aims to create those moments of tehraav (calmness).
If we have to pick one portrayal that will stand with the best in world cinema, it is Devdas. Bimal Roy’s film defined Devdas as the archetypal tragic hero, standing apart – from illustrious predecessors and later versions in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Assamese, Urdu (two Pakistani versions were made). The narcissistic hero of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s novelette, written when the author was in his late teens, has been transformed into a Hamletian hero.
If vacillation and indecision made Hamlet vulnerable, Devdas’ inertia and fear of society’s censure make him India’s tragic hero for all time. He is entrenched in the collective memory as a lovelorn weakling who drank himself to death at a time when India was colonised. Coping with the demands of modernity where the individual is expected to make decisions and live by them comes up against the inevitability of Karma. Dilip Kumar lives the internalisation of this conflict that is not merely intellectual; it has seeped into his emotional and existential level.
Dilip Kumar can raise the pitch of his acting to suit the director’s style or create the still centre around which layers are built. Even with the raised pitch, he hardly, if ever, lets go of his innate sense of balance rooted in realism. Just see the contrast of emoting in Mughal-E-Azam. Prithviraj Kapoor orates in his stentorian voice as if he is holding a Durbar. Salim’s quiet, low voiced but firm speech establishes his character as one who talks to people – his parents, courtiers and attendants – with inborn courtesy. Even in the dramatic scenes when the conflict between father the emperor and son the crown prince escalates, Salim does not lose control. He makes the inevitable rhetoric sound natural. Others around him raise their voices.
It is this refining of a well-honed craft that makes Dilip Kumar the Actors’ Actor. Others imitated him – deliberately or unconsciously. Because from the very beginning of his career, Dilip Kumar cast out excess and instinctively knew what the camera needed. He had never performed on the stage, as a result, never had to shed the burden of theatrical acting that was the norm.
Ashok Kumar brought naturalness to screen acting, as did the versatile Motilal, who was largely unacknowledged. True. But Dilip Kumar perfected it so that it became the textbook of screen acting. This was before Indians had heard of Method. Dilip Kumar invented his own method through a process of immersion in the character. In hindsight, the process looks intuitive. He immersed himself so deeply that Devdas drained him and left him with depression. It is a story told often enough. Psychiatrists then had to advise him to act in lighter films that did were not emotionally exhausting. So you had Azad, Kohinoor and Ram aur Shyam.
Dilip Kumar invested swashbucklers Azad and Kohinoor with zestful energy, exhibiting fine comic timing. Aan came earlier with a foretaste of a romantic do-gooder with a penchant for subtle sarcasm. Of course, Ram aur Shyam was destined to become the template for double roles: twins with different body language, differentiation of speech, mannerisms to suit the diametrically opposite characters.
The search for perfectionism is not abandoned because the film is an action caper. For Kohinoor, Dilip Kumar learnt the rudiments of Sitar so that his fingers stayed on the right frets. Very unlike Andaz, where the camera prudently presents him playing the piano from the back. Actually, the piano is hardly heard in the full orchestration of the songs.
Andaz was the one film where Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar acted together. Mehboob Khan’s film is regressive – not only from today’s perspective but also by contemporary standards – because it condemns a westernised young woman’s free and easy ways with men. It can be misunderstood as encouragement. Despite these justifiable reservations, Dilip Kumar (and Nargis as Neena) make the film necessary viewing. Our cinema is immune to the prevailing cancel culture. Dilip Kumar as Dilip rescues Nargis on a runaway horse. He is heartbreakingly handsome. His courtship has flair – playful and confident that his love is reciprocated.
Nargis’ coy manner justifies the assumption. When Rajan (Raj Kapoor) turns up midway as her fiancé, Dilip Kumar puts on the impassive mask. But his eyes are eloquent, disturbing in their intensity. The script turns melodramatic, and the hitherto self-contained Dilip’s head injury unhinges him. He believes Neena loves him, and her protestations of wifely devotion don’t convince him. The outburst of emotion, no doubt exacerbated by his injury and Rajan’s suspicious husband act, is finely calibrated. Neena shoots him dead.
The subtext of Andaz when we watch it today suggests that Neena is in denial: of the attraction that draws her to Dilip beyond friendship. The vacant stare and frenzied affirmations of love for her husband are self-deceiving efforts at blotting out of mind disturbingly deep emotions. At the centre of all this emotional turmoil is the elusively enigmatic Dilip. His is the true andaz. The mystery of the outsider adds an intriguingly dangerous magnetism. You see Sheela, Neena’s best friend, openly succumbing.
Mehboob Khan’s Amar is an underrated film. It is yet another triangle but one that leaves us ambivalent about the hero. It delves into the hero’s guilt of raping a trusting village belle in a moment of weakness when he is engaged to an educated young woman, a fighter against injustice. Dilip plays Amarnath, ironically a respected lawyer, who succumbs to temptation on a stormy night. The victim keeps silent regarding the man’s identity – Nimmi was typecast as the naive innocent – and Madhubala is the idealistic crusader.
Guilt gnaws Amarnath, burrowing into his soul. Playing a moral coward was a risky proposition for a reigning hero. Dilip Kumar takes on the challenge. The battle between conscience and self-preservation is written and enacted as a long drawn process, with no dramatic peaks. It is fascinating to watch Dilip Kumar internalise this battle and convey the simmering angst without recourse to rhetorical flourishes. Subtlety is all. I need to watch it again.
Playing a rural character presented no difficulty to this essentially urban charmer with tehzeeb (cultured is blandly devoid of nuances) bred into his bones. Naya Daur and Gunga Jamuna are testaments to his mastery of Hindi’s earthy rustic dialects. He is as comfortable in dhoti kurta as the riding breaches he wears with élan in Andaz. Joyous innocence radiates from Shanker (Naya Daur) and the victim who turns into the baghi (Gunga Jamuna) before the narrative turns seriously grim.
Dilip Kumar is not exactly twinkle-toed, but there is a kind of manly grace in his dancing; his face is aglow with sheer enjoyment. And he can hold his own thumkas against dancing queen Vyjayantimala. He can also lapse into over the top gusto in a film like Sagina Mahato. Even a maestro can be allowed occasional lapses – Saudagar, for instance, where it is embarrassing to watch Dilip Kumar singing the imli ka buta nonsense with partner- in- crime Raj Kumar.
To go back to the vintage actor in his element. What makes Dilip Kumar irresistible as a screen lover is the tender, teasing touch he gives his murmured endearments. His lady love can be the bashful belle of Madhumati or disdainful damsel of Leader. Those murmured sweet nothings are sometimes mumbled. But his is no imitative Brandoesque mumble. Dilip Kumar’s adherence to the felicities of proper enunciation and purity of diction make these tender passages delightful.
Even the elderly jailor of Karma wants his wife to clink her bangles over the phone. It is a sound he always associates with her. Shy and indulgent, Nutan at the other end of the phone humours her husband’s simple demand. Romance kept alive over the years, even in fraught circumstances. It is simply heartwarming. Not Subhash Ghai’s forte. You wonder if he found the Dilip Kumar andaz irresistible and capitalized on it to create a moment of nostalgia.
If Dilip Kumar’s speech has natural cadences, his walk can fall into rhythm with the song. The best example is Suhana Safar in Madhumati. For me, this musical reincarnation story is more Dilip Kumar’s film than Vyjayantimala, who plays the eponymous Madhumati. She is too self-consciously coy, and the curl glued to her cheek makes me want to rip it off. Violently. Dilip Kumar’s Anand has so many shades. The night he and his friend, stranded by a landslide, knock at the deserted haveli is a lesson in acting. The eerie sense of familiarity with an unknown house is punctuated with pauses. The memory of a previous birth takes shape among swirling diaphanous curtains blowing around him. Dilip Kumar’s face is a mirror of many confusing feelings.
We are left with so many memories of this great actor. I add a personal postscript. In all my years of writing on cinema, the only actor I had ever interviewed is Dilip Kumar. (I discount the interviews I did for my book on Smita Patil). I had stubbornly made a rule for myself: no star interviews to maintain my distance and objectivity as a critic. This rule was broken when an enthusiastic station director of All India Radio Mumbai (I had briefly met her at some screening perhaps) called up to say she had fixed an interview with Dilip Saheb in the next hour. He had just won the Phalke award.
My house was 10 minutes away, and I could not do him the discourtesy of not honouring the commitment made without my knowledge. So, I was there with the crew at his bungalow. I can never forget his courteous apology for being slightly late. It was an interview with many unexpected interruptions. With an apology, Dilip Saheb asked me to repeat my question. It was an interview on the fly, with no pre-planned questions.
I was told of his tendency to meander. But one meandering rumination was so revealing of what was on his mind. I still remember him speaking in a mix of English and Urdu. “Hara aman ka rang hai. Why make an issue of it?” It was an indirect reference to the agitation against the new Nargis Dutt Road signboard. It had a green background for white lettering instead of the usual blue. Shiv Sena associated it with Nargis being a Muslim. After 92-93 riots in Bombay, Dilip Saheb and his friend and neighbour Sunil Dutt were engaged in massive relief work.
For a man who was proud of being Indian and also acknowledged his roots in Peshawar, accusations of Muslim partisanship in relief work were hurtful – deeply wounding. But Dilip Kumar did not stoop to political and religious mudslinging. He was proud of his one to one relationship with Pandit Nehru, who is reported to have said he was a Dilip fanatic – to the chagrin of other film dignitaries at a meeting. Dilip Kumar has attended meetings of Sahmat and took on the Shiv Sena in his own non-confrontational way.
A great actor who left us enthralled with his haunting portrayals was an even more wonderful person. A gentleman to the core, honest yet courteous in speaking his mind when it was most needed. We miss that speaking out even more now.