Rajendra Aneja pays tribute to Dilip Kumar, a self-taught artist who moved generations with his silence or a simple gaze
Devika Rani, the leading movie star of India in the 1940s, was impressed with the young, reticent seller in a fruit shop. His deep penetrating eyes, his ability to deliver lines extolling the virtue of his fruits and the sincerity in his voice, were intoxicating. She invited him to visit her Bombay Talkies studio. The studio gave the fruit seller a hero’s role in a film in 1944. Though the film “Jwar Bhata” did not do well, Dilip Kumar gradually became the most respected and loved actors in the subcontinent.
Even when Dilip Kumar became a star and was adulated, he continued to refine his acting skills. When actors become stars, many of them stop acting. They rely on style, clichés and mannerisms. Dilip Kumar was a self-taught method actor. He studied human beings around him and incorporated their nuances in his acting. He is perhaps the only actor in India or even in the world, who taught method acting to himself. Dilip Kumar did not attend the acting academy of Lee Strasberg to polish his method acting skills. He simply delved deep into his personal experiences and nuanced them on the screen. None of the actors or stars in India from 1950 onwards till now, could parallel his mastery of the art.
Dilip Kumar could use sheer silence, to act or convey a point. For instance, in an acting class at Whistling Woods, Mumbai, I learnt how Dilip Kumar emoted scenes with silence. In the scene, Dilip Kumar is sitting smoking and a person comes and tells him that his mother has passed away. Dilip Kumar sat motionless. He was absolutely still. The cigarette in his fingers, continued to burn. Only when the cigarette was almost finished and it burnt his finger, did he return to reality and utter the word, “Ma” (mother). Through this silent shot, without uttering a word, he emoted how the horrendous news of the death of a mother, can just freeze a person.
Dilip Kumar polished his histrionic skills to a level that he could play tragic, comedy and romantic roles. He was unparalleled in his portrayals. No other actor could replace or imitate him. He could play the role of an impoverished illiterate villager. He could also get into the skin of a mill or factory worker. He could also excel as a swashbuckling, urbane gentleman. In his acting career of 50 years, Dilip Kumar performed in 65 movies like “Mela’, “Andaz”, “Devdas”, “Naya Daur”, “Mughal-E-Azam”, “Ram aur Shyam”, “Shakti”, etc. He was always scintillating. His movies, are an academy of acting lessons.
Through many of his films, Dilip Kumar embodied the idea of a free, modern and secular India. During the years 1947 to 1964, when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister of India, the country was earnestly trying to tread a balanced route between capitalism and socialism, heavy industry and small-scale units. India also aimed to empower the villagers and workers. These goals were the themes of many of the movies of that era, starring Dilip Kumar and his two colleagues Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand. The three of them ruled hearts for many decades in the country. They influenced fashion, apparel designs, hairstyles and even how young boys wooed girls.
Dilip Kumar was honoured well. He received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest film award from the Government of India. He also received the Padma Vibhushan, a prestigious civilian award from the Indian Government. The Pakistan Government awarded him the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, their highest civilian award. Moreover, he received eight prestigious Filmfare Awards as the Best Actor in various films. He was honoured with CNN-IBN’s Lifetime Achievement Award and also appointed the Sheriff of Bombay city.
When British India was partitioned, Dilip Kumar (earlier named Mohammad Yusuf Khan) chose to stay on in India. His films however, were admired in the entire region. Raj Kapoor was Dilip Kumar’s childhood friend and lived in the same neighbourhood, in Peshawar, Pakistan. Their childhood homes are being renovated and converted to museums by the Government of Pakistan. Fantastic gesture. Perhaps, art and music will bring India and Pakistan together and the prickly border problems can be resolved amicably.
In early 2003, I made a list of people who had impacted me through my childhood and whom I should try to meet. Dilip Kumar was on my list, since his films had moved me massively, in my youth. However, the people I had approached for assistance to meet him, told me that the actor was unwell. So, my wish remained unfulfilled.
Dilip Kumar continued to be dignified, perpetually polite and involved with social work, even at the peak of his fame. In 1995, when he was the Chairman of the National Association of the Blind, he attended a meeting in the home of one of the members. He enjoyed the “batata-wadas” (Indian snack). When he learnt that the young daughter of the hostess had made them, he complimented her, “My doctors do not permit me to have this snack. However, you have made it so well, I have had four pieces.” The daughter Meera, did not know who Dilip Kumar was. When she went down to see him off to his car, she was stunned to see the watchmen and by-standers staring or smiling at him. Much later, she realised who Dilip Kumar was. Now, 26 years later, she yet cherishes Dilip Kumar’s compliment.
Though Dilip Kumar had stopped acting in the last many years due to ill health, he continued to be loved and admired in India, Pakistan and many other countries. He passed away on 7 July 2021 at the age of 99, as a colossus legend. He was cared for very deeply, by his wife Mrs. Saira Banu. Her loss is mountainous. India joins her in mourning the passing away of a self-taught artist, who could move generations to tears or laughter, with the twitch of an eyelid, his silent acting or a simple gaze. He will always be an inspiration.
Aneja was the Managing Director of Unilever Tanzania. He has studied acting at Kemsley’s “Desert Monologues, Dubai”, Kher’s academy “Action Prepares” and Ghai’s “Whistling Woods International”. He has also performed at the Dubai International Fine Arts Festival.