New Delhi: As 2012 moves away from sight to memory, B-town took out time to celebrate the Big B's 70th birthday and media went haywire. The evergreen Dev Anand's first death anniversary was also remembered with the appropriate dignity. Sadly, Dilip Kumar's 90th b-day was (comparatively) hardly recalled or spoken about - such a pity that he is the sole survivor of the fabled trio, Dilip-Dev-Raj who dominated the film scene across the fifties, sixties, seventies. The Titan and living legend who spawned scores of imitators - on-screen and off-screen - and introduced a school of acting that was as uniquely charming.
Interestingly, the legend's beginning was anything but glamorous, starry or hi-profile. Born in Peshawar (now Pakistan) in a Pashtun family with a name like Mohammed Yusuf Khan and a father who was a fruit merchant, you can be pardoned for wondering whether it's really the same man who is today revered by all who love Hindi films.
Relocating to India in the early forties (Pune) the young man did his school and a bit of college (where Football was the main subject) before getting a job as Canteen Manager at the princely salary of Rs 36 a month. A chance meeting with the beautiful and popular heroine, Devika Rani and her husband - the owner of Bombay Talkies studio - Himangshu Rai, got him into acting.
However, before the film rolled a critical problem needed to be addressed and a solution arrived at - a screen name to substitute Yusuf Khan. A meeting was convened and dozens of names were suggested but it fell upon the eminent Hindi author Bhagwati Charan Verma to come up with, Dilip Kumar. It was instantly accepted for two reasons. One, because the biggest star of the day (Ashok) had a Kumar attached to his name. Also, because it was simple, easy to pronounce and remember.
The 22 year old's debut film (1944) Jawar Bhaata was a super flop and had to be peeled off the ceiling, fetching him brickbats from every quarter, led by the acerbic editor Baburao Patel of the most influential film magazine of the day, Film World. Bewildered and upset in equal measure, the young man introspected hard and decided to take whatever corrective measures were required to improve. He saw tons of Hollywood films and confessed his fondness for James Stewart's easy, languid style of acting. He was also very taken up with Ingrid Bergman.
Returning with new resolve, determination and vigour after working hard on his acting method (this time with luck on his side) he scored two back-to-back winning hits, Jugnu and Milan. Suddenly the tide - even Baburao Patel - seemed to turn in his favour and he only went from strength to strength.
Shaheed, Nadiya Ke Paar, Mela, Shabnam, Andaz, Jogan, Babul, Arzoo, the hits came thick and fast. Later hits included Daag, Amar, Uran Khatola, Devdas, Insaniyat, Naya Daur, Madhumati, Paigham, Mughal-e-Azam, Ganga Jamuna, Ram aur Shyam, Gopi. The last phase saw Kranti, Vidhaata, Shakti, Karma, Mashaal and Saudagar. Along the way, from Noor Jehan to Leena Chandravarkar (Bairag) across three decades he romanced them all.
To students of screen-image in Bollywood, it could well have started with the advent of this trio. The lines were clearly demarcated in terms of profile and fans were divided regarding their preferred choice. Raj Kapoor symbolized the Chaplinesque, Awara and Shree 420, the happy-go-lucky tramp, who with his lady love (Nargis) offered sunshine and smile to the bleak universe of Have-nots.
Dev Anand, India's Gregory Peck, was the dashing, debonair, fast-talking, stylish hero, all mannerism and ada, nodding away (while charming Suraiya, Nutan, Waheeda and a host of others) to dazzling fame and fortune. In comparison, Dilip Kumar's image was that of a Tragedy King. The doomed, intense, sensitive lover who passionately believed that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
In film after film - during his early days - he projected a brand of romantic suffering that got his female fans weeping and producers laughing all the way to the bank. Soon, this intensity got to this method actor and he had to actually see a number of psychiatrists to rid him of the manic depression that he admitted had become part of his DNA. Their collective advice was simple; Learn to chill. Take on lighter, fun, happy roles and give the death-warmed-up specials a break.
That's when the Azads, Kohinoors and Aans came along. Doing a superb mix and match (by balancing these with more serious stuff like Devdas, Mughal-e-Azam and Ganga Jamuna), the newly composed, together and confident Dilip Kumar swept the Box office, his fans and the Awards.
Dastaan, Ram aur Shyam (where he essayed a double role) and Bairag (where he did a triple role) also featured in his seventies list. However, the winds of change had by then begun to blow hard and first Rajesh Khanna and later Amitabh Bachchan, swept the centre-stage. Romance gave way to multi-starrers and the violence-prone Angry Young Man gripped popular imagination as the new blazing hero. New content, treatment, subjects and styles entered the Industry catering to a new audience-base young, impatient, entertainment-friendly and uncaring for the finer aspects, shades or subtleties of great acting. Instant gratification was the name of the game and in this new scheme of things, clearly the thespian who loved and cared deeply for his craft, found himself out of sync with the times and slowly fading out.
That's when the great 'thinking actor' pulled back, surveyed the scene and took a 5 year sabbatical. He realized that it was a different era with demands and requirements of the leading man that he could never hope to match or provide. Intelligent, perceptive and insightful that he was, he understood that if he still wanted to be around - with his reputation intact - he needed to re-invent himself. Refreshed, confident and all charged, his second innings as a 'character' actor was equally mind-blowing, giving the new gen a taste of what great, powerful acting - not tinsel performance - was all about. I remember kids stunned by his power-house stuff in Shakti, Vidhata, Mashaal, Karma, Kranti and Saudagar. Such a difference from the usual, over-the-top hamming and glamorous posturing.
At this point it is both relevant and necessary to pause and ask, "What was so special, unique or extraordinary about Dilip Kumar that he mesmerized so many for so long?"
Close Bachchan-watchers too cannot fail to see the towering inferno imitating the great original in several scenes where intensity and emotion are called upon. The answers are many.
For one, he was the first star to introduce restraint, underplay and stillness - eloquent silence - into his screen performances in a space dominated by theatrics. Also, admittedly every hero played lover, but Dilip invested his screen persona with a brand of total sincerity and honesty that was truly infectious. To his tragic hero role too, he suffused a kind of passion, torment, anguish and intensity that gave it a romantic aura transforming the lover-as-loser to an insanely desirable majnu.
Further, no other star-actor (before or since) has ever been such an intuitive master at going beyond the written line (dialogue) to ignite the unwritten sub-text, with a transformational, magical look, expression, gesture, inflection of voice. That is the true measure (and difference) between good and great.
In later years, be it Shakti or Saudagar, his complete understanding and subsequent command of every nuance and layer that defined the role, remains unmatched. It is sad that his desire to direct Kalinga remained unfulfilled and his last film Qila, went un-noticed but the legend of Dilip Kumar is something that neither age can chill nor rival steal.
As India celebrates 100 years of cinema, it is fitting to thank Dilip Sahib for gracing our lives for over six decades. On his 90th birthday 90 salaams to the undisputed emperor of screen acting.