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Any platform for performance gives the performer opportunities to be remembered as a nobody, a noticeable presence, a strong participant, or someone who just carries away all the accolades, overshadowing the rest. In the context of a performer in front of a cine-camera, the great challenge arises from the fact that those who share screen-space with that performer are also doing their best to dominate the limited space. The others vying for viewer-attention are professional performers, and are not going to provide easy passage to another seeker of the most noticeable spaces that are there. It is a cut-throat competition. On their standing in this very competitive arena rests not merely their reputation as actors, but their saleability at the box office also. Once there is a dip in that marquee value, few are able to rediscover past glory. Bollywood is known to be a place where a fading star gets side-lined and finds few takers. Far more unheard of is the case of a star of yesteryears to still be considered the bench mark by which to judge the performance of reigning superstars.

It is hard to find exceptions to this rule. In an arena where one performer is always pitted against heavy odds to retain a hard-earned perch, one such exception is Dilip Kumar, an actor who inspires awe among all those who have been making an effort to achieve a place in the unforgiving world where survival is dependent on acceptability by the popular viewer as well as the critic. If Dilip Kumar could do it for close to four decades, there must be a lot more than just talent to his story. To be sure, loads of sweat, immeasurable dedication and a very intense study of human nature and expression, both in terms of the spoken word and the silent pauses, aided by the perfect body language, would have helped create arguably the greatest actor Hindi films have thrown up.  The life story of Yusuf Khan brings out how a withdrawn and inhibited youngster would undergo a sea change to become a thespian par excellence by sheer determination, exceptional hard work and infinite capability. Yes, his real name indeed is Yusuf Khan, whose father, Sarvar Khan, was a fruit merchant. Dilip Kumar, born on 11 December 1922, was from Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and knew Raj Kapoor who also migrated from Peshawar to Bombay (now Mumbai). Raj was a natural entrant into the world of stage and films; as his father, Prithviraj, was a well-known theatre actor. It was thanks to Raj that a fundamentally shy youngster like Dilip was drawn to even consider the option of becoming a film actor. He was aware that there would be serious opposition to any thoughts, if he ever had them, to even contemplate a film career.

Destiny came knocking in the form of Devika Rani, the reigning leading lady of Hindi films in the early 1940’s. She saw in him the possibilities of a film actor’s career. She must have gone beyond just the handsome appearance of the Pathan, and noticed the burning intensity of his eyes. She became the reason for launching one of the greatest film personalities that India has seen. Yet, such was the unnerving fear of his orthodox family’s reaction on this move that Yusuf even agreed to a change of name from Yusuf Khan to Dilip Kumar. His first film, ‘Jwar Bhata’ was released in the year 1944. This film completely failed to give a glimpse of the things to come. The youngster making his debut in this film went almost unnoticed. However, it seems that the spark of a mega star was not missed by those who knew better. Dilip Kumar was not to fade away after just one appearance. Appear he did again, and how! His subsequent films gave him a steady rise; and by 1947 he had graduated to a position to have releases of two important films in a single year, ‘Milan’ and ‘Jugnu‘. Then in 1948 five films were released in one year: ‘Shaheed’, ‘Nadiya ke Paar’, ‘Mela’, ‘Ghar ki Izzat’, and ‘Anokha Pyar’.

The Tragedy King in ‘Devdas’

The following year, ‘Shabnam’ and ‘Andaz’ were released. The latter also starred Raj Kapoor and Nargis in a triangular romantic story. The top three stars coming together in a Mehboob Khan film was a great event. True to industry expectations, the film was a huge box office block buster. Now Dilip Kumar was firmly in the position to be counted as a top notch actor. His performances had established that acting out intense emotions was his forte. Films like Deewar (1951), Daagh (1952), Devdas (1955) and Naya Daur (1957) became all-time classics. The role of a blind person in love with his childhood friend played in Deedar is till date one of the finest depictions of a person who suffers from visual handicap. Daagh was about an alcoholic, and Devdas too was about a forlorn character that falls for alcohol as he grieves the loss of a childhood sweetheart. Many critics still rate his portrayal of Devdas the best acting performance by an Indian actor.

A time had arrived in his career when he could have done any number of films at a given time. He commanded such respect from the film fraternity and adulation from multitude of his fans that he could feature in any film that he wanted. Yet, at this point in his career, he seems to have taken the decision that keeping the appearances limited would work for better quality. So after this point in time, he acted in only one film in a year, with very few exceptions when the number would go up to two. The roles he played in Deedar, Daagh and Devdas were all tragic characters. He was called the Tragedy King of Hindi cinema. Much as fans loved to see a hero who lost it all, the actor himself was suffering; Dilip Kumar was suffering from depression as a result of the involvement he brought to all these tragic characters. The ‘method actor’ that he was, Dilip was crumbling within. He sought counsel from psychologists who advised him to play light hearted comedy oriented roles to overcome the depression. Hence films like ‘Aazaad’, in which he played a swashbuckling thief and ‘Kohinoor’, in which he portrayed a playful prince. It is interesting to note that in the latter film, his heroine was played by Meena Kumari who had also earned the nickname of Tragedy Queen for her serious roles! His flair for comic roles was recognised by the fans, and more films like ‘Leader’ and ‘Ram Aur Shyam’ also were very well received.

From the Wedding Album

In 1966 he got married to Saira Banu, daughter of Naseem Banu, who was Dilip’s friend. Naseem was a film actress too, and lived not far away from Dilip’s house in Mumbai. The young Saira had fallen for a much older Dilip, 44 at the time of the wedding when Saira was half his age.  Yet this has remained one of the most enduring marriages of the industry despite a short-lived marriage to one Asma in 1980. Earlier, his closeness to Kamini Kaushal in the 1940’s and a much discussed romance with the beauteous Madhubala in the 1950’s made headlines at that time.

The aura of Dilip Kumar is such that whenever there is a talk about Hindi films, his name comes up as the one who set the highest bench mark among actors. Amitabh Bachchan never misses an opportunity to express his great admiration for ‘Dilip saab’. In one of his blogs, Amitabh Bachchan says: “It’s a celebration for the greatest, on the eve of his birthday. He will turn 89 tomorrow, the 11th of December. Exactly 20 years older to me by birth and exactly 2000 years ahead of me in our common vocation. He is my idol and has been since the day I first saw his work. He has been an inspiration not just for me but I am certain to thousands of those that have ever dreamt of facing a camera for the art form called cinema. His presence his aura and his dedication to film shall be documented as ‘before Dilip Kumar and after Dilip Kumar’. He set fresh norms of performance in his acts of excellence, faultless and beyond any kind of improvement. His greatest quality was his connect with those that stood before him in the frame to act. His strength of delivery and his strength of connect with any character he portrayed has been unique and unsurpassable. On the eve of his birthday, I wish him good health and a long life of peace and happiness. He was the best and still is.”

As Amitabh’s Father in ‘Shakti’

Amitabh remembers with a degree of awe the time when he first faced the camera with his idol: “And then one day I stood along with him on the sands of Juhu as the camera rolled to give the mahurat shot for ‘Shakti’, the only film that we worked together in. Our first shooting scene in the film was in a jail sequence, where the police official but also my Father in film comes to visit me and tries to convince me that I was taking a wrong path in life and I disagree. Tough to stand in front of one whom you have admired for ages, and disagree with. But it happened and it kept happening day after day, till the film was complete. There were electric moments between him and me in the script, written by that incredible team of writers Salim – Javed, and each moment was filled with the distinction of great and impressive drama.” He adds “And it still remains an illusion in my life to have actually been a part of a project which was headed by this thespian! God has been kind, very kind!!”

Another actor who considers Dilip his idol is the Badshah of Bollywood, Shahrukh Khan. On many occasions he has said how Dilip Kumar has influenced him, and how much he admires him.

The much respected film magazine, ‘Filmfare’, brought out a collectors’ issue when completion of 100 years of Indian cinema was celebrated, and what could be a better cover for such an issue than to have three titans together? Yes, the cover featured Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan. For the record, it may be mentioned that no one has been awarded the prestigious Filmfare Best Actor award more times than Dilip Kumar. According to Wikipedia, he also holds the Guinness World Record for winning the maximum number of awards by an Indian actor.

Dilip Kumar completed 95 years of his life on 11 December this year. Let us all pray that he completes a century!!!

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