Before Brando, There Was Dilip Kumar

On Dilip Kumar’s 93rd birthday, a tribute to the man who brought method acting to Hindi cinema

4 min read
Before Brando, There Was Dilip Kumar

Director Martin Scorsese once famously said of Marlon Brando, “He is the marker. There’s ‘before Brando’ and ‘after Brando’.” Brando, one of the first actors to bring focus to the idea of method acting, was a huge follower of Stanislavski System, and changed the rules of acting in Hollywood.

In India, when we think of method acting, the name that pops up first is Dilip Kumar. Like Brando who gave future stars like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino a reference to start with, Dilip Kumar too influenced countless actors in Indian cinema. From Amitabh Bachchan to Naseeruddin Shah, Shah Rukh Khan to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, every actor of Hindi cinema carries the grain from the sand dunes that Dilip Kumar created with his acting.
Dilip Kumar with Amitabh Bachchan in Shakti

The idea of acting in our cinema has a lot to do with the ‘Nautanki Gharana’ that owes its origins to mythology and folk tales being rendered through live plays where song and dance played a prominent role. Besides, we, the people of India are a dramatic lot. Which is why European films seem very dry and cold compared to our style of hyperactive melodrama, amplified even further by music and dance. One of the primary reasons why most of our stars remained stars, very few of them became actors.

Dilip Kumar’s contemporaries, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand who ruled at the same time, differed extensively from each other. While Kapoor followed Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, Anand modelled himself after Hollywood stars like Gregory Peck and Cary Grant, to be the suave guy who knew how to shake his head to woo the audience. Both Anand and Kapoor went for the mannered style, cementing a particular image of their stardom in the consciousness of their fans.
Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar

That was where Dilip Kumar stood different. He brought a sense of naturalism to his characters that was unthinkable for his age. He was the first one to debunk the myth that actors on screen hardly carry any insight into human behaviour.

For all his films, Dilip Kumar went out of his way to get into the skin of the character. So much so that when he was bestowed with the moniker of ‘tragedy king’ of Hindi cinema, he wanted to get rid of all those roles. He literally drank his way to glory to bring Devdas, the grand loser alive, something from which even SRK borrowed while doing his version. Because he got so consumed by the sadness of a string of characters he played, he had to visit a psychiatrist who advised him to do comedies to get rid of the gloom that had seeped into his bone marrow.

For Kohinoor, he actually took lessons in sitar for almost a year. The end result is the song ‘Madhuban mein Radhika nache re’ which shows him playing the sitar, akin to Naushad’s composition. This stands in contrast to most of today’s actors playing guitar on screen, and we hardly scream, foul play.
Dilip Kumar in Ganga Jamuna

For Gunga Jamuna, he drew from his gardener in Deolali, where he spent a considerable time while growing up, and spoke Bhojpuri like a pro. In terms of getting the accent right for our current crop of actors, the lesser said the better.

Adhering full respect to K Asif’s understanding of India’s future emperor, he settled for zero songs in Mughal-E-Azam. A fact that makes the period epic so different from anything we have attempted on our screen with dancing kings, and singing royals.

Besides the investment of time and emotions in characters that he played, it was Dilip Kumar’s natural way of inhabiting roles that brought directors like Bimal Roy to the forefront. Roy’s cinema influenced by Italian neo-realism had to rely on actors who never went for manners, but a way of playing characters that draws you in slowly in their environment. Even Balraj Sahni, another outstanding method actor, was quite vocal about Dilip Kumar’s ways and means making a character alive, something that would make Stanislavski proud.
Dilip Kumar with Madhubala in Mughal E Azam

It is rather unfortunate that the world knows more of Marlon Brando than Dilip Kumar. Of course, the colonisation of minds by Hollywood is into play here, and we are not denying the towering inferno that Brando was. But then Dilip Kumar didn’t have the fortune learning the tricks of method acting, which Brando had, from his teacher, Stella Adler. Brando was also junior to Dilip Kumar, in age, and in kick-starting his acting career.

The rest, of course, is your discretion.

(The writer is a journalist and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. Follow him on Twitter: @RanjibMazumder)

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