Dilip Kumar: 'Yeh Method Acting Kis Chidiya Ka Naam Hai?'
Filmmaker and writer Khalid Mohamed remembers the legendary actor Dilip Kumar.
How all of us yearn for one more, just one last look, a lasting glimpse of the most sovereign of them all.
If it wasn’t for him, so many of midnight’s children wouldn’t have known the meaning of a supreme artiste -- an actor which yesterday’s generation will always feel superior about. We had the privilege of falling in love with cinema, in no quantifiable measure, because of Dilip Kumar, we fell in love with Yusuf Khan.
We fell in love with the man who wore the crown of 'The Tragedy King' as authoritatively as he inscribed his bonhomie on entertainers, of classic quality, as a swashbuckler, a lover boy, upright cop: the spectrum of heroes which film writers could possibly imagine.
Superlatives flow, as tears do today from the eyes of every man and woman who thrilled to his magic potions. The millennials thronging the multiplexes can never luck out as their elders did. Don’t even speak of any actor of yore or of the digital generation in the same breath. Comparing anyone to him is like comparing the genuine to a counterfeit coin.
I’m aware that a eulogy can be a blast of trumpets, the sound of fury and piercing loss, signifying nothing. Here’s begging your indulgence, then, at this point to serve some true-life examples of how our nation, once longed to romance the Dilip Kumar.
Since my grandfather owned a chain of cinema halls, the household bawarchi as well as the dhobi who would return with the laundry every weekend would beseech him to organise a studio outing for them, where they could see Dilip Kumar “Sirf ek baar, sahab.” Sahab would grouse, “Are you crazy? Are you in love with him? You sound like little girls. But let’s see.”
Grandpa sahab didn’t see. The fans managed to see him themselves, waiting outside movie premiere shindigs for hours. On the upside, there’s quite another story.
Three daughters of the Mumbai police commissioner Syed Majeedullah, nursed a teenage crush on him, circa the early 1960s. They would make anonymous phone calls to his fiercely guarded number. Soon after at a soiree in a hotel ballroom, the Majeedullah girls plotted to come face to face with the actor who was still a bachelor then, and justly regarded as a Prince Charming, or the most eligible bachelor in town.
In his customary bespoke indigo suit and Oxford tie, the actor after making conversation with the dignitaries, sighted the three sisters in a huddle, pretending not to notice him. “There you are, my lovely ladies,” he murmured gently, and proceeded to waltz with them, turn by turn, to the Blue Danube played by Goody Seervai’s band.
The sisters were disappointed: he hadn’t singled out any one of them for his exclusive attention. Yet to this day they have preserved those ballroom-crush photographs in their family albums.
Those were my first off-screen Dilip Kumar stories, filed away subconsciously for later use perhaps, as a reporter of the film beat. Legend goes that the Bombay Talkies diva Devika Rani, with her laser gaze, had anointed him a star. The beauteous Madhubala had adored him but their marriage was not to be.
“Contrary to popular notions, her father was not opposed to her marrying me,” the actor had cryptically narrated in his biography. “Ataullah Khan had his own production company and was only too glad to have two stars under the same roof. Had I not seen the whole business from my own point of view, it would have been just what he wanted, that is, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala holding hands and singing duets in his productions till the end of our careers.”
The three Majeedullah sisters had filled me up with such tittle-tattle with their minute observations. He wore long-sleeved shirts because his arms were furry, which did creep out for all to see when he moved his hands to the rhythm of 'Suhana safar aur yeh mausam haseen...' (Madhumati). Additionally, the sisters had surmised that the actor would frequently place his right hand reflectively on his cheek, knowingly or unknowingly, like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru did.
Dilip Kumar’s family of fruit merchants in Mumbai’s Crawford Market had witnessed a down curve. As a 17-year-old, he manned a sandwich stall in Pune’s hoity-toity Willingdon club. The British ladies affectionately named him 'Chico', a nickname which was picked up by his wife Saira later. What’s in a name, you might ask. Or more precisely, why did Yusuf Khan opt for a screen name at a time when a Muslim name was considered anathema? “Dilip Kumar sounded simple, compared to the other option – Jehangir,” he would explain patiently.
There were an infinite number of lethal weapons in the actor’s armoury: consider his Urdu diction, his voice as moody as the seasons, and those classic pauses. When he went silent, the audience could hear a torrent of thoughts.
His body language had a lilt (no swagger), his physique was on the leaner side, and those eyes under thick brows just had to arch momentarily to articulate a thousand words. His lengthy passages of dialogue delivery communicated every word, syllable and punctuation mark. The actor was the Wren & Martin of film grammar.
In fact, it’s tempting to draw parallels with Laurence Olivier of whom critic Kenneth Tynan had said, “Every speech, for Olivier, is like a mass of marble at which the sculptor chips away until its essential form and meaning are revealed. No matter how ignoble the character he plays, the result is always noble as a work of art.”
Dilip Kumar’s acting could disclose traits of the ‘ignoble’ distilled into the humane. Lovelorn to the point of being dysfunctional in Mehboob Khan’s Andaz and wracked by the guilt of sexual transgression in the same director’s undervalued Amar, are just two instances of his profoundly implosive performances. Where did his artistry, his psychological acuity of the human condition come from? Method acting? That gobbledygook term he had rebutted with a, “No, no, not all,” in the course of an evening walk with me in Bandra’s Joggers’ Park.
At the park, he had posed with thrilled fans for Instamatic camera shots. Requesting a semblance of privacy, he asked, “Can I continue my interview with this gentleman?” and grabbed my hand to elaborate, “I don’t know yeh method kis chidiya ka naam hai. I’ve heard about the Stanislavski school of acting, lekin I’m not so erudite. In fact, it’s believed that I’m well read. Frankly, I’m not. If I indulge in sher-shayari , it’s simply because I have a retentive memory. I must have heard others quote the great Ghalib, Daag, Firaq, Momin..”
I had marvelled at his blind act in Nitin Bose’s Deedar. Surely, it required study and observation to attain that pitch of perfection. To that, he had reacted, “Wait just give me a minute or two.” He sat on a bench, went silent, gazed at the park’s seafront. Then he walked, completely sightless. Not a blink, just a self-imposed blindness.
For the next ten minutes or so, I was holding on to the thespian shirt sleeves, he couldn’t see. “Sir,” I pleaded. “This is scary. Please get your eyes back.” He returned to the bench, I counted till a thousand, he was back to normal, “Dekha! Acting has to come from within, not from imitating real people.” Needless to exult, that’s the most amazing feat of acting I’ve ever seen in my life, unrehearsed, purely of the moment.
There can never be another like Dilip Kumar, an opinion which was confirmed by the late Ashok Kumar, “I’d be on my toes whenever we were in the same frame in Deedar. During the lunch hour, we’d get our boxing gloves and spar. The bout would continue before the camera. The interplay of dialogue would become our boxing match.I would be best at my first take but Yusuf, oh my God, he would save the knockout punch for his last take, he would insist on ten to 12 takes at least.”
Dilip Kumar flanked by Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand formed the invincible trinity of the black-and-white era spilling over to the advent of colour in the ‘60s. During his prime, some critics maintained that Dilip Kumar carried shades of American actors Ronald Colman and Paul Muni.
On being quizzed, Dilip Kumar would deflect the comparisons self-deprecatingly, “I really liked Colman in A Double Life and Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. But see the kind of roles they did! Authentic and realistic. Our cinema is full of melodrama, dances, songs, fist and gun combats. How can an actor here ever be credible and convincing? And look at cinema being manufactured nowadays…fast, fast, fast, no respite, no reflection. Ab toh tehrav ka zamana hi nahin raha.(The era of serenity is no more)”
A hairline exists between acting and losing oneself in a character. Dilip Kumar was a risk taker, he could immerse himself in-depth into a role to the point of suffering from psychological stress.
The after-effects, especially of Bimal Roy’s Devdas, had culminated in depression. An eminent psychoanalyst of Mumbai suggested that the Monarch of Tragedy take off on a holiday and inchoately resort to the light-hearted. In the process, the actor affirmed his versatility.
If he could be the unrequited lover, he could invest a puckish boyishness to the impersonations of Kohinoor, Ram aur Shyam, Gopi and Sagina. Moreover, he had jigged expertly for the 'Nain lad gaye ho...' set piece in Ganga Jumna, which apart from outbursts of levity, was marked by astounding intensity.
It would be an exercise in futility to laundry list his oeuvre of unblemished portrayals, which were as inimitable as a fingerprint. Relentlessly he was imitated but never equalled by the superstars to come, not by a long shot. As the police officer of Shakti, concerned about his renegade son played by Amitabh Bachchan, that counterpoint between the two actors, is a master class of film acting. The aim was to be in sync rather than any kind of one-upmanship.
A buzz still lingers, though, that a scene-stealing punchline by Bachchan was edited out. Just one of the rumours fanned, perhaps, to suggest unhealthy rivalry. On being prodded, Dilip Kumar had replied sharply, “It’s below my dignity to even think of subverting a fellow actor.”
About the only time I saw him fazed was on the news break of his secret marriage to Asma Rehman. Saira Banu wished to talk to The Times of India exclusively. I reached their home when he was just coming down the stairs to the bungalow’s foyer. “Oh, have you come to shame me further?” he inquired, and walked off. Next morning, Saira Banu’s version of the incident was printed to the exact word and comma.
Subsequently when the scandal subsided, the thespian never brought up that interview with me. Holding grudges wasn’t his credo. A few years later, when I requested him to accept the Filmfare Achievement Award which he had been refusing, he nodded, “Yes, count me in. I had some issues with one of the earlier editors of Filmfare. Since you’re asking, I would be privileged to accept the award.” I was over the moon and stars.
Another topic which he was chary of discussing were the political rubber bullets fired at him in the form of the draconian censorship on his film Ganga Jumna – deletion of scenes showing dacoits encircling a train and the use of “Hey Ram” at the end – was averted only through legal action. The Padma Bhushan awardee was at one stage even accused of being a Pakistani spy by the Kolkata police, followed by a raid at his house. The actor took the calumny stoically as he did the periodic salvos fired upon him by Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, who insisted that he return the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, the highest civilian honour of Pakistan.
It hardly mattered that he had brokered peace with Pakistan, without claiming credit for it. Years later, the former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri revealed that the actor had played a crucial role in convincing the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, to end the Kargil war in 1999 – with just a phone call.
Over time, there were several conversations with Dilip Kumar. He liked talking, often meandering to recall his mother’s recipes for Afghani biryani or to recollect a film industry meeting with Pandit Nehru, who informed all in attendance that he was a Dilip Kumar fanatic. “The other actors weren’t pleased, their faces fell,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t brag about this but it was a delicious moment for me. Vyjayanthimala who was at the event wasn’t amused at all.”
He didn’t like anyone to catch him sneaking a smoke. When I ran into him on New York’s Madison Avenue, he was about to light a cigarette. He threw the filter-tip away, blushed crimson the way an errant schoolboy would. At his suite in the Hilton, later that evening, he was still abashed, “Don’t tell Saira, or else she’ll be very upset.”
“Sure, I won’t,” I laughed. “In return you must tell me why you turned down Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.”
“Why dig up skeletons?” he murmured, then after that pulsating pause, smiled, “Woh cigarette ka jurmana bharna padega. If I may so, I wasn’t mentally attuned to the poet of Pyaasa. I couldn’t see myself plunged in despair. Guru played it very well, it was his vision. As for David Lean, I didn’t want to leave our cinema to venture abroad. Again, Omar Sharif played that role brilliantly..” and trailed off purposefully, the way he would whenever he was pushed into a corner.
That he couldn’t complete his first film, Kalinga, as a director, following differences with its producer, rankled. He’d shoo off the unpleasant experience with a, “That janaab and I – kya kehte hain? – weren’t on the same wavelength.”
The last glimpse of Dilip Kumar – aka Mohammed Yusuf Khan – on his sickbed at his Pali Hill home, was of a monumental actor and gentleman. There was a glow, a ‘noor’, a telegraphed smile from the thespian who had made us cry, laugh, and identify with his euphoric and dismal stretches.
To the last, he carried a heft of charm which had once dizzied the police commissioner’s besotted daughters on the dance floor.
For Yusuf Khan, Dilip...Dilip Kumar there can never be a last waltz. And you’re left yearning, as tears flood, for just one more look, just one.
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.