The Indian film industry recently lost Mohammed Yusuf Khan (11 December 1922 – 7 July 2021), known to his fans as Dilip Kumar. Kumar was an actor who worked in the Indian cinema before it was called Bollywood. He was born to a Pathan family in the Qissa Khawani Bazaar area of Peshawar. His father was a fruit merchant. His home was close to Prithviraj Kapoor’s home, who may have influenced the young Yusuf Khan into acting. Very soon Dilip Kumar gained immense prestige and adoration as a highly versatile actor. Fluidly emotive, exceptionally charismatic, and intensely passionate in a nonchalant way. He is often remembered as the “Tragedy King” for playing the role of an unrequited romantic hero in films like Andaz(1949) and Devdas(1955) but his rustic style in Naya Daur(1957), love the song “ Maang ke saath tumhara, maine maang liya sansaar…” And the sparkling role play in Saudagar(1991) are equally memorable.
I was introduced to the songs from his movies at a very young age by my dad before I saw him on the silver screen. Dad used to sing the uplifting song, “ Suhana safar aur yeh mausam haseen” from the movie Madhumati and the emotional song “Hue hum jinke liye barbad, woh hum ko chahe kare na yaad” from Deedaar. It was much later that I saw Dilip Kumar in a movie theater. I think the first movie was the comedy “Ram Aur Shyam( 1967)”. This was a blockbuster and a trendsetter for movies with twin roles. I was young and impressionable at that time, when I came out bleary eyed from the movie theater in blistering heat, I was convinced that Ram and Shyam were two people instead of one! The next movie I saw was Mughal-e-Azam(1960) in Mumbai after it was colorized and played for over a decade in theaters. I was enchanted by the elaborate sets, musical numbers and costumes. I must have watched the epic film many times with my mother, sister and now with my daughter. Jab pyar kiya to darna kya… and mohe panghat pe nandlal chhed gayo re… would play over and over on vividh bharati. I appreciated Kumar in Gunga Jumna (1961) too, a dacoit crime film.
“The First Khan” of Bollywood, the most successful actor, famous for bringing method acting to cinema. This style incorporates a range of rehearsals that bring out a sincere and expressive performance. This Khan could immerse himself into the character’s emotions and motivation in such a way that his own individual personality dissolved. If you watch Dilip as Shyam in Naya Daur or Shyam in Ram aur Shyam, both roles are poles apart. Yet the actor has made both roles distinctly memorable! Whereas the current Khans in the film industry try to emulate the master’s style, but they lack his flair. My dad used to say that Shah Rukh is blessed with incredible magnetism but he can’t help slipping in a bit of Shah Rukh into every role. Aamir Khan on the other hand tries very hard to become invisible. When I examine Dilip’s striking looks, I am reminded of Elvis Presley with a lock of hair on his broad forehead. His cheeks are reminiscent of Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart rolled into one. His hooded enigmatic eyes quickened the heartbeats of many fans, when he looked up. Just as his dazzling smile disarmed millions.
But his now gentle, now anguished, at times enraged voice was his greatest gift. He was also blessed with an impeccable command of language, urdu, hindi and local dialects, with effortless dialogue delivery that touched the hearts of Indians, Pakistanis and desi diaspora around the globe. Everyone knows his tormented dialogue from Devdas by heart “Kaun kambakht hai jo bardaasht karne ke liye peeta.. Mein to peeta hoon ke bas saans ke sakun. His carefully selected roles portraying humble, yet righteous young men brought truckloads of villagers from across the country to catch a glimpse of the superstar. I think that kind of fan craze is enjoyed by Shah Rukh Khan today. Kumar won the first and highest number of Filmfare Awards for Best Actor. He completed over 65 films. He debuted in Jwar Bhata (1944).. His first box office hits were Jugnu (1947) and the romantic Andaz (1949). The Government of India awarded him with the Padma Bhushan( 1991) and the Padma Vibhushan( 2015). He received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1994. Even the Government of Pakistan conferred Kumar with Nishan-e-Imtiaz in 1998.
But after adjusting for inflation, the name Dilip Kumar will be immortalized as Saleem/Jehangir by the period film Mughal-e-Azam, the highest-grossing film in India. But the success for this Magnum Opus also goes to his amore Madhubala, who plays the dazzlingly beautiful courtesan Anarkali. His romantic duets with co-star Madhubala and their mellifluous on screen presence are absolutely enchanting.
Dilip Kumar led a simple and long family life after his marriage to his film star wife Saira Banu. He loved to read and write in his home in Bandra, Bombay. He dressed simply but was fond of silk ties and dress shoes. His favorite foods were biryani and dahi vada. He loved shayari and music. He was very close to singer and actress Suraiya and loved her songs Tu mera chand main teri chandni.., Afsana likh rahi hoon and invited her to India from Pakistan for a live performance. His unassuming nature, and benevolent aura disarmed many friends and family members. I remember Dilip Kumar through the roles and songs he portrayed. Yeh hawa yeh raat yeh chandni from the 1952 movie Sangdil, sung by Talat Mahmood is my all time favorite. My heart sings when I think of Dilip Kumar and Madhubala in this romantic number. It is an ethereal epitome of affection. When I am at a live performance, I always request the male artist to sing this song and every time it casts a fairy spell. In his later years my dad used to sing the song from his film Saudagar(1991) to his grandchildren Imli ka buta, beri ka ped, Imli khatti , meethe ber… Is jungle mein hum do sher, … perhaps it reminded him of his childhood. That’s the magic of good films. That was the magic of legendary Dilip Kumar. May his soul rest in peace
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. Monita has published many poems, essays and two books, My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.