Some days ago, veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah talked about two great actors the Hindi cinema has ever witnessed, the Tragedy king and the Angry Young Man. He said that Amitabh Bachchan is a better actor than Dilip Kumar, but Dilip Saab’s contribution to films is more valuable than Bachchan. Probably what he meant was that the two actors represent two diverse style of filmmaking, and they should be compared only on the basis of their contribution to cinema in making it more valuable and meaningful.
Dilip Kumar started acting at the age of 22 with Jwar Bhata (1944). Amitabh Bachchan was born just two years ago in 1942. It’s an incredible story in itself that how a fruit merchant became the heartthrob of the nation in a short span of five years. But, thanks to Devika Rani, the then reigning diva of the Hindi film industry that the audience was introduced to Dilip aka Yusuf, a conventionally good looking Awan from British India’s Peshawar. Bombay Talkies was the ground where Dilip Kumar’s talent bloomed and he started to believe in the power of moving images.
It was not much into fashion to become a film actor though it involved instant name and money even then. But, there was something in Dilip Kumar which assured everybody that he will give a face to the unspoken anger of the country which was struggling for its sovereignty. Thanks to films such as Milan, Jugnu and Shaheed, he had become a star by the time India won its freedom.
He was competing with the likes of Ashok Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor. Each of them was the best in their respective areas. After Kismet, Ashok Kumar grabbed the position of the cynical-unplanned guy while Dev Anand was redefining the romance in his own way. Raj Kapoor had his vision ready in his mind and thus he was constantly coming up with films which suited the political state of the country that was a mixture of hope and progressive thinking. In the meanwhile, Dilip Kumar was busy understanding the value of image formation and then he came up with the idea of tragic romance.
We were always a country which celebrated love and we always threw the pain part of it out of the story, but Dilip Kuamr believed otherwise. He started to celebrate the pain that too in its most penetrating way. Naseeruddin Shah, very rightly points out this fact in his book And Then One Day that Dilip Saab’s biggest contribution is to bringing the Bimal Roys of the Hindi cinema to the forefront. He actually did that. And, not only this, Dilip Kumar has something which brings him very close to the common people.
Rajesh Khanna also became a superstar but probably he was not perceived as someone who would sit and talk with you on general themes. Dilip Saab, on the other hand, appeared cynical and sarcastic, but just like the elder members of the usual household, who just love to have fun, sometimes on others’ expenses.
There is a word in Hindi ‘thasak’. It’s not a virtue with an entirely negative connotation. In fact, it suggests that the man with ‘thasak’ is aware of his position and thus he thinks it’s legitimate for him to act a bit differently. Dilip Kumar always appeared full of it and that became his style. Interestingly, that gave him an edge over fellow actors in several films. Take Naya Daur for example. Do you think anybody else could have pulled that role so brilliantly? To me, it remains his best performance. A man who is out there to prove the power of his innocence and sensibility.
Take another example, Mughal-E-Azam, the clash of the titans in every sense. Not a single character in the film was out of its elements; still the man whose proud head shone in the air was none other than Dilip Kumar. Sometimes, I feel good that it was not named Anarkali as it was planned as per some film historians.
What is Leader, Gopi, Ganga Jamuna or Sagina without its leading man? Everytime somebody needed to showcase a character with straight spine on screen, Dilip Kumar was at his recue. There is a reason even Amitabh Bachchan considers Dilip Kumar the ultimate method actor. 1982 film Shakti says it all. Have you seen the charisma in Dilip Kumar’s eyes when he preaches long sermons to morally ambiguous Vijay (Bachchan)? If we felt this way while watching the film, what would have been Amitabh Bachchan feeling during the shoot? After all, he was delivering dialogues in front of the actor he always admired. Bachchan is another master of the craft, so when he says that Dilip Kumar’s intensity is hard to match, it means something.
In a way, Bachchan was taking Dilip Kumar’s legacy forward. Of course, he added new dimensions to the less educated, less sophisticated, full of himself characters played by Dilip Kumar, but more or less, he was fine tuning the same line of argument. The villager had become the suave urban businessman and was ready to utilise his anger in a more channelised way. Dilip Kumar looked like a man on mission but without a proper plan while Amitabh Bachchan never seemed a person who doesn’t know what is going to happen. In a nut shell, Dilip Saab’s well intentioned moves were there to help him; he just had to elongate the thread.
In one of his interviews, Subhash Ghai narrates the tediousness of the situation when you have two stalwarts in the same frame, Raj Kumar and Dilip Kumar. It sounds hilarious when two of them convey messages through the director despite standing next to each other, and mind you it was to make the other aware of their acting flaws. This is Dilip Kumar for you. An actor who wants his rival to look equally strong on screen.
Dilip Kumar wouldn’t have achieved the status he enjoys today without his wife Saira Banu’s help, but then people don’t dedicate everything to each other in absence of fascination, love and perennial charm.
(Interact with Rohit Vats at Twitter/@nawabjha )