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Abiding icon of a lost era

Yusuf Khan aka Dilip Kumar is rarely seen these days, but books on him have begun to tumble out of the printing presses at an unparalleled pace. The man who rules over the airwaves, the movie screens and the commercial hoardings is the all-pervasive Amitabh Bachchan. Why, then, is the publishing industry so obsessively interested in dissecting the life and career of an actor whose time is gone?

india Updated: Feb 13, 2004 22:27 IST

Yusuf Khan aka Dilip Kumar is rarely seen these days, but books on him have begun to tumble out of the printing presses at an unparalleled pace. The man who rules over the airwaves, the movie screens and the commercial hoardings is the all-pervasive Amitabh Bachchan. Why, then, is the publishing industry so obsessively interested in dissecting the life and career of an actor whose time is gone?

Three books on the "tragedy king" have been released in the span of the last two months. Add to that Urmila Lanba's The Life and Films of Dilip Kumar, published in 2002 by Vision Books, and you have an incredible quartet of tomes in less than two years. Quite apart from the fact that Dilip Kumar is arguably the finest actor Hindi cinema has ever produced, his importance lies, as Lord Megnad Desai, author of Nehru's Hero: Dilip Kumar in the Life of India, points out, in what he represents as a movie star and a mass icon.

Dilip Kumar represents an era gone by, a genteel period of social and national construction when India was in the process of being built, brick by brick, idea by idea, move by move, under the liberal eyes of Jawaharlal Nehru. A Muslim who adopted a Hindu name and played an array of Hindu characters on the screen (the only Muslim figure Dilip Kumar ever impersonated in his long career was Prince Salim in Mughal-e-Azam), he denoted more than anybody else India's and the film industry's naturally pluralistic ethos.

Politically, India is a far more volatile place today. A target of terrorists of all hues, a happy hunting ground for multinationals hungry for more, a laboratory of fascist ethnic cleansers and a live workshop for often distorted coalition politics, India is a pot constantly on the boil. The sense of repose and stability that the on-screen Dilip Kumar persona transmitted, notwithstanding the tinge of tragedy that attended all his performances, is a bit like a salve on the wounds of a nation at war with itself.

At the professional level, Dilip Kumar stood for the sort of creative integrity that has become a rare commodity in this day and age, when profit drives all endeavours in the film industry. The aura surrounding Dilip Kumar hasn't waned because he did not, unlike Amitabh Bachchan many years later, reduce himself to a Brand at the mercy of marketing whizkids. One of the things about marketing whizkids is their refusal, perhaps inability, to respect the sanctity of an Icon. Icons belong to specific eras and should, therefore, be allowed to remain frozen in time. Legends are not for tampering and tweaking.

The Big B became too big and once the market forces appropriated him lock, stock and barrel, the aura was stripped off very quickly. The man who once towered over everything he surveyed shrunk into a little face on the idiot box that could be blacked out at the flick of a remote-control button. Today, even when a book is written about him, like the one that was released on his 50th birthday, it is no more than a family controlled, market-driven media exercise.

No such misfortune befell Dilip Kumar for he lived and worked in less hyperactive times and had the luxury to withdraw to a distance from all the hurly-burly once he was through with his career, reemerging only occasionally to play a specially-written role (Subhash Ghai's Saudagar, for instance). Dilip Kumar has remained a pristine star that has retained its lustre much after its heyday. Even Amitabh Bachchan regards him as his idol, a fact that was acknowledged in his Dilip Kumar-inspired, Bhojpuri-spouting star turn in Adalat.

But the question to be asked perhaps is: Is there enough space for as many as three books on Dilip Kumar? Well, each of the three that are in circulation at present is different from the others. Dilip Kumar: Star Legend of Indian Cinema, written by Bunny Reuben for Harper Collins, is a personalised biography, while Dilip Kumar: The Last Emperor, authored by Sanjit Narwekar for Rupa & Co, is more of a critical assessment of the actor's work. The Lord Megnad Desai book, on the other hand, is neither a biography nor an appraisal. It is in the nature of a memoir that analyses the significance of Dilip Kumar as a repository of the values of Nehruvian socialism and secularism.

It is that singular aspect of the abiding Dilip Kumar legend that stands out today. And therein lies the explanation for the current tide of nostalgia for the golden era of Hindi cinema expressing itself through a re-assessment of the actor's life and work.