When the unforgettable Dilip Kumar met Bronte

Updated on Jul 10, 2021 02:28 PM IST

From his brother, the legendary actor acquired a love of the classics — Dickens, Shakespeare, Charlotte and Emily Bronte. Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights made a particular impression.

Dilip Kumar and Kamini Kaushal in Arzoo (1950), an adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Kumar died this week, aged 98. PREMIUM
Dilip Kumar and Kamini Kaushal in Arzoo (1950), an adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Kumar died this week, aged 98.

Heathcliff in dhoti-kurta? When it’s Hindi cinema’s greatest actor, the answer’s an emphatic yes. Dilip Kumar could play any role. Amid the grief over his passing this week, aged 98, he is being remembered for his unforgettable performances in landmark films such as Andaz (1949), Devdas (1955), Naya Daur (1957), Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Gunga Jumna (1961).

As a long-time fan, I was always intrigued by Kumar’s interest in one of English literature’s best-loved classics, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847). He acted in two adaptations of the book: Arzoo (1950) and Dil Diya Dard Liya (DDDL, 1966). A third film, Hulchul (1951) also had shades of Bronte’s stormy novel.

Was this because he was mesmerised by the dark, vengeful character of Heathcliff?

One of the actor’s biographers, Urmila Lanba (in The Thespian: Life and Films of Dilip Kumar), says it was his older brother Ayub Sarwar, homeschooled by private tutors because of his frail health, who introduced Kumar to English literature, to Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Bernard Shaw, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare.

In the actor’s autobiography, Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow, screenwriter Salim Khan is quoted as saying that the actor was “disturbingly impressed” by Heathcliff.

But according to Sanjit Narwekar’s biography, Dilip Kumar: The Last Emperor, Kumar says he didn’t “insist” on the remakes. “They just happened.” Even if that’s true, Kumar clearly liked the character enough to play him again and again (though Arzoo and DDDL both Indianised the story and only loosely followed the original plot).

Arzoo was written by renowned Urdu novelist Ismat Chughtai and directed by her husband Shaheed Latif. The wild Yorkshire moors were replaced by an idyllic rural setting of open fields, wells and streams, where the two lovers, the impetuous Badal (Kumar) and the playful Kammo (Kamini Kaushal) meet secretly. Her family disapproves of Badal; he’s an idle wastrel. Kammo persuades him to go to the city, find work and return a proper, respectable suitor. She vows she will wait for him. Reluctantly, he leaves.

In a fateful misunderstanding, Kammo believes he has perished in a fire. Her father forces her to marry a wealthy local landlord. When Badal returns, he finds her living a luxurious life, being waited upon by uniformed servants, having exchanged her rustic ghaghra-choli-odhni for silk saris and velvet blouses. Heartbroken, he embarks on vengeance: he tortures Kammo with soft-voiced barbs (that famous low, whispery voice was used to deadly effect here) and flirts openly with her coy sister-in-law.

By the time of his next Wuthering Heights remake, Kumar was no longer the tousled-haired, rakish 29-year-old of Arzoo. He was now closer to 50. In DDDL, he portrayed a more sombre, sinister Heathcliff, given to the sudden, dramatic outbursts that only Dilip Kumar could pull off. The film was set in the atmospheric ruins of Mandu in Madhya Pradesh. This is where Shankar and Roopa (Waheeda Rehman) fall in tangled love, despite the fury of Ramesh, Roopa’s savage brother (played by Pran).

In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff has come into mysterious wealth by the time he returns to settle scores. In DDDL, Shankar turns out to be the long-lost son and heir of a local raja. Poor Roopa is told that her brother’s henchmen have killed Shankar and, very unwillingly, agrees to marry another man. A devastated Shankar takes his revenge by humiliating her and destroying her brother.

In the end, in both versions, the desi Heathcliff is more anguished lover than merciless revenge-seeker. You can sense Badal and Shankar’s deep hurt beneath their harsh exterior. Heathcliff’s brutality was clearly unacceptable as a plotline for Hindi cinema (in the book he gets back at Catherine by eloping with her sister-in-law, driving Catherine’s husband to penury and her into an early grave).

Suffering is the leitmotif of the Hindi versions, not the feral, frightening passion of the novel’s lead character. And to portray torment, who better than the legendary Dilip Kumar?

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    Poonam Saxena is the national weekend editor of the Hindustan Times. She writes on cinema, television, culture and books

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