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The self-taught actor

Dilip Kumar was dubbed the tragedy king, but that was only a part of his repertoire. He was more than adequate as a swashbuckling hero, an upstanding tongawalla, a dacoit from the badlands of Uttar Pradesh

Shreekant Sambrani 

Dilip Kumar

From the time films began to be made in 1900, stars the world over assiduously cultivated distinctive images and chose roles that complimented them. The golden age of Hindi cinema was no exception. All of Raj Kapoor's roles had a Chaplinesque innocence at the core. And was Dev Anand ever anything but a happy-go-lucky urban imp? But there was one outlier. Picture these vignettes:

A debonair young man at a piano sings "Aaj kisi ki haar hui hai, aaj kisi ki jeet" (somebody lost today, somebody won). He has just learnt that the heiress he loves is actually long enamoured of someone else.

The heir to the Mughal throne runs a feather along the face of an incredibly beautiful courtesan he passionately loves but cannot marry. Only the court musician's aalaps are heard in the background.

A farm labourer cavorts with his friends, singing "Nain lad jai hain" until his fresh-faced beloved appears. He ends up as a dacoit trying to save her from the clutches of the evil moneylender, only to die at the hands of his policeman brother.

A scion of landed gentry tells a courtesan who loves and cares for him, "Kaun kambakht bardasht karane ke liye peeta hai" (I want to drink beyond tolerance). However much he drinks, he says, a sliver of consciousness reminds him of the pain (of separation from his childhood sweetheart, now married to someone else).

Yusuf Khan from Peshawar, who also responds to the screen name Dilip Kumar, was completely believable in all these roles - arguably his best - in Andaz (1949), Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Gunga Jumna (1961), and Devdas (1955), in a span of 12 years at the height of his career, covering 62 films in nearly 50 years.

He was dubbed the tragedy king, but that was only a part of his repertoire. He was more than adequate as a swashbuckling hero (Aan, Azaad, Kohinoor), an upstanding tongawalla fighting greedy contractors (Naya Daur), a Roman (Yahudi), simpering/daredevil twin (Ram Aur Shyam), a martinet of a father (Shakti) and a patriarch (Kranti, Saudagar) in some of his famous films. But his Gothic portrayals of conflicted characters in lesser films - Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (twice, in Arzoo and Hulchal), Edward Rochester in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (Sangdil) and Victor Stowell in Hall Caine's The Master of Man (Amar) - testify to his range as well as courage in playing characters with deep negative traits in an age when romance alone was king.

Legend credits Thespis, the Greek poet of sixth century BC, as the first actor who actually became a different character on stage at a time when theatre entirely comprised chorus performances. Aristotle called these new dramas tragedies. No one deserves the title thespian, the adjectival or noun form of Thespis, more than Dilip Kumar.

Born in 1922 in Peshawar, Kumar came to Bombay with his well-off fruit-trader family as a schoolboy. His good looks, well-bred manners and soft speech landed him a contract in 1942 with Devika Rani's Bombay Talkies that was on the look-out for a new hero. Without any training in acting, he was thrust into the lead in Jwar Bhata (1944). It did not do too well and Kumar attracted little attention. The contract and other contacts led to a succession of roles that left little mark. Baburao Patel's Filmindia, then the leading film magazine, panned his lean looks and his acting in film after film.

No quitter, he studied film-making in all its aspects, sought advice from many directors and from Ashok Kumar, his senior at the studio. A natural actor himself, Ashok Kumar told the youngster to be himself in front of the camera, possibly the best career-shaping advice he received. He avidly read classic novels which reflected in his choice of roles. He watched the latest Hollywood fare with stars such as Paul Muni, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, among others. All by himself, he realised that he had to explore his own feelings and experiences while portraying the screen character - the essence of the Stanislavski School of "method acting."

He played a man blinded in an accident in Deedar (1951). At his co-star Ashok Kumar's suggestion, he observed for weeks a blind beggar and followed his own ideas, at times going against Nitin Bose, the director. His acting won over even the curmudgeonly Patel, who said Kumar had performed to perfection. Thus was born the legend of the self-taught acting genius, who was often the real, though uncredited, director.

Marlon Brando fascinated Kumar. Adherence to method acting was not the only commonality between the two trail-blazers of the 1950s. If Brando was the rough-and-tough hero in urbane Hollywood, Kumar the tragedian died in film after film in feel-good Bombay films of that era. Their star dimmed after the early 1960s. Even as they appeared in many a forgettable film in the waning half of their careers, they delivered award-winning marquee performances in this phase as well: Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972) and Colonel Walter Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979), Kumar as Commissioner Ashwini Kumar in Shakti (1982) and Editor Vinod Kumar in Mashaal (1984).

The early Brando characters were from the coarse underbelly of the American society who grabbed violently what they wanted as their right. Meghnad Desai terms Kumar as the star of the Nehruvian era of social activism, but most of his memorable characters were from the middle or upper classes, angst-ridden and unable to cope with their existential dilemmas. Their future was predetermined by their birth, denying free will. Unable to cope with the conflict, they went down the path of self-destruction, often aided by the demon brew.

Saratchandra Chattopadhyay's Devdas was the very embodiment of this conflicted persona. Kumar was born to play the role in the Bimal Roy film, the best among the numerous versions. He brought the right mix of self-loathing and hopelessness to his understanding, unlike the simpering victimhood of Shah Rukh Khan's later interpretation.

Even the dacoit Gunga of Gunga Jumna is an extrapolation of this archetype, albeit from a different milieu. Kumar made his own Mother India when Mehboob Khan refused his request to play an enlarged role of the dark son Birjoo. Kumar scoured the badlands of Uttar Pradesh to get the ambience just right, including the Purbia dialect, and worked on every frame of the film, even though Nitin Bose, his early mentor, was the titular director. The film was bound to succeed, not in the least because it had India's favourite formula of a good man gone bad, meeting justice at the hands of his dearest.

Kumar's autobiography, The Substance and the Shadow, was published this year. It is rather disappointing, not because he glosses over his well-documented dalliances with a married Kamini Kaushal or an ailing Madhubala or a controversial Asma Rehman, or presents his marriage with Saira Banu with an unbelievable rosy tint. His personal life is his privilege, even if one suspects that the real ghost writer of this tome is Saira Banu (the credited one is the film journalist Udaytara Nayar, obviously overawed by the Master.)

The value of the narrative could have been much the greater had Kumar analysed his growth as an artist and shared his insights into filmcraft. That would have required a degree of candour and introspection, which on the evidence of the book, he either does not possess or is reluctant to exercise.

No matter. We cherish not Yusuf Khan the memoirist, but Dilip Sahab, the sole supernova in Galaxy Bollywood.

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First Published: Sat, October 25 2014. 00:29 IST