My Voice - 2021


Farewell to Dilip Kumar, An Icon of Indian Cinema

By Shivani Tripathi

Legend. Tragedy King. Yusuf Saab. Thespian. Gentleman. These are a few ways in which Mohammad Yusuf Khan, better known as Dilip Kumar, is being remembered by and referred to by fans and journalists. Kumar started his cinematic journey as an actor in pre-Independence India in 1944's Hindi film, Jwar Bhata and when his career concluded with Qila in 1998, he had more than sixty feature films to his name. The silver screen star was the last remaining member of the famed triumvirate of leading men from the Golden Age of Hindi cinema which included Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor.

Anand was known for his style, whether it be his hair, clothing and mannerisms, while Kapoor's achievements as a producer and director became his lasting legacy. It was Kumar who was admired for his acting chops and complete devotion to the craft. Arguably one of the first film actors to employ what is referred to as Method Acting, where an actor becomes the character, Kumar took great lengths to study his characters and transform, whether it was learning to play the sitar for Kohinoor or exhausting himself by sprinting around the movie set for a pivotal scene in Ganga Jumna. During his lifetime he was the recipient of eight Filmfare Awards and the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his immense contribution to cinema.

One of my earliest memories of watching a movie, Indian or otherwise, is from 1951's Tarana starring Kumar and actress Madhubala with the duo singing the song, “Nain Mile Nain Huye Bawre" on a bridge. I was born to a family of cinephiles and grew up with the VCR playing Hindi films from all decades, but films from the black and white era were played often and many of those films starred Dilip Kumar. He was known for his command over Hindi and Urdu and I have no qualms in sharing that listening to the actor's perfect diction is a reason why I speak Hindi so well, despite being born and raised in America.

In many of his earlier films Kumar made anguish so intriguing, so beautiful and these qualities, along with his kind gaze and charming smile, made Dilip Kumar my first matinee crush. His pairings with actress Vyjayanthimala, the doe-eyed dancer who starred with Kumar in no less than eight films, remain one of my all-time favorite onscreen couples, as both artists had attributes that would appeal to a child, which I was when I first saw them. To me they appeared to have childlike qualities, with bright eyes, smooth complexions, and pure joy writ on their cherubic faces, on grown-up bodies.

I was mesmerized by their playful camaraderie which was especially evident in the song set on a tanga “Maang Ke Saath Tumhara" from the man versus machine movie Naya Daur. While their chemistry wasn't fiery in the romantic sense like Kumar and Madhubala's, it certainly was magical. I would experience such joy watching Vyjayanthimala sway, spin and whirl while Kumar would sportingly accompany her, as what he lacked in technique he made up for in enthusiasm!

For the past few years Kumar was in the news for his frail health, understandable for a person in their nineties. In the age of social media and its ability to quickly spread false information, his devoted wife Saira Banu, an accomplished actress and movie star in her own right, would provide updates regarding Kumar's health via his official Twitter handle. It was through this account the passing of Kumar was verified. Going purely by social media posts, 1958's Madhumati seems to be the film many have chosen to revisit, or watch for the first time, to honor Kumar.

Simple shots of Kumar's character enjoying a picturesque valley, with the birds chirping and the sun shining upon him are testament to the ease with which he would captivate the audience with his screen presence. Whether it is his finest performance, or his best film can certainly be debated, but Madhumati keeps an intimacy that a grand film like Mughal-e-Azam may not and includes commercial elements such as song, dance and comedic scenes, and isn't heartbreaking in the ways films like Deedar or Devdas are.

His body of work reflects the acting range Kumar possessed and it is no secret he has influenced many artists, some who intentionally imbibed mannerisms and methods to perform a scene, and also those who unintentionally absorbed Kumar's style, as they aspired to be like their favorite star and who considered Kumar a model actor. Many, if not most, of Kumar's films are available on YouTube and for film enthusiasts who are better versed with relatively recent films on streaming platforms, and who are not as familiar with Kumar's filmography might be pleasantly surprised to see how Madhumati inspired pivotal portions of actor Shah Rukh Khan's masala blockbuster Om Shanti Om, and upon watching Naya Daur plot points from 2001's Lagaan will come to mind. It will also be obvious how the style and grandeur of magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam has been a template for many historical dramas, including director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Bajirao Mastani.

Dilip Kumar has left an enduring, enviable legacy with his contributions to cinema and just as many artists may not be aware of how Kumar has shaped their craft, movie-goers will continue to appreciate Kumar's artistry, also knowingly and unknowingly, for many years to come.

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Shivani Tripathi cannot remember a time she wasn't madly in love with Indian cinema and writing. She spends time in New York, North Carolina and Twitterpur at @Shivani510