Dilip Kumar’s screen presence was terrific, but the real deal was the minimalism he brought to the screen
Reading Dilip Kumar’s performance is like understanding the emotional faultlines that the subcontinent lived with after Partition. In his characters and performances, he loved to amass the contradictions that human beings and relationships face.
Dilip Kumar and Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam
Be it the compulsive lover of Andaaz or the brooding romantic of Devdas or the morally compromised characters of Amar and Footpath, Dilip Kumar didn’t want to be boxed into a singular truth. Even after he emerged as a huge star, Dilip Kumar stayed away from being typecast. Of course, his screen presence had a role to play, but the real deal was the naturalism he brought on screen, which was minimal, clean and devoid of the chronic hesitancy of the past and the unqualified swagger of the future.
He would develop a chemistry with objects and spaces as well. In films like Tarana, Musafir, Madhumati, and Ganga Jamuna, Kumar would talk to objects in nature, play with the button of his shirt, the cuff of his sleeve, repeat keywords or phrases from the dialogue, or break into a rhythmic tap or song in the middle of the dialogue, keeping the character dynamic and evolving.
Over the years, these became his mannerisms, but those who watch his work till Ram Aur Shyam will also sense that it was an artiste’s struggle to seek inner freedom.
Once during a conversation with me, Feroz Abbas Khan, who reimagined Mughal-e-Azam for stage, said that Dilip Kumar’s acting temperament was towards seeking the truth. “He used to feel the words that he delivered. In contrast, those who practised the bombastic style were sure that even if they didn’t feel the lines, they could still arouse the audiencewith them.” He was referring, of course, to Prithviraj Kapoor who played Akbar in the film. If we look closely, the lines that Dilip saab delivered as Salim in Mughal-e-Azam were bombastic on paper, but it was his talent that turned the larger-than-life persona into something personal.
That he was an actor’s actor is common knowledge, but director Anup Singh gave DVDs of Aan and Tarana to actress Tillottama Shome when she was preparing for her complex character in Qissa, where she plays a girl who dresses up like a boy. “The idea was to make her understand the value of body language. How to reflect the struggle to come to terms with the flux within,” Singh said. Tillottama was surprised to find how the tragic hero turned into a swashbuckling peasant in Aan.
Dilip Kumar combined the qualities of a magician and a painter, but it was not that he wasn’t challenged or pushed. In Paigham, Motilal, as the shrewd capitalist, tested him. In Devdas too, Motilal’s unprompted ways kept Dilip Kumar on his toes. Motilal was his senior and the thespian admired his natural flair. Later, in Sungharsh, Sanjeev Kumar and Balraj Sahni’s spontaneity was equal to Dilip Kumar’s craft, but the doyen was equal to the challenge.
He played a Banarasi thug who dances to ‘Mere pairo mein ghungroo bandhade phiren meri chal dekh le’ with such gay abandon that you cease to believe that this is a swaggering ruffian. It was very much in league with ‘Nain lad jaihe to’ in Ganga Jamuna, where he played a winsome villager who is forced to become an outlaw. Once again, he embodied the contradictions seamlessly.
In Shakti, Amitabh Bachchan drew from Dilip Kumar’s school to match up to the master, who played his father in the Ramesh Sippy film. Now it was his turn to do a Salim on him. However, every time Dilip Kumar was pushed, it was the audience that reaped the rewards. Take the scene where son meets father after the demise of his mother. There is no dialogue. Just the two grieving together in imploding silence, and the message is conveyed. Sippy once said that initially there was dialogue, but later he and writer Javed Akhtar found it superfluous, considering the intensity both actors could exude through their eyes.
Dilp saab admitted, after the release, that there was a sense of competition in the air as to who performed better, largely because of the critics, but both soon realised that it was one of their best works.
Actors like Naseeruddin Shah, who worked with the thespian in Karma, saw it differently. Shah once told me that it was like wrestling, where one actor had to outperform the other in a scene. Coming from a collaborative medium like theatre, it was a rude surprise for Shah, but it was the unsaid rule of commercial Hindi cinema. Or, perhaps, Shah came in too late to the scene with Dilip Kumar.