“The history of Indian cinema will always be written in two parts, Before Dilip Kumar and After Dilip Kumar”, has been an oft repeated quote by Amitabh Bachchan. This shows the position and importance that Dilip Kumar holds in Indian cinema and the kind of influence he has had not just on cine-goers but on cinema as such.This article is an attempt to analyse the statement made by Amitabh Bachchan and understand the Dilip Kumar factor and his influence onIndian cinema.
Dilip Kumar made his entry in Indian cinema as an actor a few years before the country gained independence. Cinema had started making inroads and gaining popularity amongthe masses with the gradual entry of the studio system and was getting acceptance as a popular form of entertainment. The subjects were mostly religious or social and the medium relied on dramatic performances from artists. Thisperiod of Indian cinema can be called as the reformist era.
There were stars in that era too before Dilip Kumar entered the scene, and the biggest of them all was Ashok Kumar, who was associated with Bombay Talkies. He had already delivered hit films,and his acting style was characterisedby observation and natural spontaneity, coupled with an effortless ease. Ashok Kumar was the one who brought about an element of underplay in performances. Dilip Kumar joined Bombay Talkies and in his own words, spent the initial months just observing Ashok Kumar perform on the sets of Kismet, which would go on to become the biggest hit of that era. The biggest learning came when Ashok Kumar told him, “Acting is all about not acting.....you will understand when you face the camera yourself”. And this became the guideline forDilip Kumar!
Being a shy person but a determined learner and a painstaking individual, he realised that he would have to create his own space to survive and establish himself in a competitive environment. He became his own instructor and thus began the process of teaching himself and moulding his screen presence on the lines of hisown personality, be it his dialogue delivery or his walk. Being a keen observer helped him and his relentless determination in pursuit of perfection gave rise to what is called “method acting”. Dilip Kumar can be called the inventor of method acting sincehis name was associated with this form much before Marlon Brando, who is highly regarded as a mainstream method actor.
Dilip Kumar’s brand of acting shifted from ethos and introduced the element of pathos; incorporating sociological, psychological and behavioural aspects of the characters he played. It was a painstaking process of studying and interpreting scripts, characters and roles; something that he was influenced by Nitin Bosewhile working under his directionin Milan; coincidentally Nitin Bose went on to direct him in Deedar and the legendary Gunga Jumna. For Gunga Jumna, which wasalso producedand written(screenplay)by him, he spenta lot of time in U.P. learning the mannerisms of the local people and the Purbi dialect, which he delivered with perfection flooring the audience.
Unlike other actors, Dilip Kumar started doing tragedy roles at a young age, in his 20s, and with such perfection that he was given the title of “Tragedy King”. Underplaying a character’s performance came naturally with Dilip Kumar, and his soft style of dialogue delivery became a mark of his brand of acting. He was known for his pauses and could hold the audience with just his expressions, gestures and mannerisms, without uttering a word. Two scenes come to mind, the first one from Mughal-e-Azam, where he caresses Anarkali (Madhubala) with a peacock feather and the entire romantic scene is picturised without any dialogues. Of course, he always gave due credit to his co-stars and the directors. The second one from Shakti when his son (Amitabh) comes to meet him after the death of his wife (Rakhee) and the entire communication between the father and son happens without any dialogue and with just the mannerisms. Dilip Kumar understood the secret of acting for the camera, and he appreciated this quality in Amitabh Bachchan too.
Well, he wasn’t limited to underplaying in every scene, but whatever he did, perfectly reflected the character’s emotions, thoughts and expressions. Remember the scene death scene of his wife in Mashaal, or the challenge that he throws at his friend turned adversary in Saudagar!
The Tragedy King title fell soheavily on him that he decided to take up comedy to give relief to himself from the after-effects ofdoing tragic roles and to add variety to his acting. Thus came Azaad and its success endorsed his ability to handle comedy, for he knew very well that comedy requires a broader base to get laughs from the audienceat the right moments. By the time he did Kohinoor, he became adept at comedy too!The famous mirror sequences of Amar Akbar Anthony and Mardwere inspired by Dilip Kumar’s scene in Kohinoor!!!
After doing anti-hero roles in Amar and Footpath which were not so successful, he felt important while preparing for Gunga Jumna to acquaint the viewer with the reasons for the character taking to lawless life and make him pay the penalty for it. It can be easily said that Gunga Jumna’s achievement is the inspiration it provided to writers to give the hero a flaw or what is called a negative shade. Hence, it was remodelled as Deewaar and became a base for Salim-Javedto develop the character of the hero with a negative shadein so many films.
Not just Gunga Jumna, but the much earlier made Naya Daurwas rechristened as Lagaan and Madhumati became the modern Om Shanti Om.
Recollect the death sequence in Gunga Jumna ; it became a reference for Amitabh Bachchan to execute death scenes with such a plomb. Or for that matter, the “Dus Dus ki daud” sequence of Ghulam, which was taken from Sagina Mahato in which Dilip Kumar did the entire train sequence himself in onetake!
Being the big star that he was, offers and scripts came to him in loads, but his criteria to do a film was that the script and the director had to meet his expectations.He remained selective in his choice throughout his career, and nobody could question Dilip Kumar. He politely refused to do Pyaasa for Guru Dutt because he was already doing Devdas and felt that the melancholic mood and similarities in the characters in the two movies would make bad business sense and that one film would overshadow the other!
Despite being the biggest star in the 50s and 60s, he was so selective that he did just over 40 films in lead roles in a span of 26 years since he entered the world of cinema. He added about 20 more from 1970 onwards and such was his prowess that the character roles that he did were also the leading ones. Something that only he could have done,and he remained matchless when it came to displaying natural ease in front of the camera. One should not forget that it was Dilip Kumar who did the first triple role in Hindi films, in Bairaag. Not just acting, but the entire film making business flourished with the success of Dilip Kumar and his films. Madhumati was the first Indian film to be launched abroad; it was launched at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in Czechoslovakia. K. Asif got the confidence and courage to sell Mughal-e-Azam both in the domestic and international market at a price that he wanted and it remains the highest grossing Hindi film when adjusted for inflation, not to mention its uninterrupted run of 3 years at the Maratha Mandir.
Dilip Kumar will remain an enigma despite volumes being written about him,andthe truth is that he has inspired generations of actors, writers, directors, singers and musicians during the course of his journey in films.He will forever remainthe reference for anything to do with acting and his performances will be the bridge for every actor to walk through and learn.