In an industry that saw seminal figures like Raj Kapoor, paradigm-shifting heartthrobs like Rajesh Khanna, cult figures like Dev Anand, and the towering presence of the actor called Amitabh Bachchan — not to mention the supersonic stardom of the triple-whammy called Khan, those who watched Dilip Kumar entirely invent a new technique of acting are unanimous that he remains unsurpassable for almost single-handedly redefining the craft. It’s why, when the stalwart passed away on 7th July 2021 in Mumbai at the age of 98, it feels like an age that has irrevocably passed.
That this is true for his wife, veteran actor Saira Bano, is inevitable. “God snatched away my reason for living. Without Sahab, I won’t be able to think about anything. Everyone, please pray,” were reportedly her first words after Kumar’s death was pronounced.
But what is remarkable is that a singular degree of bereftness seeped into the tone of millions of fans across the country, too, even a generation that grew up after his prime cinematic years were past.
But then Dilip Kumar’s path in Bollywood was nonpareil, right from his first film Jwar Bhatta in the year 1944 — when India was quite literally another country, not yet free of British rule, not yet split into two nations — till his very last film, Qila, a staggering 54 years later, in 1998. In an industry where actors and actresses go into oblivion even after working in hundreds of films, Dilip Kumar made his remarkable, unsurpassable identity despite having a relatively limited filmography in numerical terms — about 65 films in all.
Born on 11th December 1922 as Mohammad Yusuf Khan, the actor went on to take the stage name ‘Dilip Kumar’ and went on to redefine both success and cinema itself. He also got the title of ‘TragedyKing’ by his fans because of the portrayal of serious roles in the film. Dilip Kumar was also the first Khan of Indian cinema. Kumar has won almost eight times the Filmfare Award for Best Actor, which remained for decades the highest in the Industry till it was later equalled by Shah Rukh Khan. Kumar faced various ups and downs in his film career. After his first film Jwar Bhatta, he did a host of other modestly successful or even unsuccessful films. But it was the film Andaaz in 1949 that turned out to be the breakthrough he was waiting for, a film in which he starred alongside Raj Kapoor and Nargis, even though the winning streak had begun with his first major hit Jugnu (1947) in which he worked with Noor Jehan, which was a box-office blockbuster. But perhaps it is the 1950s that can be called the Dilip Kumar decade, and gave us seminal after seminal film that transcend time and genre.
The accolades are too many to count: from the Padma Bhushan (the country’s third-highest civilian award, given by the Government of India) and Padma Vibhushan (the country’s second-highest civilian award) in the years 1991 and 2015 respectively to India’s highest cinematic accolade, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award that he was awarded in the year 1994. Perhaps most singular is the adoration that transcended a very hostile border: he is the only Indian to receive the highest civilian Award of Pakistan- ‘Nishan-e-Imtiaz” conferred by the Government of Pakistan in the year 1998.
It was that rare and unquantifiable grace and genius that made him a hero to those who are themselves heroes — and there might be no better example of that than the reverence in which he was held by none other than Amitabh Bachchan. Considered by some the greatest megastar to have ever lived, Amitabh Bachchan has over the years spoken with great insight and admiration of the influence Dilip Kumar had on him — in particular in a fascinating and freewheeling one-on-one interview with journalist and editor Tarun Tejpal at the latter’s iconic THiNK fest in Goa in 2013. In this interview with Tarun J Tejpal, Amitabh Bachchan went on to call Dilip Kumar no less than his idol — a word Amitabh Bachchan rarely uses, for while he offers his praise and admiration to many, he seems to idolise few. That explains the heartfelt note he wrote on learning of the actor’s demise, in which he wrote that an institution is gone and that whenever anyone writes about the history of Indian cinema, it will always be written as before Dilip Kumar and after Dilip Kumar.
Outpourings of grief came from all quarters — from politicians on both sides of the border (Pakistan PM ImranKhan among them) to actors from every age of Indian cinema, including a deeply moving tribute by the veteran Dharmendra. But it is Amitabh Bachchan’s idolising of Kumar, as he revealed to Tarun Tejpal, that is perhaps the only glimpse we need into the aura of a true legend. Moreover, Tarun J Tejpal, himself used to praise Dilip Kumar a lot. Although, Tarun Tejpal didn’t got the chance to interview Dilip Kumar, but he will always be admired him and by the entire nation for his phenomenal work.