He was an actor, an entertainer and a superstar. But over and beyond that, Dilip Kumar represented the composite culture of the Indian subcontinent, often unimaginable now in the din of jingoism on either side of the India-Pakistan border
As one enters my parents’ home in Lahore, two blown-up photographs greet the visitors. They are images of their meeting with Dilip Kumar, when he visited Pakistan in the late 1990s. A dignified, smiling Dilip Kumar stands next to my star-struck parents. Perhaps, this is the only photograph with a film actor that they have among the dozens hanging on the walls of the house. But it was not just my parents but also their friends and relatives — distant and close — who inducted us as children into the Dilip Kumar cult.
He was the finest actor, the most handsome, the king of method acting and a larger-than-life human being. By the time my generation was growing up, we had no access to Indian cinema as screening of Indian films was stopped in Pakistan after the 1965 war (between the two nations). The advent of video-cassette recorders changed everything, and, by early 1980s, video stores in all cities of Pakistan had a wide variety of films — from the golden oldies to “art” films and from the trashy to the sublime of Bollywood.
For a decade, I watched much of Dilip Kumar’s repertoire, aided, of course, by the collective memory and vibrant film journalism in Urdu that consistently followed up on all things Dilip Kumar. It became clear with each viewing what a masterful actor he was — understated, modern and incredibly versatile.
Dr Mian Ramzan, another family friend, is also a Dilip Kumar fan. Conversations during our weekly gatherings often centred around the actor. Ramzan uncle, as we call him, used to have a large collection of video cassettes. In fact, he’d watch bits of Tarana (1951, with the beautiful Madhubala) almost every day. I think we may have seen it a dozen times over the course of the years. And there were Dilip Kumar classics such as Andaz (1949), Babul (1950), Deedar (1951), Aan (1952) and countless others, which were watched with attention and discussed threadbare, scene by scene, dialogue by dialogue. Comparisons with Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand were drawn, and random anecdotes from the sets of Mughal-e-Azam (1960) were shared.
Then there was Jogan (1950), an underestimated masterpiece in which Dilip Kumar and Nargis grapple with love, faith and renunciation. I only found out about Jogan at the age of 16, when a leading Urdu writer and family friend, Enver Sajjad, cited scenes from the film with a proud declaration that he had watched it 10 times when it was released in Lahore cinemas. My curiosity knew no bounds until I ended up watching it twice. In contemporary cinema, such themes were unthinkable — an atheist Dilip Kumar falling in love with a jogan who has renounced her worldly desires, and the emotional tension, the palpable physical desire and the inevitable tragedies that follow.
When I watched the new and opulent Devdas (2002) in a London cinema, my instinctive reaction was to compare it with the Dilip Kumar’s original (1955). Despite my greatest admiration for Shah Rukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit, I was disappointed not because they did a bad job but because Dilip Kumar’s handling of the literary character remains matchless for its subtlety and finesse. But that was Dilip Kumar throughout his career. Years later, as a character actor, even in a terrible film such as Kranti (1981), he shone. This was his relationship with the screen and the characters he played with immersion.
For Pakistanis, the connection with Dilip Kumar transcended his stardom. Yousuf Khan was born in Peshawar and never shunned his relationship with the city despite the Partition, the borders and the nationalist mantras. Even as a proud, patriotic Indian he had no qualms in celebrating his heritage, his mother tongue — a unique dialect spoken in Peshawar valley — and, of course, the vision for a peaceful future of the region. In his several pronouncements, he made it obvious why India-Pakistan peace mattered. It is a separate thing that nationalism on both sides of the border have acquired vile, violent trajectories of their own.
Today, it is almost inconceivable that an actor could be honoured by the highest civilian state awards by two hostile nuclear states. It is even more unthinkable that an actor resists the demand by a political outfit, the Shiv Sena, to return the award (Nishan-e-Imtiaz) given by the Pakistan government; and that none other than a BJP Prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee intervenes to settle the matter. Reportedly, Atalji vouched for the actor’s commitment to his country. In 2021, this sounds like a fairy tale, but all of this is recent history.
This is why Dilip Kumar was not just an actor, a superstar or an entertainer. He did all of that but ended up representing the strong ethos of the Indian subcontinent. The legacies of the bhakts, Sufis, sadhus and yogis; the openness and the expanse of folklore that survives beyond the screaming TV headlines; the threats and the platitudes expressed by the ruling classes. His popular appeal was such that both states had to honour him. If Jawaharlal Nehru asked him to address Congress Party gatherings, Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif ensured that he would go to meet him rather than make him come to the PM House.
Dilip Kumar with his fluency in Urdu, Hindi and English, his penchant for poetry and intimacy with the Holy Quran and the Bhagavad Gita was the guardian of a secular vision of the world where art had a primal role and popular culture amplified and played with humanistic values. This sociocultural realm that Dilip Kumar and many others like him sustained, is under attack by the new powerful alignments and fundamental societal transformations in the region. Today, cynics in both India and Pakistan laugh at the idea of a “shared” or “composite” culture as if it were a fictional construct. Sadly, the WhatsApp narratives more often than not peddle hostilities, jingoism and ruptures of the past.
The “end of an era” pronouncement is worryingly ominous. Celebrating Dilip Kumar’s extraordinary career, life and memory is, therefore, even more important in these unsettling times.
First published in the Indian Express