Reams and reams have been written by aficionados of world cinema, as well as social scientists, documenting the legend of Yusuf Khan, better known by his screen name, Dilip Kumar. Some of this is serious stuff, rest is trivia, usually associated with film stars and famous personalities. Over the years, I have had the privilege of reviewing some of his work through my contribution to the ‘Blast from the Past Section’ of the Delhi edition of the Hindu. And like millions before me, and undoubtedly countless thereafter, have been bowled over by the amazing depth of his craft.
Although not in the best of health, the man celebrated his 98th birthday in December 2020, reviving vivid memories about his films in my mind. And I fondly recounted some of my favorites -Devdas, Kohinoor, Mughal-e-Azam, Naya Daur, Madhumati, Dastaan, Ram Aur Shyam and in the later years, Shakti, in which he was pitted against another legend whom he inspired by his work, Amitabh Bachchan.
However, of all his films, the pride of place is held by his most outstanding work, Ganga Jamuna- released in 1961- which he is rumored to have ghost directed (although the credit goes to Nitin Bose). One of the first-or probably the only- film to be made entirely in the Awadhi dialect, it had the versatile Vyajantimala opposite Dilip Kumar , who gave the performance of a lifetime, unparalleled in the annals of Indian cinema, unmatched by any actor. The story, penned by Dilip Kumar himself, is set in a non-decrepit village located in the vast Hindi heartland, where machinations of the evil landlord ruin many a household; and dreams are crushed to dust. Although not the most innovative plot, the high production standard (under Dilip Kumar’s banner) and Kumar’s superlative performance, catapulted the film to such dizzying heights, that it was fêted in film festivals across the globe.
His transformation from a simple and hardworking Gangaram, who works tirelessly to get his younger brother Jamuna (essayed by Nasir Khan, Dilip Kumar’s younger brother in real life) educated, into someone who is wrongly implicated for a crime which he has not committed, just because he dares to raise his head against the evil landlord’s tyranny, is gut wrenching. Equally poignant is his escape into the badlands, where he joins a group of bandits to avenge the wrong done to him, and what it could have done to his younger brother.
The role requires an actor to delve deep into the sea of emotions and come up with something worthwhile, and while most actors would have come empty handed from this endeavor, Kumar conjures glittering gems of acting and gets under the skin of the character so convincingly that at times it is difficult to differentiate the actor from the character. In the process, Kumar further raised the bar in method acting- which he had already set very high for himself, as well as for his predecessors and peers.
With such an oeuvre, it is not surprising that Kumar has an impressive number of the coveted ‘Filmfare Trophy’ for the Best Actor in a leading role under his belt (of which, incidentally he is the first recipient in 1954) . However, the biggest mystery remains on how, and why, he was overlooked for Ganga Jamuna, that too by Raj Kapoor for his Jis Desh Mein Ganga Bahti Hai, certainly not one of Kapoor’s better roles or film.
Another deeply distressing, disheartening and heartbreaking fact for legions of Dilip Kumar’s fans is that despite having given several out of the world performances, not once was he considered for a National Award, whereas several lesser actors, with much inferior performances, talent, skill and caliber have been honored- surely there is much more than what meets the eye in selecting these national honors. That the man ruled the screen, the box office and people’s hearts for decades on end, much before the advent of 24X7 advertising or social media speaks volumes about his credentials as a performer par excellence.
Perhaps, he was not good in managing the powers that be.
As if to compensate for these glaring lapses, Dilip Kumar has been awarded several honors by the government, after his active acting career came to an end, including the 2nd highest civilian honor, Padama Vibhushan, which he received in 2015. The talent of Dilip Kumar is way above awards without doubt (remember Alfred Hitchcock never got an Oscar!) but Yusuf saab is clearly a Bharat Ratan
APS Malhotra is a Delhi based writer anc columnist. He graduated in Physics from St. Stephen’s College, followed by post-graduation in Physics from Delhi University.