The death of Indian movie legend Dilip Kumar marks not just the end of a cinematic era in India, but across the Indian diaspora, where Hindi films were once the most powerful connection to a space that had receded with the end of Indian indentureship in 1917. Hindi films, which entered Guyana from the late 1930s around the 100th anniversary of Indian Arrival, were more widely accessible as signifiers of “Indian culture” in a colony that derided the latter.
Dilip Kumar, born Mohamed Yusuf Khan in 1927, agreed to adopt a “screen name” that was suggested to him by the producer of his first film in 1944 when he was just 17. It was a common practice in the nascent industry. He would go on to become one of the three biggest stars of his era, along with Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand. They were also immensely popular in Guyana since, by the late 1940s, cinemas running Indian films had penetrated the countryside. In my home village of Uitvlugt, there was the Dutchess Cinema, renamed “Earlo” by local boy and soon-to-be cinema magnate, Robert Sookraj.
Dilip’s early films were all heavily influenced by the then dominant Nehruvian socialist ethos in addition to the (ironically opposed) Gandhian ideal of village India being the fulcrum of Indian culture. One of his earliest hits, “Shaheed” (Martyr) of 1948 – when India would have just won independence – dramatises the “Quit India Movement” led by great revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh. Dilip’s character would rebel against his father, who was an official of the British Civil Service. According to my father, who was born in the same year as Dilip, the song “watan ki raha mein”, which calls upon youths to sacrifice their lives for the freedom of their country, was very popular in rural Guyana because it echoed the similar call by Cheddi Jagan on the sugar estates.
Naya Daur (New Era) from the mid-fifties would be another Dilip starrer, for which he won his third successive Filmfare best actor award. This picked up the Gandhian notion of finding a balance between his own protege Nehru’s headlong plunge into industrialisation and mechanisation versus their disruptive effects on village life and morality.
Dilip earned his title of the “King of Tragedy” with the 1951 movie “Deedar” (Glance), in which the hero is separated from his childhood sweetheart because of class differences. The song “Bachpan ke din bhula na dena” (do not forget the days of childhood) remains popular. Devdas (1955) was the ultimate tragic Dilip starrer, in which class distinctions separate two lovers and the hero finds temporary solace with a courtesan – and death from alcohol. He reprieved the role from a 1937 movie, and would be again reprieved (2002) by Shahrukh Khan, along with Ayesha Rai and Madhuri Dixit.
Dilip Kumar was also the first “method actor” in India, and preceded even Marlon Brando, who is often credited with this technique. The actor becomes totally immersed in the character, so that he is not “acting” or invoking remembered emotions, but actually living the experience within the background and circumstances of the scene. While this makes for very realistic and unforgettable movies, it does take a toll on the actor – as it did with Dilip. He became so depressed at one point that his psychiatrist prescribed that he should take up some lighter roles – which he did.
By the 1960s India had changed, and so, too, did Dilip Kumar and his peers, who had to adapt. The era of the “Masala Movie”, with its stock themes of the energetic, swashbuckling hero and his heroine who did not need “vamps” to swivel their hips, had arrived. In 1966, he married the stunning (and 22 years younger) beauty Saira Bhanu, who epitomised the new Indian movie scene when she was paired with Shammi Kapoor in Junglee (1962). He starred in the comedy drama “Ram or Shyam” in 1967, which proved to be a blockbuster and gave Dilip his umpteenth Best Actor award. He had transitioned from being a hero to my father’s generation to mine.
Surely, we all belong to the Supreme, and to him we return. RIP, Dilip Saab.