Dilip Kumar — whose 101st birth anniversary is being celebrated today — navigated complex emotions with his vocabulary of silent pauses.


Roger Ebert, the well-known American film critic, once remarked, “The cinema is the greatest art form ever conceived for generating emotions in its audience. That’s what it does best.” In Hindi cinema, Dilip Kumar — whose 101st birth anniversary is being celebrated today — would go on to fulfil Ebert’s idea of cinema as an evocative medium. Although ‘shy and reticent’, as he confessed to Trinetra and Anshula Bajpai in his biography Dilip Kumar: Peerless Icon Inspiring Generations (2019), Kumar was an actor who could play on the audience’s mind, with a wide range of emotions. He did this with a flair and poise uniquely his own, portraying an array of complex roles within a few years of starting out.

By the first decade of his career, Dilip Kumar — born as Muhammed Yusuf Khan in Peshawar — had a slate of films with path-breaking roles: Andaz (1949), Jogan (1950) Footpath (1953), and Amar (1954). “I took roles early on in my career that other actors would probably have taken up later, as they dealt with emotionally sensitive topics. They would have taken up such roles after they were well-established in the industry. I, on the other hand, took such roles from the very beginning,” the actor reveals in his autobiography.

In the years that followed, Dilip Kumar acquired a legendary status in the industry with films like Devdas (1955), Azaad (1955), Naya Daur (1957), Paigham (1959) — even before the iconic Mughal-E-Azam and Ganga Jamuna were released in 1960 and 1961, respectively.

His vocabulary of silent pauses

Kumar’s arrival was a breath of fresh air as he broke away from the theatrical acting tradition where no emotion was left ambiguous. He was real, effortless, desirable and yet vulnerable. Above all, he was drawn to fine emotions; in real life, he wrote Urdu shayari (poetry) and recited them with finesse. As a poet, he knew the importance of silence, and non-verbal communication, and used them to achieve the best.

Over the years, he would create his own distinct vocabulary of cinematic subtlety marked by pauses and expressions of silence. What was unsaid became equally meaningful, lending a sense of mystery to which Dilip Kumar would forever be associated with.

In Andaz, which inspired several triangular love stories that followed in Hindi cinema, Kumar plays an unrequited, obsessive lover named Dilip, who meets with a tragic end. From a confident young man to an understated lover to an obsessive man, the actor displays an incredible spectrum of emotions in his thoughtful performance.

In Andaz, which inspired several triangular love stories that followed in Hindi cinema, Kumar plays an unrequited, obsessive lover named Dilip, who meets with a tragic end

In Andaz, which inspired several triangular love stories that followed in Hindi cinema, Kumar plays an unrequited, obsessive lover named Dilip, who meets with a tragic end

In the popular staircase scene in the climax, he confronts Rajan (Raj Kapoor), the fiancé of Neena (Nargis), the spoiled daughter of a rich businessman (Murad). For the first few seconds, he remains silent, and then delivers his first line: “Mujhe aapse kuch kehna hai. (I want to say something to you).” He pauses at length, while the audience speculates what he might utter next. Would it be something that would draw Neena closer to him, or would it make Rajan sense the depth of Dilip’s love for Neena, or perhaps something even more potentially volatile? Through the sequence, Kumar uses silence as a tool to tell more.

It’s hard to imagine how 74 years ago, Kumar, who had been in the industry for a mere five years, would play a character as complicated as Dilip’s. In her obituary, television producer and author Nasreen Munni Kabir, Kabir notes, “He was thoughtful and curious about the finer shades of emotion”. Kabir wasn’t off the mark. The following year, Dilip Kumar was paired opposite Nargis in Jogan. A story of an atheist man, Vijay, who is drawn to a female religious mendicant, Surabhi (also called Meera), Jogan questions religiosity, and the relationships between people who have renounced the materialistic world, and the ones who are critical of it. The film ends with the two never knowing each other enough as the mendicant dies. Kumar and Nargis show their brilliance in many intense scenes laced with pent-up longing. His brooding expression creates magical moments of unspoken love and desire rarely seen in Hindi cinema.

Breaking free from the obsessive lover prototype

Kumar had started excelling in these portrayals of jilted and/or obsessive lover and in the next three years, he would break free to move on to a fundamentally different kind of characterisation as evident in his portrayal of Noshu Sharma, a corrupt black-marketer in Zia Sarhadi’s Footpath. Footpath, arguably, is one of the best films of his career.

The story is centred on Noshu, an honest but failed reporter and how he gets into the vortex of black-marketing. As the story unfolds, he loses his brother, Bani, whose support he had covertly used to seed his black marketing. Mala (Meena Kumari), his girlfriend, too drifts away. The narrative takes a catastrophic turn when Bani dies in an epidemic, with no access to life-saving drugs as Noshu and his likes have hoarded them to later sell at an unfair, exorbitant price. Eventually, Noshu surrenders to the police who label him as a criminal.

Dilip Kumar as Noshu, a flawed man, is deliberate. He is unabashed and does not justify his transition from a modest reporter to a powerful black marketer. Incredibly written and equally well-performed, Noshu’s role went on to influence Salim-Javed’s characterisation of Vijay Malhotra in the cult film Deewar (1975). Both stories zero in on broken systems as the reasons for their lapse and emergence as unlikely heroes. Pertinently, the 1950s was an era when the Jawaharlal Nehru government was trying hard to fix the newly independent country dented by unemployment, hunger, poverty. Noshu’s actions are reflective of these realities offscreen.

Dilip Kumar took on the role to change his image as a hero who only loses out, aiming to present something robust yet blemished. His understated performance, which others might have portrayed loudly as the ‘bad guy,’ makes the film work. It is apparent that Kumar loved the avant-garde film; although he probably sensed that it may not work at the box office, and yet he took the risk. Herein lies his wisdom of the medium; playing Noshu was not only an act of support for Zia Sarhadi’s experimentation but also a challenge to his actor self. In the film’s phenomenal climax, where Noshu delivers a soliloquy describing the sweeping journey of sliding into the abyss of corruption, Kumar’s histrionics stand out. His gentle and catchy dialogues, his close-up of the eyes, his face, and his undeniable body language of a man trailing behind, all mesmerize.

The very next year, Mehboob Khan’s Amar released. It had a stellar cast of Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Nimmi, and Khan’s directorial prowess, but failed at the box office. In hindsight, it isn’t a surprise that the film did not do well for at its heart, it was a story of a debauched hero, immoral and unheroic. Amar (Dilip Kumar) plays a suave, ethically upright lawyer, who is in a relationship with Anju (Madhubala). He is shown to be just and right in all situations yet it is Amar who seduces and rapes Soniya (Nimmi) on a stormy night when she takes refuge in his house, being hounded by the goon Shankar.

Even before Amar owns up to his horrific crime, the story swiftly moves on with Anju delivering the news of the death of Amar’s father. The justice-loving lawyer holds back his secret as he tries to come to terms with his own darkness, haplessly struggling to take the onus of his crime.

By 1960, Dilip Kumar would surprise his audience with Mughal-E-Azam, the ultimate portrayal of a Mughal prince that would go on to become a part of India’s collective memory.

By 1960, Dilip Kumar would surprise his audience with Mughal-E-Azam, the ultimate portrayal of a Mughal prince that would go on to become a part of India’s collective memory.

Dilip Kumar: Peerless Icon Inspiring Generations narrates how the scene was executed with care: Amar’s dilating eyes, the crashing sound of a lamp falling, intercut with Soniya’s close-up of clenching teeth, lift the scene. This would remain the only onscreen sequence of molestation that Dilip Kumar ever acted in, followed by the gradual metamorphosis of the character from a righteous man to a morally depraved soul. Kumar’s power-packed performance as the anguished man is unparalleled. His calm face, his wavering voice, and his angst-ridden eyes all add to the delineation of the complex Amar. The scene where he confronts Anju remains one of milestones in his filmography.

The ultimate portrayal of a Mughal prince

By 1954, Dilip Kumar had clocked a decade in the industry and his stardom was on the rise. Naturally, there was no such stake that would make him take up the role but Kumar did. Perhaps this was connected to his nuanced understanding of who is a ‘hero’. He mentions in his autobiography how a flawed hero could still draw attention and be appealing.

In this light, his willingness to act as Amar wasn’t a surprise. He was a man who never judged people on their flaws and accepted the grey shades of life. This humane understanding would be one of the hallmarks of Dilip Kumar’s body of work as he galloped into the second decade with the seminal Devdas (1955), the story of self-destruction of a depressed alcoholic.

Kumar had an uncanny ability to balance out negative and positive roles. The same decade would also see him shift to heroic roles in Naya Daur, Azaad and Paigham — roles which resonated with the burgeoning India, the nation in the making. Kumar’s sparkling eyes and dance moves in Naya Daur — in which he was clad in dhoti and short kurta — and his slogan-chanting voice as the striking worker/engineer in Paigham added to his growing aura.

This is also the phase when Kumar would be known as Nehru’s hero for his choice of roles; their depiction prioritised the goals of India. One marvels at his choices of roles and his deep understanding of life at large. By 1960, Dilip Kumar would surprise his audience with Mughal-E-Azam, the ultimate portrayal of a Mughal prince that would go on to become a part of India’s collective memory.

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