When the best roles in films of their time were carved up among the three most popular stars, Dilip Kumar with his melancholy eyes and brooding smile got the saddest ones — the man who grieved for lost love, gave up his life, and in one instance, his sight, for the sake of the unattainable woman — and was soon labelled ‘Tragedy King’.
Movielore has it that after suffering and weeping in so many films, he was told by a doctor to do some lighthearted roles for the sake of his mental health. Right from the start of his career, Dilip Kumar proved to be an instinctive actor, hitting the right, understated notes in his performances — method acting before it became trendy. The plots of the films he did were melodramatic, and by today’s standards, excessively morbid, but they never tipped into excess. His voice was perfectly modulated, on screen it looked as if he shed real tears. If it connected with audiences of the time, it’s because Indian society was still conservative, love outside boundaries of caste and class was frowned upon, and every young man who fell in love and lost, went about with his hair flopping over his forehead and looking forlorn, waiting for someone to say, “Why the Devdas look?”
Most of Dilip Kumar’s early films were like preparations for the classic Devdas. His very first film, Jwar Bhata (1944), had him playing an alcoholic pining for the woman he cannot marry. In his next, Pratima (1945), he again played a man whose parents do not approve of the women he loves. In Milan (1946), he has to go through a lot of trouble to reach the woman he intends to marry because of a boat accident in which the brides of two men get swapped. Jugnu (1947), his first big hit, also had a lot of romantic complications between the lead pair. In Ghar Ki Izzat (1948), he turned to drink when his wife was ill-treated by his family.
In Shaheed (1948) he played a freedom fighter, in Mela (1948) he goes to jail, framed by the villain for the murder of the woman he was to marry. In Anokha Pyar (1948), he played an impoverished writer, who went to some very strange plot twists before he is reunited with his beloved.
In Mehboob Khan’s love triangle Andaaz (1949), his unrequited love for a woman leads to misunderstanding and murder. In Jogan (1949), he falls in love with a woman who has renounced the world to live as an ascetic. In Aarzoo (1950), his childhood sweetheart married another, believing him to be dead in a fire. In Babul (1950), he is caught between two women vying for his love, and losing them both. Hulchul (1951) has him jailed for a murder he did not commit, and losing the woman he loved.
Deedar (1951) was by all standards the height of romantic masochism, in which he played a blind man whose sight is restored by a kindly doctor; when he sees that his sweetheart is to marry the same doctor, he blinds himself again, because why see the world without her in it?
In Tarana (1951), after much scheming and plotting by the villain, the man played by Dilip Kumar is finally reunited with the village belle he was in love with. The leading lady was played by Madhubala, and here began the ill-fated romance that ended after the real-life courtroom drama in which he testified against her in the case filed by BR Chopra over her walking out of Naya Daur. His first love story reported on by the gossip mags of the time, was with frequent co-star Kamini Kaushal, who was already married, so there was some real-life heartbreak.
So many years into his career, Devdas (1954), still a few years away, he acted in Daag (1952) playing a man who turns alcoholic when he cannot marry his lady love. With this film he won the first Filmfare Award, the year it was instituted. In Sangdil (1952) he almost loses his beloved due to his own mother’s conniving, and like a few films before this, he is blinded in a fire.
Finally, a break in the relentless grimness of his roles, with Aan (1952), India’s first technicolour film, and a reworking of The Taming of the Shrew. There were still the tragic romance Shikast (1953) to go plus Footpath (1953) and Amar (1954) in which played, for a change, negative characters—a blackmarketer and rapist respectively, before becoming the poster boy of doomed love in Devdas, directed by Bimal Roy, based on the classic novel by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay.
While his contemporaries Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand were having fun, singing, dancing and flirting, Dilip Kumar had played so many unfortunate lovers in the decade gone by that the label of ‘Tragedy King’ was inevitable, as was a nervous breakdown. A change in his career path became imperative, which not just led to films like Azaad (1955) and Kohinoor (1960), but also a much-needed growth in him as an actor. He was already a star, had won four Filmfare Awards (there were four more waiting in the future), but for how long could he keep up the on-screen torment?
Besides, society was also changing, the characters he had played may have fuelled a collective catharsis of the young frustrated in love, but by the time the Sixties approached, a new generation of audiences no longer wanted to cry at the movies. They wanted their screen heroes to fight for their love, and for heroines to have a bit more spark. The Shammi Kapoor era of fluffy romances in scenic locations was brewing.
Dilip Kumar had the talent, intelligence and star power to push for change. After Devdas, some of his best work came when his screen characters stopped wallowing in tears and acquired some rage. Naya Daur, Madhumati, Paigham, Kohinoor, Mughal-e-Azam, Ganga Jumna, Leader, Ram Aur Shyam had many more shades for him to portray and truly come into his own as a star-actor, so when these films were written about, the prefix ‘Tragedy King’ was replaced by ‘Thespian’.
(Deepa Gahlot is a well-known film critic and columnist. Co-authored The Prithviwallahs with Shashi Kapoor, and written biographies of Shah Rukh Khan and Shammi Kapoor)