As tributes tumble out at the passing of Dilip Kumar aged 98 — with Amitabh Bachchan going so far as to declare that when the history of Indian cinema will be written, it shall always be “before Dilip Kumar and after Dilip Kumar” — we shall leave it to the film critics and the serious student of Hindi cinema to assess his impact on the Hindi film industry. For now, let us see him as the man who always chose to step up and speak up. When the moment come to speak truth to power, here was a superstar who chose not to be content with his superstardom but to put it good use, as and when required.
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Born as Mohammad Yusuf Khan in Peshawar in 1922 in the home of a fruit merchant, he went on to enjoy a career in the movies spanning five decades, blessed with a longevity enjoyed by few of his contemporaries. Along with Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, the reigning triumvirate of post-Independence Hindi cinema, Dilip Kumar’s ouvre reflects the social and political cross-currents of modern India. A hapless farmer, an outlawed bandit, a fiery student leader, a trade unionist — Dilip Kumar essayed the new face of a new India as it unfolded. If Raj Kapoor was the loveable tramp, Dev Anand the yodelling Peter Pan, Dilip Kumar was everyman.
Not content with mere stardom, Dilip sahib was possibly among the earliest Indian actors to lend his star status to a variety of causes — an early patron of the National Association for the Blind (NAB) who never missed its annual fund-raising train run, he chose to lend his name and face to charitable institutions such as this and the Ali Yavar Jung Institute of Speech and Hearing in Bandra rather than modelling for commercial gain. The film lyricist and director, Gulzar, remembers Dilip sahab organising donation drives and rallies during the Indo-China war that began at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park, wound their way through Crawford Market and the gullies of Bhendi Bazaar, where money would be literally showered at them from rooftops, before ending at Azad Maidan. All through the late 1950s and 1960s Dilip Kumar, along with Sunil Dutt, also visited troops stationed at border postings for morale-boosting interactions with jawans.
Gulzar sahab also recalls Dilip sahab stepping up for similar interactions for the benefit of the film industry, lending his moral gravitas and serving as a bridge between actors and producers-directors. At a seminal meeting of the Indian Motion Picture Association held at Dilip sahab ’s home, several landmark decisions were taken to break the impasse that gridlocked the industry: actors, it was decided, would not take on more than three films (on the floors) at a time, and the directors-producers, on their part, would prune the shift timings to more humane hours.
Appointed Sheriff of Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1980, he worked for the improvement of the city’s infrastructure, giving it the iconic Joggers Park, where he himself went for his early morning walks in later years. As a Member of Parliament from the Rajya Sabha, he ploughed the MPLAD (Members of Parliament Local Area Development) fund into improving the Bandstand Promenade and the Bandra Fort area. However, it was the Bombay riots of 1992 that saw Dilip sahab truly come into his own: turning his home into a command centre for relief work, rescuing those trapped in burning shanty towns, arranging police protection for the most vulnerable, organising food supplies for those who were going hungry for days as communal riots ravaged Bombay, and later mobilising money and legal aid for those who were unfairly detained under the draconian Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. Of course he paid a price for this. When Pakistan honored him with its highest civilian award, the Nishan-i Imtiaz in 1998, it was met with outrage in a cross-section of society, with not merely threats and abuses directed against the thespian, but regurgitation of the old “Pakistani spy” gossip by his old nemesis, the Shiv Seva.
Javed Akhtar puts it best when he says that there is a virtue that has become obsolete and that is dignity — Dilip Kumar was a personification of that virtue. “ Eik tehzeeb thii jo kho gayii hai ,” he says, ruing a lost culture. “To be cool, happening and contemporary are on the borderline of rudeness. Decency, reserve, measure, these have become un-cool and obsolete.”
( Rakshanda Jalil is a Delhi-based writer, translator and literary historian .)