Mumbai: In the 50s, when Dilip Kumar’s career was at its peak, he did the film that defined the romantic hero for the ages—Devdas - the thwarted lover with the melancholic eyes, hair flopping over the troubled forehead, the anguished, booze-soaked voice. Other actors have played Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s tragic protagonist before and after Dilip Kumar, but the tragedy king of the era defined heartbreak and made the character memorable.
Dilip Kumar, the greatest, most imitated actor in Indian cinema, won a record-setting eight Filmfare Awards, three of them consecutively. The record was matched by Shah Rukh Khan but that hat-trick of Best Actor awards remains unmatched.
In a career spanning over half-a-century (he made his debut in 1944, retired in 1998), he did barely 65 films, because the kind of meticulousness he brought to every character he played, meant he could not work in conveyor-belt films and he chose to work mostly with filmmakers who were as exacting as he was, or at least let him interpret his part his way. That approach did give rise to rumours that he was a backseat director, which may have been partially true for a few of his films.
Many others merited awards, but the eight Filmfare trophy wins give an idea of his range and style—minimalistic but compelling.
When the awards were instituted, he was the first star to win it for Daag (1952), directed by Amiya Chakravarty. He played a man who turns to alcohol when disappointed in love, but is reformed when he is permitted to marry his great love (Nimmi). The film, a kind of poor man’s Devdas, had the unforgettable song, Ae Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal, sung by Talat Mahmood, who sang so many of the star’s songs that he came to be known as the voice of Dilip Kumar.
This was followed by the Bimal Roy masterpiece, Devdas (1954), in which he played a heart-broken alcoholic again, this time an aristocratic one from Bengali literature. When Devdas cannot marry his beloved Paro (Suchitra Sen) due to class differences, he takes to drinking and hanging out at the kotha with his buddy Chunnilal (Motilal). A courtesan, Chandramukhi (Vyjayanthimala), falls in love with him, but the relationship is doomed due to the social and moral codes of the time.
By this time, he had done so many tragic roles that he was advised to do some lighthearted roles, or the constant brooding would affect his mind. Azaad (1955) was the result, a swashbuckling adventure, directed by S M Sriramulu Naidu and co-starring Meena Kumari, in which he played a bandit. Audiences saw the moping actor sing and laugh and liked this new avatar.
BR Chopra’s Naya Daur (1957),a social drama about man vs machine, had Dilip Kumar playing a tangewala who has to win a race against a bus to protect the livelihoods of the cart drivers of the village. The film went down in movie lore as the one that broke up the real-life romance between Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. When her father forbade her from travelling to the outdoor location, Chopra sued her and Dilip Kumar testified on behalf of the filmmaker. Madhubala was replaced by Vyjayanthimala and the film was a superhit.
SU Sunny’s Kohinoor (1960) was another one of the light films that Dilip Kumar did to break his tragic screen image. The costume drama, co-starring Meena Kumari, had a fairytale look, with princes, princesses, palace intrigues and sword fights. Dilip Kumar reportedly learnt to play the sitar to be able to convincingly play it on screen for the song Madhuban Mein Radhika Naache Re.
When he deserved awards for Mughal-e-Azam and Ganga Jumna, he won the trophy for Leader (1964), arguably the weakest film of his career. Directed by Ram Mukherjee, from a story penned by Dilip Kumar himself, and co-starring Vyjayanthimala, it had him playing a journalist caught up in a political murder plot during the elections, and how he gets out of it.
Ram Aur Shyam (1967) directed by Tapi Chanakya, starred Dilip Kumar in a double role and separated twins, Ram is meek and subjugated by his evil brother-in-law while Shyam is loud and fearless. Their places are inadvertently switched and Shyam puts all the baddies in their place before the lookalikes discover that they are twins. Waheeda Rehman and Mumtaz play the love interests who are baffled by the changes in their boyfriends’ behaviour. Dilip Kumar was perfectly at ease doing comedy, and it was a pity very few filmmakers tapped this side of him. The twins trading places plot was rehashed several times, and always worked.
After his career as a leading man started waning, his films started flopping and younger stars started conquering the box-office, Dilip Kumar took a break and returned after five years with Kranti (1981). A year later, he starred in Ramesh Sippy’s Shakti (1982), playing an upright police officer, who has to deal with his angry and rebellious son, played by Amitabh Bachchan-- the only film in which the two greats starred together. Both were nominated, the senior star won the trophy.
He did a few more films after this, always in the lead, even when he played elderly characters, and when the roles offered no longer appealed to him, he made a graceful exit, so that film lovers could always remember him at his best.