In the first 10-15 years after Independence, a troika of male stars ruled Hindi Cinema, namely, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar. For many people in our parents’ generation, for reasons our generation never fully understood, Dilip Kumar was the colossus, the first true Bollywood superstar, the original ‘King Khan’. One way to measure his influence is how he, more than Dev Anand & Raj Kapoor, has influenced the acting of subsequent generations of actors so much so that “In Bollywood, you cannot become a star if you don’t have a bit of Dilip Kumar in you. From Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan down to Aamir Khan, Govinda and Shah Rukh Khan, Kumar’s influence can be felt in every generation of stars who came after him.”
So why has Dilip Kumar, who turned 98 recently, been so influential? This piece in the Indian Express contends he made the right call (from a long term perspective) in terms of what sort of persona to portray on the screen.
Raj Kapoor modelled himself on Charlie Chaplin and as Chaplinesque characters faded in the unfettered capitalism of 90s India, so did his legacy: “Raj Kapoor who usually directed his own films had modelled himself on Chaplin’s Tramp. As the star of a young and independent nation, his cinema, helped by the poetic vision of Shailendra, Shankar-Jaikishan and KA Abbas, was seeped in socialistic ideology.” Modern India wanted it heroes to be aggressive, upwardly mobile men, not underdogs.
Dev Anand modelled himself on suave, sophisticated Western heroes but as the legacy of the British empire faded, so did this type of hero: “Dev Anand, on the other hand, was an urbane star, known for his Gregory Peck-Cary Grant sophistication and jovial approach to acting. His urban noirs, stylish persona and breezy comedies made ladies swoon.” Modern India no longer idolises the English speaking, mannered gentleman.
Dilip Kumar on the other hand nailed down a person on the screen which has proved to be enduringly successful: “Dilip Kumar stuck to serious and tragic, even weepy, roles and was a proponent of understated and naturalistic style of acting. The original source for this inspiration may have been Ashok Kumar, who had a lasting influence on the young and upcoming star. The Tragedy King, as Kumar came to be known, was unconsciously developing method acting.”
In addition, as Gulzar has pointed out, Dilip Kumar was also a hard working actor who pioneered method acting in Indian cinema, and arguably, in global cinema: “Javed Akhtar once claimed that Kumar was the first method actor in the world. According to Akhtar, he was doing method acting much before Marlon Brando, the monarch of method, redefined Hollywood histrionics and even before the term itself was coined by a Russian acting teacher.…An ardent admirer, Amitabh used to study Kumar’s performances, especially the one in Gunga Jumna in which Kumar’s character Gunga spoke Awadhi with such fluency that a stunned Bachchan, himself a Awadhi and Bhojpuri speaker from Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, was forced to conjecture, “It was very difficult for me to imagine how someone that did not come from Uttar Pradesh was able to pronounce, enact all the nuances of the Awadhi language.” In a blog that he wrote on Kumar’s 89th birthday, Big B said, “His presence his aura and his dedication to film shall be documented as ‘before Dilip Kumar and after Dilip Kumar.’…At a film award ceremony in 2001, Shah Rukh Khan asked Kumar about the quality that makes his films so enduring. “No actor can be bigger than the substance which he portrays,” Kumar replied. Then, he held Khan’s hand.”
For those who want to understand the majesty of this giant of Indian cinema, recommended viewing would be Devdas, Yahudi, Naya Daur and Aan.

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