The passing of Bollywood icon Dilip Kumar ends a life that is forever entwined with the history of Indian cinema – through performances that have moved hundreds of millions of people over the last 80 years. WriteMovies reviews his legacy.
Jay Akhtar writes:
DiIlip Kumar, born as Mohammed Yusuf Khan (in Peshawar, North-West Frontier Province, British India), Bollywood actor and movie producer, relinquished life at the age of 98 on 7 July 2021 due to a prolonged illness, with his wife of and former co-star Saira Banu by his side.
Dilip Kumar departed leaving a huge void in the Indian film industry, where he was best known for his work in Hindi cinema with a career spanning over five decades. His Bollywood acting career began in 1944 and spanned until 1998, when he played world-class roles such as a forlorn Mughal prince in the historical blockbuster MUGHAL-E-AZAM – the most epic Indian movie of its time, with an evergreen musical soundtrack. His further hit roles include playing a struggling peasant and freedom fighter in the romantic drama in NAYA DAUR, again accompanied by timeless music, then another, YAHUDI, about a love-torn Jewish adoptive father, proving his acting versatility. Such roles earned him recognition in the subcontinent as the King of Tragedy, after successful performances in depressing but award-winning roles.
Being fluent in Urdu, Hindi, Pashto, Punjabi, Marathi, English, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindko, Persian and the Awadhi and Bhojpuri dialects all enabled ‘the first khan’ to broaden his acting options, conquering hearts of the huge audiences that enjoyed his endless acting talents in that era. Word of his successes travelled globally – in 1962, British director David Lean offered him the role of “Sherif Ali” in his award winning movie, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), which was only later offered to Omar Sharif after Kumar declined the role.
These are the facts; but more important is the legacy. Kumar’s films, especially those mentioned, have probably been viewed by over a billion people, across nearly 80 years. They also played a crucial role in establishing Bollywood and Indian film making more generally as a vibrant, distinctive and completely independent film industry which is still viewed and enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people across the globe.
Kumar changing his name, from a Muslim name to a Hindu stage name, speaks to the deep divisions in the subcontinent created by the violent Partition between India and Pakistan, which also split Kumar’s home town from the country of his career. His roles spoke to a deeper sense of loss but also new found independence across the subcontinent in the era of Independence and Partition. Therefore, his films played no small part in shaping the modern India’s identity, cultures and values.
Starting next week, WriteMovies Director Ian Kennedy will explore how the English speaking world should view Bollywood movies today – but this week above all we would like to recognize the influence and loss of one of its leading lights.