In the 1957 Bollywood film Naya Daur, or “New Era,” Dilip Kumar plays the humble driver of a village tonga, a horse-drawn carriage, whose livelihood is threatened by the arrival of a bus. The bus owner pledges to take the machine away if the tonga can best it in a race. Kumar’s character wins after he and other villagers build a new road — a short-cut — between the starting point and the finish line.
Naya Daur was typical of the golden age of Hindi cinema. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, socially-conscious filmmakers explored the growing tensions in post-independence India, as Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister, sought to modernise a poor agrarian society and build a new secular political culture.
As Bollywood’s most versatile actor, Kumar, who died this week aged 98, embodied the ideals and aspirations of the era, starring in dozens of films with themes of valour, sacrifice, duty and thwarted love. He wrote some of his most memorable roles himself.
“Dilip Kumar stood for the kind of liberal values — syncretic values — of an India that the founding fathers were trying to create,” says film critic Shubhra Gupta, author of the book 50 Films that Changed Bollywood, 1995-2015. “He belonged to that era of innocence, as India was being formed. The mandate was very clear — to create cinema that would cement a nation, and heal the wounds of Partition.”
Kumar’s death prompted tributes in both India and neighbouring Pakistan, highlighting the actor’s appeal across hostile political boundaries. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, and most living Bollywood stars praised him lavishly.
“Dilip Kumar is the only person who is accepted across India and Pakistan as an icon,” says Lord Meghnad Desai, author of a book about the star. “He was one of the greatest film actors ever.”
Born Mohammad Yusuf Khan in 1922 in what is today the Pakistani town of Peshawar, Kumar claimed to have fallen into acting by accident, while seeking other movie industry jobs.
In an era of highly-mannered, melodramatic performances he brought understated naturalism to the screen. He displayed an astonishing ability to convey genuine torment, prompting local tabloid press to dub him “the Tragedy King.” The great Indian film-maker Satyajit Ray described him as the ultimate method actor.
“He was capable of doing everything,” says Gupta. “He did not have any mannerism that you could predict. He created a style of his own which was very quiet, and he was different from one movie to the other. The kind of emotions he aroused in his adoring fans was something to be seen.”
Although Muslim, Kumar was advised to adopt a Hindu screen name, which was common for Muslim performers at the time. But he wore his stage identity lightly and was known to family, friends and colleagues as “Yusuf Saab”.
“He took a Hindu name but everybody knew he was a Muslim,” says Desai. “He was the epitome of the post-independence ideal Indian.”
Off-screen, Kumar devoted time to the sociopolitical causes of the new nation. At Nehru’s behest, from 1962 he lent his star power to election campaigns for the prime minister’s Congress party, as well as to public welfare programmes and initiatives to promote Hindu-Muslim unity. In later years, across the border in Pakistan Kumar helped Imran Khan, then still a cricket star, to raise funds for a cancer hospital. When Mumbai was rocked by Hindu-Muslim riots in 1993, his home became a command centre for relief work.
The actor was sometimes targeted for his Muslim identity. In the early 1960s his Mumbai home was raided by Kolkata police on the suspicion — unfounded — that he was a Pakistani spy.
In 1998, he was awarded Pakistan’s highest civilian honour for his acting. But a year later — as India and Pakistan came to the brink of war, a rightwing Hindu politician demanded Kumar either return it or move to Pakistan. In an indignant television interview in 2000, the then septuagenarian actor said such demands “smack of fascism,” and noted that the Bollywood film industry had “unfailingly stood up for cosmopolitanism and secular values”.
For all his fame, Kumar remained a humble, dignified presence. “He was not a party to his own myth-making,” says film-maker Mahesh Bhatt. “He looked more bewildered by the whole idea of this legendary status that was being planted on his head.”