Bollywood nostalgia – the last of three titans is no more

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Legendary Bollywood actor Dilip Kumar in the film Mugal e Azam Photo:- Videograb via Youtube

Dilip Kumar, the last of the three substantial actors who dominated the Bollywood film industry for years, is gone, and with his departure, are gone fond memories of what was perhaps the golden decade of Hindi Cinema, the Fifties and the Sixties. His counterparts in the trio were Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand.

It is said that life and emotions cannot be compartmentalized. But it did in Hindi film industry. Film themes were divided in three different styles and followed “Art imitates Life”. And thus, while Raj Kapoor’s films portrayed lifestyle of Charlie Chaplain-like simpleton-villager-staring pathetically at the camera, Dev Anand’s films portrayed the lifestyle of the stubborn-self-respecting-educated-well-dressed young man dealing with problems of everyday life fighting his own growing up battles. And Dilip Kumar’s films portrayed lifestyle of the self-righteous and yet rebellious, soft and romantic and yet angry, raging in jealousy and yet magnanimous man.

Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand were actors as well as filmmakers. Dilip Kumar is said to have ghost directed films. Representing the social-equality-for-the-common- man philosophy, Kapoor became the common man who dealt with social injustice and got sympathy of his viewers who fervently wanted him to get a drink of water, (‘Jagte Raho’) or feeling relieved he had the old lady with whom he shared a love-hate relationship to take care of him (‘Anari’). Who remembered to wonder if this so-much-like-us man had a real job! Dev Anand was the suave, handsome, educated and well dressed young man and did not create tearful sympathy as did both his counterparts. After all, he was not in rags or in a villager’s clothes, had girlfriends (‘Teen Deviyan’), wanted to make more money (‘Tere Mere Sapne’), and also wanted to follow his heart rather than have jobs he did not like (‘Manzil’). His appeal was to the young audiences who loved his simultaneous and multiple dating and indecisiveness (‘Teen Deviyan’), his straying and the return to his profession’s ethics (‘Tere Mere Sapne’). He represented the common man all right but was not ready to look dirty!

Dilip Kumar, represented the common man too, and self-righteous at that, but was more loved when he played the prince. (‘Mughal-e-Azam’). Of the three, Dilip Kumar perhaps brought out more aspects of the common man in Hindi films. If one time traveled and sat next to a member of the audience in the sixtees, one would also fall in love with him along with his heroine Vaijayanti Mala who flirted boldly, “ude jab jab zulfein teri” – “the heart of young women throb with love when the lock on your forehead dances in the air”. (‘Naya Daur’). Then one would also understand his slow affectionate attachment for the innocent and loving village girl and his heartbreak at her death and union in the next life. (‘Madhumati’). Heavy? Not at all, as Kumar sailed through it with total ease.

If three different lifestyles were brought to the lucky audiences of the sixties by these three actors, their films also brought three different lessons and messages. Raj Kapoor brought the message of social justice and the need to discard rigid norms, specially with a more polished style of filmmaking in ‘Prem Rog’. Dev Anand, on the other hand, brought the message of self-awareness and self-reform, be it realizing the value of true love (‘Teen Deviyan’), or the futility of the rat race after money (‘Tere Mere Sapne’), or the awakening, reforming and heightening of one’s spiritual self even as one fought a constant battle with the tempting bad seed lying within (‘Guide’).

Dilip Kumar brought both the societal and individual messages through his films. Audiences learned to value the dutifulness and adherence to law even as they loved the simple rural man who turned rebellious and became an outlaw in the classic ‘Ganga Jamuna’. Kumar also brought the message of self awareness, self-realization and self-reform of a self-pitying jealous man in ‘Aadami’. And audiences have loved his message of love – that love is the greatest, that love knows no boundaries, that love knows no class (‘Mughal-e-Azam’). One has to have the Indian ethos to understand the fascination with such love stories which also could be taken with a pinch of Marxist philosophy. Indian audiences have loved Marxism as far as love is portrayed in films. Love between the rich and the poor has been an eternal theme in Hindi films. And who better to bring it to us, if not Dilip Kumar, if one was old enough to watch and understand films in the sixtees.

If the trio – Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, and Dev Anand – represented three lifestyles, brought three different messages through their films, they did it in their own distinct acting styles. One would need to remember that none of the three had any formal training in acting. Raj Kapoor, in many of his own productions, aped Charlie Chaplain’s very early silent-film style of acting. His acting brought a lot of predictability and cliche to the portrayals. Perhaps the pretender he played for his heroine Nutan in ‘Dil Hi to Hai’ has been one of his best performances.  If Raj Kapoor made a crying face and made audiences nearly cry in sympathy, Dev Anand was said to lack the capacity to portray tragedy. The Gregory Peck of Hindi Cinema was too well dressed to cry perhaps. Perhaps he was private in his grief as in real life. However, he wrenched one’s heart in ‘Fantoosh’ with his “Dukhi man mere” rambling. Evolving as an actor, although said to not know how to invoke tragic feelings by acting pitiful, he still made the audiences cry when he rose to a spiritual height and died at the end of the film ‘Guide’.

Much different than his other two film colleagues, Dilip Kumar cried. In his earlier films, he cried through his eyes and he cried through his voice. He did it so much that audiences could not bear to be in constant catharsis and sighed and called him ‘The Tragedy King’. So when he brought to life the extremely flirty Salim, they fell for him. They also fell for the angry and fierce Ganga (‘Ganga Jamuna’). In his later films, audiences were confused with his revenge seeking (‘Dastaan’), his political ambitiousness (‘Sagina’), and his strange and destructive loving (‘Dil Diya Dard Liya’). If most of his roles were tearful, Kumar was also known to be the master of controlled under-acting. This was what endeared him to audiences and earned him critical respect. Although he did not have formal training, he was a Method actor all the same. He learned and evolved as an actor. Over the years, his acting became more unified, more disciplined and more experiential than representational. No one but Kumar would have been able to portray a sitar player. Kumar learned it in reality so the camera did not have to only focus on his face and his hands could be shown, so shots of someone else’s hands did not have to be incorporated.

His controlled, disciplined and subtle acting he taught himself, according to him.  In an old interview, Kumar has mentioned his passion for Hollywood films for which he used to make special trips to the Eros Movie Theater  right across Churchgate Train Station in the then Bombay. He was impressed by the subtlety of Hollywood acting as compared to the loud acting of the Hindi films. Kumar practiced and perfected his own acting to convey emotions with eyes, he said in the interview. And thus Kumar metamorphosed into a serious and subtle actor of Indian screen. Subtlety and a balanced voice while delivering his dialogues became his trademark, and if, while looking back over the years, one has remembered him, it has been for this balanced acting.

It is a strange thing about films that as they create a feeling of false reality, one has a feeling of having just met someone who is gone from this world. And more strangely, one can have that experience every time one watches the person’s films. It would be so with Dilip Kumar, as it would be for his other two counterparts. Like them, he would be just a DVD or a streaming away and he would keep touching our lives, and inspiring others in his profession to pick up some tips, some mannerisms, some dedication from him.

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