The screen legend’s enviable oeuvre is as much about his intense, wistful portrayals that immortalized him as the Tragedy King, as it is about fiery, impactful performances like in Paigham, Naya Daur, and Gunga Jumna that made him the face of ‘haq ki ladaai’ on screen. The characters spoke of fairness, rights, and justice; some were righteous, some rebellious, and some radical — each becoming a reference point for every generation of actors that followed him in attempting similar roles.
Kumar’s initiation into Bombay Cinema happened around the same time when India was inching towards freedom and the national mood reverberated in its cinema. Ramesh Saigal’s Shaheed (1948) would be the actor’s first of many roles of resistance and speaking truth to power. As a young patriot whose anti-establishment stand has strained his relationship with his father — a high-ranking influential government official — he tells him squarely, “Aapka usool sirf sarkaar ke liye hai aur mera desh ke liye.” A sentiment whose relevance matters more than ever. Barely a few films old, Kumar’s skill lay in the fact that he didn’t fashion his character as the fervent hero making stirring speeches but with a more gradual and natural progression of a purposeful youth whose tone and demeanour grows confident as he marches ahead on the path of revolution. Decades later, when he played a much older revolutionary leading the rebellion against the East India Company in Manoj Kumar’s Kranti (1981), he had by then acquired a legendary status in the industry. In a film wrought with melodrama and verbosity, the thespian’s sincerity in playing a villager forced to take up the gun sticks out.
The post-independence optimism propelled by the Nehruvian philosophy of socialism and nation building was embedded deeply into Hindi cinema of the ‘50s and the ‘60s, its brightest stars being its ambassadors. Of the iconic trifecta of Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar that ruled the hearts and the box office, it’s Kumar who took up the mantle of the socially-conscious, empathetic and outspoken performer. Some of his most memorable parts were him playing characters that strive for equity and inclusion; they spoke of the dignity of labour, demanded fair wages and benefits, and challenged the status quo.
In a most momentous scene in Paigham (1959) — SS Vasan’s social drama centred around labour rights — Kumar’s Ratanlal, a union leader, tells his rich industrialist employer: “Naukri dena jurm nahin hai, mill ka maalik ban’na jurm nahin hai. Jo dhan mazdooron ka hai usse mazdooron se chheen lena jurm hai.” But the workers haven’t invested money in his mill, the boss shoots back at him. It’s the classic business class versus working class debate wherein the former is indifferent to the latter’s claim as a stakeholder and unwilling to share profit with them. “Unhone rupaya lagaaya nahin, rupaya paida kiya hai. Aapki yeh sona ugalne waali millein bhi unki mehnat pe chalti hain,” Ratan points out setting the record straight on the workers’ crucial contribution in wealth creation for their ‘maalik log’ and what they are demanding is rightfully theirs.
The 1960 Sunil Dutt-starrer Hum Hindustani was no way a remarkable film but it gave the nation an aspirational anthem for posterity: Chhoro kal ki baatein, kal ki baat puraani/ naye daur mein likhenge hum mil kar nayi kahaani. The ‘naya daur’ described in the song was a vision of India that’s self-reliant, modern looking, and industrialized. But what are the pitfalls of ushering this new era? The answer lay in BR Chopra’s 1957 classic, Naya Daur that addressed the issues of loss of livelihood, forced migration, and the fear of human labour going obsolete in the face of thoughtless mechanization. For this, Chopra senior entrusted Dilip Kumar with the role of Shankar, an enterprising tonga driver who agrees to the challenge of racing with a bus that has threatened their existence. Kumar’s competence and conviction elevated Shankar from a mere protagonist on screen to a symbol of defiance and self-worth. The defining image of the hero with a spade in his hand giving an empowering clarion call to his comrades, “Saathi haath badhana, ek akela thak jaayega mil kar bojh uthana” would bear resonance with multitudes of people’s movements in years to come.
But it’s not all ‘himmat aur hausla’ that Dilip Kumar portrayed. There was cynicism as was simmering rage and despondency. The leading men weren’t always heroic or checked all the boxes of moral behaviour. In Sagina (1974), the actor appears in the titular role of a persuasive labour leader who loses his way and becomes a pawn in the hands of self-seeking party elites. Early in his career, he played a morally ambiguous journalist turned black marketeer who pays a heartbreaking price for his avarice in Zia Sarhadi’s Foot Path (1953). The protagonist taking to unscrupulous activities for a quick riches storyline had paid rich dividends to Kumar’s famous colleagues — Raj Kapoor in Shree 420 (1955) and Dev Anand in Kala Bazar (1960). Compared to Shree 420’s Raju and Kala Bazar’s Raghu, Foot Path’s Noshu may be lesser-known but was a darker, more compelling character, and certainly closest to reality.
If Noshu was desperate, Mashaal’s (1984) Vinod was on a warpath. The editor of a small, independent newspaper, he suffers great personal and professional blows owing to his honesty and turns vigilante to beat his nemeses at their own game. In what is the most widely recognised scene from the film and probably in the megastar’s career, Kumar is a picture of breathtaking anguish pleading and screaming for help for his dying wife on a damp road as an insular world around him stands unmoved.
In what remains the most explosive act in Dilip Kumar’s long list of unforgettable performances is the landless-labourer-turned-outlaw Gungaram in Gunga Jumna (1961) which the actor had also produced and written. The film dwells on a fascinating cusp of idealism and disenchantment much like India of that period where the promise of prosperity was not necessarily trickling down to the weakest sections of the society. Poverty, oppression, and social injustices gave rise to outlaws in several parts of rural India. And no one could contextualise this angst better than Dilip Saab who brought fire and brimstone into the part of a wronged man pursued by his upright police officer younger brother Jumna — played by his actual sibling, Nasir Khan.
Kumar was a true empath in real life. He stood in support of marginalised communities, didn’t hesitate from taking a stand on important social and political issues on multiple occasions, and had a progressive, syncretic worldview. This lent authenticity to his craft, never feeling turgid or contrived. A fine example of this is from yet another BR Films outing, Mazdoor (1983) where he is a mill worker seeking a bank loan to start his own venture. The dispiriting regulations alienate those who are in the most need of systemic assistance and the actor relays this frustration fantastically with a retort, “Yeh jantaa ka board aapne kiske liye lagaya hai jab gareeb aadmi ka haath aap tak pahunch nahin sakta?” Or as the principled cop in Ramesh Sippy’s Shakti (1982) whose sense of duty precedes his criminal son’s life. Here he adds a new dimension to ‘haq’ when he says, “Sawaal sirf farz ka nahin, sawaal haq ka bhi hai…. Apne inn haathon se na jaane kitne mujrimon ki kalaaiyyon mein maine hathkadiyaan pehnaai hain. Agar wohi hathkadi le kar kisi mujrim ki taraf badhte huye aaj mera haath kaamp jaaye… sirf isliye ki woh mujrim mera beta hai toh sawaal uthta hai ki mujhe kya haq tha unn mujrimon ki kalaaiyyon mein hathkadiyaan pehnaane ka?”
For as long as he was under the arclights, Kumar inhabited a fascinating spot in the audience’s minds — a silver screen demigod who was both the representative of the public and their conscience keeper.
Also read Farhana Farook's tribute to Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu's love story: