That Dilip Kumar was a great actor is as obvious as saying that the sky is blue and the grass is green. What is it that makes Dilip Kumar undeniably the best? That he has left his mark on generations of actors after him? That he introduced a style of play that was unique to his time, discreet, deeply felt and ‘currently remarkable in the silence at a time when speech in a theatrical way accompanied by broad gestures was the norm? That and so much more.
What is the yardstick for a good actor? Shopping is not like a horse race, where the one who runs the fastest is judged best. A most definite Hamlet can be a disastrous Othello. So characteristic of a good actor is versatility and in that Dilip Saheb was superb. See him as the terrific hero in Aan, the tragic hero in Devdas or in various roles as diverse as Andaz, Kohinoor, Mughal-e-Azam and Gunga Jumna. He could live in any character he played, often in danger of himself … Legend has it that Dilip Saheb was so deeply influenced by Devdas that he had to seek help from a psychiatrist to pull him out of the well of depression he was fallen in … He had lived the part, as Stanislavski says. I have no idea if he had studied method acting. He did not go to any educational institute, but he became an institution in itself for generations of actors who followed him.
Acting is a very rewarding profession – you give yourself to the character you play; in return, the character leaves its mark on you. The richer your personal experience, the broader your worldview, the more depth you can give the character. Dilip Saheb made an effort to broaden his horizons and enrich his perspective on life – he read books, participated in mushairas, learned to appreciate classical music, played football and cricket, but above all he remained socially engaged as a citizen. Whether it was as a patron of the National Association for the Blind or mobilized citizens for municipal harmony, he was always at the forefront. And it was at a time when it was a rarity that movie stars were invested in social policy issues. During the riots in Bombay, I saw him turn his house into a virtual relief and rehabilitation center. It was a massive operation to deliver food every day to the riot victims scattered in various relief camps across the city during times of curfew. He led as a general, skillfully assisted by his devoted wife Saira Banuji.
Today, I find that star status limits stars within an ivory tower – with concentric circles of protective barriers – managers, secretaries, PR companies, make-up artists, hairdressers, security guards, etc., who build an impenetrable fortress around them. So how can they stay in touch with what is happening outside of this rare circle?
An artist’s resource base must be life itself, and unless special efforts are made to keep in touch with the grass roots, there is a danger that the actor will lose the star.
Dilip Saheb was undoubtedly both … an actor and a star … his persona was formidable – learned, refined and dignified. His roles were carefully chosen to keep that persona intact. He never bowed to chasing his heroine in a way that could even be vaguely interpreted as evening teasing, he never made a low joke or engaged in dialogue with double meaning in the name of entertainment. He could be both enigmatic and accessible at will, a trait that served him well in the elaborate characters he played.
Unknown to him, I was his Eklavya, I saw him from afar and learned many life lessons. I will always be grateful …