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Copyright 2004




Dilip Kumar - Star or actor: Book Review

THIS seems to be the season for Dilip Kumar. There have been at least three books on this Indian, essentially Bollywood, star in the first three months of 2004.

I do not have a clue about this spurt of interest in an actor who is now 83. Yes, Dilip Kumar, along with Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, helped to give post-Independence Hindi films a kind of character, which is not relevant today.

They, I feel, lost their relevance in the 1960s, and certainly in the 1970s, when a different kind of cinema emerged under men like Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and late Aravindan. Earlier, Satyajit Ray and Ritwick Ghatak had already paved the way for a more authentic sort of fare, and Ray had placed India on the world cinema map in 1955 with his "Pather Panchali".

This is, of course, not to dismiss Dilip entirely. Some of his early movies "Aan", "Devdas", "Madhumati", "Mughal-e-Azam", "Leader" and "Ganga Jamuna" were undoubtedly interesting examples of gripping scripts, even great stories, and stylistic acting. He was often compared to Marlon Brando. Some, however, said that both these men mumbled their dialogues to incomprehensible heights. Brando was certainly Dilip's enduring inspiration.

But Brando remained Brando in all his films, and Dilip was Dilip in all his as well, or just about. So, I would rather call Dilip a star, rather than an actor. Bunny Reuben calls him precisely that, but was Dilip a legend? I have my reservations.

Lord David Puttnam will disagree with me. In his foreword to Lord Meghnad's slim of 139 pages, Lord David writes, "Dilip Kumar is unquestionably one of the finest actors Indian cinema has produced". The author reaffirms this in his first sentence, "Dilip Kumar is a legend by any definition".

Lord Meghnad goes to say that although Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar went on to become icons, it was Dilip "alone who consciously tried to embody a national ideal and did so successfully". I would think some of early Raj Kapoor movies had the same flavour, and it would be a tad unfair to single out Dilip here.

The writer tries to strengthen the link between Dilip's films and national idealism by stating that his "career took off and rose to its peak during the time (1947-64) when Jawaharlal Nehru was India's Prime Minister: 36 of his 57 movies were made in this period". But let us not forget that this was also Dilip's peak period. He was born in 1922, and he was 25 in 1947, and 42 in 1964, when Nehru died. So, Dilip was Nehru's Hero by, maybe, default.

Lord Meghnad's view may sound a little exaggerated, but let us give the right to his opinion. Having said this, I must point out that the book gives us a few above average chapters. "Indian Cinema and Society", "Ideals of Indian Manhood" and "Politics of Cinema/Cinema of Politics" are some.

Yet, for one who may be moderately versed in Indian cinema (read Hindi cinema), Lord Meghnad's descriptions and analyses may just read like a teaser. At some level, one is dissatisfied with the tome's depth. Probably, Lord Meghnad had a different kind of readership in mind: perhaps foreigners keen on learning the rudiments of Bollywood or students taking their first lessons in this art form.

Reuben's is a straight biography of a man he adores, and that is absolutely clear as one plods along the 500-page text. Often it is repetitive and verbose, and there is the danger of a reader putting it down before he or she completes it.

Added to this, Reuben writes, not always prose, but poetry of sorts. Here is one example. "Life passes. People change. It is a journey from anywhere to anywhere. Don't let it be like that. Make it from somewhere to somewhere'', Reuben begins, and says how Kirk Douglas became an actor and not a rabbi as his people had desired. That was somewhere to somewhere. It was exactly the same somewhere to somewhere for a young boy named Yusuf Khan Sarwar Khan, the third son in a Muslim family of fruit sellers that lived in Peshawar..."

Reuben describes lovely anecdotes about the young boy, how he got into this moving medium, how he changed his name, his romances with some actresses though I suspect the writer does not tell us all and his celluloid works.

One feels disappointed that Reuben is on a glorification trip; he could have easily penned a more critical, and thereby, perhaps, a more accurate biography. This would have been of immense value to Indian cinema's data bank. Instead, some passages in the book seem like PR exercises.

But, well, Reuben is a friend of Dilip, and too close to the star to write anything even remotely unflattering, I would suppose. Read, the chapter, "Enter Asma...The Scandal of the Second Marriage", and what I said will be apparent.

If only Reuben could have separated friendship and professionalism, Dilip's biography could have made an impact.


Nehru's Hero: Dilip Kumar, Lord Meghnad Desai, Roli Books, Rs. 295.

Dilip Kumar: Star Legend of Indian Cinema, Bunny Reuben, HarperCollins, Rs. 500.


(This book review appeared in The Hindu dated April 11 2004)

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