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07 July 2021

Farewell to a Titan

Death is part of Life. They are the yin and yang of existence. Yet, each time Death arrives – expected or unexpectedly – one is still taken aback. Except for our own selves, perhaps, Death is not a very welcome visitor.

So, waking up to the news that Dilip Kumar is no more was still a shock. Despite knowing that he was in his late 90s. In spite of knowing that, for the past year, he has been in and out of hospital. And I’m overcome by a deep sense of loss.

11.12.1922 - 07.07.2021

Why ‘loss’? Why am I mourning the death of a man I’d never known personally? Never met? Never spoke to, even? Someone who belonged to a different era, older than my father’s – when rare interviews came out in print, and even rarer ones on television?

The only place I could claim to ‘know’ Dilip Kumar was through his work – he was both Ram and Shyam; he was Devdas, he was Salim. Knowing him on-screen made me aware of him, in a manner perhaps only a deep personal relationship would have, could have. I became aware of how his entire face reacted he cried; it wasn’t just glycerine streaking down his cheeks to show his tears. How his voice shook, how his body crumpled. I was acutely aware of the twinkle that lit his eyes when he smiled, the tiny creases at the corner of his eyes. A smile that caused my heart to skip a beat, and never mind that the smile wasn’t directed at me. 


I marvelled at the clarity of his diction, the Urdu or Hindustani dialogues flowing off his tongue so naturally, not seeming like ‘dialogue’ at all. It fit his persona. I began to notice his commitment to his craft, the tiniest details that he infused his character with, never mind that the audiences may not notice, or appreciate. And above all, I began to appreciate the man himself – his erudition, his dignity, his immense love for his industry. In a personal tribute, Sharmila Tagore mentioned that it was to Raj Kapoor or Dilip Kumar that the fraternity turned to, to lead them because both were men who cared deeply about the film industry and worked tirelessly to further its cause.


And so, the loss, for loss it is – to the many people who were influenced by him, to the many people who were succoured by him, to the many people who saw him as an institution in himself – cuts deep. For people like me, who knew him through his films and either loved him or at least appreciated the fineness of his craft.

Dilip Kumar leaves a vast legacy behind, the kind that will immortalise him in the annals of Hindi cinema. He was tragic lover, romantic hero, a mature character actor. 

Courtesy: Film History Pics

His comic timing was impeccable, his gravitas was real and his wooing made your knees buckle. He was a method actor who sank into his characters, having found a ‘method’, he said, that worked for him.  He could even 'swashbuckle' with the best of them.  

He’s one of the few artistes who will be remembered as much for the work they didn’t do – reject the role of Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia and Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa – as for the work they did.

It is important that his legacy remains. Both immortalised on the silver screen for us to enjoy and reflect, as well as in our memories of what he meant to us – as an actor, as a person, albeit one we may have never met.  For it is said that people die twice – once when they themselves die, and again, when their memories are forgotten.

Each life lost snaps a thread from the tapestry of other lives to which they are connected. And the tapestry begins to fray, leaving only moth-eaten holes behind. A tapestry whose holes and frayed threads serve to remind you of your interconnectedness with those that have gone before; that serves as a reminder of your own mortality.

It is not a choice between preserving someone’s memories in amber or letting them go. It is the difference between forgetting and choosing not to remember. Because the void that Death leaves behind remains, deep inside. Dusty perhaps, not something you think of often, but an emptiness that remains at the core of your being.

Born Mohammed Yusuf Khan, there was a debate as to was what young Yusuf's screen name should be, and the choices had boiled down to ‘Yusuf Khan’, ‘Dilip Kumar’, ‘Jehangir’ and ’Vasudev’. He nixed Yusuf Khan at once, he said, afraid that his father would whip him for his temerity in joining films. He didn’t really care what other name they would choose, so it was only when the first advertisement of the film was published that he knew he would henceforth be called ‘Dilip Kumar’.

And earlier today, Dilip Kumar, née Muhammed Yusuf Khan was laid to rest with state honours. And with him lies buried the last link that ties us to the Golden Age of Hindi Cinema.

Woh aayi subaha ke parde se maut ki aawaaz
Kisi ne tod diya jaise zindagi ka saaz

Allah ta’ala un ko jannat-ul-firdaus ata farmaaye.

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