Dilip Kumar has always been a dedicated, thinking actor – more dedicated to and more cerebrally involved in his profession than perhaps any other Indian film actor with a comparable career span. Talking to Bikram Singh and M.Shamim sometime ago, Dilip Kumar had many things to say about the reward, joys and pains of being an actor.
What are your thoughts today?
This is an interesting question. It is a fleeting mood, it’s nice, the light and shade of life, there’s a cool breeze which is rather unusual for Bombay around this time. So one can’t but respond to these elements. Of course, there are so many other thoughts which keep forcing in on various issues. But I have succeeded to a certain extent in immunizing myself against the intrusions. It’s a state of pleasant thoughtlessness. I’m trying not to react to anything but the cool beauty that you can see outside.
What is happening in terms of projects or films which you are doing?
This is a new phase, a crucial new phase, almost like turning a new page: going in for character roles. The result will speak for itself. I don’t deem it appropriate to speculate or make any conjectures just now. In the given circumstances and the given framework I’ve tried to do as well as is possible.
You find this phase substantially different from the earlier one?
Yes and no. Because though I have to put up with this cumbersome make-up which denotes age, I’m not liberated from having to sing songs – something which I did not enjoy very much, unless the song or music was to my liking. And of course most of what I liked didn’t succeed on the screen.
Do you remember any particular musical sequence which you did without really liking it ?
Oh, lots of them, very many songs. So often I ventured to express an opinion to a close and friendly colleague whom I respect very much that I didn’t not like the song I was doing very much. During the making of “Aan”, after my severe criticism Naushad Saab just smiled and said, “Yusuf Mian dekh lijiyega, iske chalneka poora andesha hai”. (There is a strong risk that this song may be a hit) And it really became the biggest hit of the film: Dil mein chhupake pyaar ka toofan le chale
And there was one Nadira song beautifully composed. I said, “Here’s such a lovely song you have composed”. And he replied, “That is just the kind of things which has little chances of becoming popular.” And that’s what happened. Whenever I like a song – and classical-based songs appeal to me greatly – it doesn’t click in films. There was a time when different kinds of songs could be popular. But today it is organized noise going by the name of music, freely imported from the west, which is the trend.
In thirty-year long career, how can an actor avoid being repetitive?
It is repetitive only when you keep on repeating the same personality over and over again. It is very painful thing. But not if you keep on changing your personality. This is difficult, easier said than done particularly given Indian scripts. We have very broad categories – romantic hero, musical comedy hero, dramatic hero. But there are people who have their own individual personality, and they project that. Even great stars like Gregory peck and Cary Grant projected their own personality and capitalized on it. But they cannot be compared with men like Spencer Tracy, Paul Muni or Charles Laughton. They were great actors – and none of us in this country is anywhere near that caliber.
But even if there was an opportunity to school yourself in different characters – characters that have distinct personalities which may be totally different from yours, you have got to completely divorce your own personality to be able to go over to the other personality. Which is easier said than done as it calls for a lot of drilling and also imagination. In some small way, I have had to do different kinds of roles. I was branded as the man doomed to suffer and die.
That was the phase of the Tragedy King.
Yes, the tragedy king. He was getting into the marrow of my bones and disturbing my personal peace. Because that’s what I started believing, that I was born to suffer die. Then when I used to go to England to consult drama coaches and psychiatrists, they asked me to shift over to comedy.
I was with Dr. Woolf for about 2-3 years and with Dr W.D. Nicol for about three years. King George VI as well as Anthony Eden used to be his patients. He was a senior man and a very affectionate person. I was not bothered so much by anything else as by the halo and the ballyhoo around Dilip Kumar, that used to terrorize me and I used to run away from it because you know how enlarged the image is from the substance. The substance is small. As an individual you’re a small man. And you’re made out to be big and people treat you as such. And the whole thing is very anarchic. Inside you have a riot going on every now and then. Some people who take this image very seriously also suffer from very serious personality defects, seldom overcome. I was surprised when I went to England and the coacher told me, “It is a very pertinent problem. And you’ll be surprised that we have imported the solution of the problem from your country.”
I asked how do you mean? And they told me about Swami Haridar and Baiju Bawra. Some other names. They said they were great men who were acclaimed as great artistes in their fields. But alongside they went through a course in personality correction. They were able to differentiate between substance and shadow. What you do is the work. Fame is the after-effect of the work. Don’t be preoccupied with the after-effects of the work. If you’re preoccupied with fame, it can be very corrupting, almost like a diseases… so they did exercises in humility.
Is correction of personality in show business necessary with every individual?
I think personality correction is necessary for successful men, like Prime ministers, businessmen, politicians… It’s essential that one should keep an eye on one’s own personality. You must have seen people in politics who become chief ministers and then pass into oblivion – how egotistical they became and how pathetic they look.
If you allow fame to get the better of you, you become nuisance, a public nuisance, a nuisance as a friend, as a member of the family, a nuisance to yourself. Why did Marilyn Monroe or Guru Dutt commit suicide? Because they were not able to strike a balance. A man’s popularity when he steps into this field is immeasurable… within a couple of years he becomes a celebrity. Then to control his own reaction to this fact is a very important problem. Some become alcoholics, some regard themselves as heroic off-the-screen as they are on-the-screen, some of them acquire strong mannerisms.
Was the adjustment specially difficult for you?
This personality correction was carried on over a period of years. It came naturally to me because I wasn’t the extrovert type who would throw his weight around, I was a shy young man who liked to control things.
This is a very strange profession, here’s a fact of your life and the actuality. Then there is such a lot of action and tinsel, glamour and halo and shadows.
My becoming a film actor was more a twist of tale than a chosen course because I dared not to think I could ever become an actor. I couldn’t even walk up on a stage and say “Thank you” when we were to receive trophies at our sports meets at college.
Are retakes of shots specially difficult?
I don’t like retakes of very intense shots. If your previous effort was good you almost end up trying to emulate the previous take that you’ve done. Normally, when I do important scenes, I do it at one go so that if an emotions clicks you lead on with it to the point of orgasm as they say. The whole shot is through. But all this becomes unreal when the text that is with you is not inspiring, and neither is the characterization, the orchestration of the conflict, and the quality of the writing with the words, words, excessive verbiage. So often I have to struggle to reduce the words because too much of it interferes with feeling, with the performance.
All these are in-built impediments, difficulties, so far as the growth of the Indian actor is concerned. Then, they develop certain habits and mannerisms over the years. That’s another danger, you can’t escape it because if you do a peasant’s role you’ve got to divorce your own personality and go over to the character of the peasant. Or say, I have to act like Prince Salim… You know it’s very strange, I was doing Salim, Devdas and “Gunga Jumna” at the same time. Totally different roles…
There was some difficulty. If I immediately switch over from one role to another I experience a little difficulty. I’m a difficult man and I take-off rather slowly. But once I take-off, I don’t have any difficulty.
How do you sustain the distinctions of all these various characters?
Well. You don’t perform all the different characters at the same time. There is a gap between one performance and the other.
Nowadays they don’t seem to have even a gap.
Still I feel the present-day actor is far more skillful. And they may have learnt from what they have seen over the years and from other films done by other people within our country. The levels of rendering are more accomplished.
The systematic training at the Institute etc might have helped.
May or may not. Because all the actors from the Institute have not achieved let’s say, a lofty mark. People from outside the institute have done equally well. But it helps – the institute and experience on the stage, I wish I had the benefit of this experience.
Let’s go back to Dr. Nicol and the decision to have a change from tragic roles.
Yes, he felt that I being very young, and having an in-built affinity for grim situations and high-tension work, it might help me to neutralize this tendency by taking on comedy. I remember I took a few comedies after that – “Kohinoor” and “Azad” and things like that. And they were a good relief and a change. I was ill-at-ease for sometime but you try and do your best within the given material. After all, you’ve got to pick and choose from what comes your way. I can’t take a candle and go looking for something which is ideal, it may be non-existent.
Did you see any film or performance about which you thought — I wish I had a chance to have a go at it ?
No, I have admired other people’s work and I know if I had a chance to have a go at it, I couldn’t have brought the finesse that say Paul Muni, James Stewart or Robert Donat brought to their work. James Dean was another case of personality projection. Elia Kazam founded certain habits and traits in those young men and he tried to utilize those traits and habits. So, it’s difficult, if you don’t have picture-makers of that perception. We have only a few, maybe Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha or others. You’ve got to make do with what you have.
When David Lean wanted to make “Lawrence of Arabia”, he wanted to cast you in Omar Sharif’s role. Is this true?
Well, Leela, David’s wife, asked me to opt for this role. And I had a brief chat with David also. I read the book and I didn’t quite fathom the significance of that character in the entire script. David is a man who has a nebulous idea of his script. I remember him sitting there where he made the bridge for “The Bridge On The River Kwai” and he wasn’t ready to meet Alec Guinness and he was desperate because Alec Guinness is a man who takes interest in the script and he was flying over from England just to listen to the script and David was not ready with the script. So David could only tell me it was going to be a good thing and he’s a man prone to understatement. He’s a genuine and a fine man.
But I thought if the whole thing turns out to be slightly indifferent, as I had seen happening with other Asian actors on the Hollywood scene, the Western scene, I feared it would affect my own standing with my own people, which is my permanent market. For me at that time it seemed to be an unnecessary risk. However, when the film was out, Omar Sharif made a tremendous mark and the impact he made as that Arab, I don’t think I could have done that. I’m sure Omar Sharif was a better choice.
Then there had been certain other offers, but I feel if we go to the Western market, it may have a novelty value. But you can’t think of a permanent career in Hollywood, so it’s better for us to stick to our own area and try and do the best we can.
Once you had done a small film with an absolutely new director.
But after that you never went in for small films.
No, I did selective scripts like “Jogan”, “Footpath”, “Sangdil” and “Shikast”. In those times they were deemed to be a little different but when they don’t do well, the project becomes a disaster and your name becomes taboo. I could have afforded it if I was by myself, but I had a large family to look after. I couldn’t afford those lofty ideals and attitudes. Things have to be met at the end of the month. So I thought discretion was the better part of valor. Nevertheless, I tried within the given circumstances, to pick up relatively better scripts. But when we say better scripts, it doesn’t imply that they were very good or outstanding.
What’s your overview of the past-roles and films which stick in your memory?
Frankly, I will not like to talk of them. But I liked certain different films for different characterizations and because there were certain moments to be recreated. “Devdas” was an exercise in restrained work. So was “Shikast” which was ruined because of bad finale. The picture-maker couldn’t control the subject which was very promising. “Gunga Jumna” was a departure. So were “Mughal-e-Azam” and “Kohinoor”. I personally like doing serious work. I still have a fondness for “Devdas”.
How do you feel when you see your old films?
I feel rather embarrassed seeing my old films. I don’t know, I always feel a little uncomfortable whenever I see any of my films. The old ones, also the new ones.
What about “Ram aur Shyam?”
It’s the run-of-the-mill kind of thing which is enjoyable and racy. You like it because it was such a good diversion from what you were doing.
Films to which people react positively, films without clumsy things or too much of noise, it is also some kind of an achievement to make films of this order.
As I have said before if I make a film on a peasant, the peasant must be able to appreciate it and react to it. So often we become so academic in our rendering that we find the intelligentsia and people with cars and critics giving very good reviews to them – there’s nothing wrong where academics are concerned — but the same peasant is missing from the auditorium.
I have tried to direct my efforts towards people so they react to it. It becomes some sort of an experience for a man to come out of the theatre with something stimulating and healthy. In no way am I decrying or underestimating the value of the academic cinema, which is of great use, it’s a trend-setter. Very important I should say, as far as the growth of this medium is concerned. And this aspect of cinema must be nursed. At the same time, the other chapter should not be ignored. There’s the new film and the standard film being made today – there is nothing in between. In classical music, you don’t expect everyone to understand the subtle variations of khamaj and jhanjhoti.
There are concessions given to various arts, why not give them to cinema? There must be an academic cinema. In fact, I take my hat off and pay my tribute to such film makers, they are the trend-setters, in the present times they are swimming against the current, it’s a courageous things to do. The state should support it rightly. I was talking about the vast multitudes of people who have to be entertained and given good and better cinema than is being dished out to them – without debasing the quality of the film.
You believe preparation is necessary for an actor?
I think homework is absolutely essential. If there are any points you have to suggest or discuss with the director or the picture-maker, you should do that before you go on the floor. It’s very, very helpful. And all good directors appreciate this. Learning the lines or committing them to memory is one thing. And ‘owning’ them is another. It’s got to go into the third layer of your memory… you’re now going into my trade secrets!… So that you can ‘own’ the words rather than remember them. But having owned them and delivered them, it’s possible that I may not remember them after sometime has passed. So many people come here and verbatim, they reproduce the dialogue scene after scene, of “Mughal-e-Azam” or “Devdas” which I don’t remember. I don’t even remember sometimes if a situation like that existed in the film.
It’s amazing, the effect that you see, the response of the people in terms of their emotions, the tenderness they show, you feel as if you’ve defrauded them because it was just a moment with me. I did it 25 years ago and now I’m done with it but that moment is still vibrating in his mind. And he comes over, his eyes gleaming, sending you waves, which make you feel bad and small. Of course, one feels grateful and happy that such a phenomenon does exist.
To what extent is your performance affected by the performance of the actors playing opposite you?
A great deal, a great deal. Like you often address an actor and find he’s really not looking at you. In the sense that he’s looking, but that involvement is not there. It helps if the other man is equally involved. If he gives you a glassy look, you tend to slip up a bit, become cooler.
As an actor how much do you draw from real-life models? Imagination is certainly involved in this but unless you have a model it can be difficult
True. If an actor doesn’t have a model… when I was playing Prince Salim, my style of work was totally different. Earlier, I had done certain films which had an informal manner about them. I couldn’t think of anything, not was there any film running from where I could go and pick up some mannerisms. So, I put on the costume and requested Asif to make a set. He pitched a tent and the first scene he did was – Akbar comes in and tries to make peace with his son. And I still feel it was one of the best scenes. I put on the costume – 60 pounds of steel armour – and was moving around in that for three or four days to get the royal feel.
Once when I was playing in “Deedar” I was looking for a blind man who has his eyes open… for the life of me I couldn’t spot one. I went here, there, all over Bombay. It didn’t occur to me, non to anybody else to go to a blind school. And so, I discussed it with Mehboob – why don’t have my eyes closed, it would be simpler. So there was a problem.
Now in “Gunga Jumna”, I took my cue from a Bihari gardener we had in Deolali. He was with us for about 10 years. From him I picked up the Bhojpuri language, And when I first mooted the idea of making the film in Bhojpuri, Mehboob Saab, Asif Saab and all these distributors opposed the whole idea, they said that I was trying to commit suicide. The only man who supported me was Mr. Wajahat Mirza and the other was M. Naushad because they are UP-ites. So I called some people from Matunga, south Indians who had been in Bombay for a length of time. I narrated some scenes and they understood them. They said yes, it’s a very nice language, we like it. So we latched on to it. Nobody came forward to buy the film for the first ten months we went on making it for year.
Any special projects in future.
There are many cravings, ideas and projects which are left untouched. A lot has been done, a lot has remained undone, a lot of things said and unsaid. Sometimes I felt that I should get on top of a mountain take a deep breath… and with prayer in my heart, with fingers crossed, take stock of the whole thing. (Source – Filmfare Dec 1-15 1982)