Dilip Kumar passed away in Mumbai on July 7 at the age of 98. It was the measure of the man and artist that his death has been equally mourned by prime minister Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi--bitter political rivals in India—and Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan. Modi recalled that Dilip Kumar was “blessed with unparalleled brilliance” and was a “cinematic legend”. Rahul Gandhi emphasised “His extraordinary contribution to Indian cinema will be remembered for generations to come”. Imran Khan tweeted “…for my generation Dilip Kumar was the greatest and most versatile actor”. He also remembered “his generosity in giving his time to raise funds for SKMTH when project was launched”. The SKMTH runs the Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital which Imran Khan established in Lahore in memory of his mother who died of cancer. It is a non-profit institution which began operating in 1994.
Significantly, Modi also condoled Dilip Kumar’s death “as a loss to our cultural world”. This is entirely true for Dilip Kumar was part of the generation of artists who through the powerful medium of the cinema contributed to fostering many aspects of the cultural milieu of the country after independence. India’s moment had come with the attainment of freedom. As Jawaharlal Nehru said in his famous “tryst with destiny” speech “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends and the soul of a nation long suppressed finds utterance”. It was important for the new India while maintaining its ancient cultural traditions to move the country forward with progressive ideas and transform a hierarchical society through the principles of equality and justice for all. For freedom to have true meaning India had to embark on a journey of democracy and move towards modernity. The generation of artists of whom Dilip Kumar was an outstanding star committed themselves to this task through their work. It was remarkable that they spread the message of the aspirations of the new India through their creative cinematic work which entertained even while it instructed with subtlety and finesse.
As India approaches the 75th anniversary of its freedom from British colonial rule, the challenges it faced in the immediate aftermath of independence and partition are often overlooked. The trauma of partition and the bitterness it engendered could only be mitigated through a strong and continuous focus on the value of tolerance which was embedded in the Indian cultural tradition. The Indian cinema of the period did that. As India embarked on tearing down the walls of feudalism so that the peasantry could improve its lot the cinema assisted the process through important works of artistic merit. And as the country began the process of industrialisation the cinema stressed on the need to ensure that humanism should not be lost in the process. This was the cultural world of which Dilip Kumar and other icons of the silver screen were a part.
Dilip Kumar worked all his professional life in Bollywood. He became one of its pillars and generations of artists looked up to him for inspiration. Through his roles he projected a range of human emotions: joy and sorrow, love and loss, the tensions of life and also fun and laughter. Dilip Kumar did so with intensity and passion which left a deep imprint on hearts and minds of people not only in India but also abroad. Indeed, while the country mourns his passing, his life and work provide an occasion to note the remarkable role played by Bollywood and the Indian cinema to project the aspirations and struggles and values and the culture of a nation and a civilisation to the outside world.
Dilip Kumar and some of his fellow artists like Raj Kumar became household names across large parts of the world. They captured the imagination of people particularly in the Arab world and the Soviet Union. Along with other members of the cinema fraternity which was not limited to Bollywood – who can ever forget the contributions of the many-faceted genius of Satyajit Ray—Dilip Kumar and Raj Kumar not only take Indian cinema to the world stage they greatly contributed to earning goodwill for the country. Indeed, Indian cinema was a component of India’s soft power.
This writer became conscious of Indian cinema’s popularity outside India during his very first posting which was to Egypt in 1977. Many Egyptians recalled that the movie Sangam had been till then the longest and most successful box office hit in Egypt’s history. The country itself was perhaps the principal cultural centre of the Arab world with a vibrant tradition of the performing arts and an established film industry. The Egyptian film industry felt threatened and appealed to the government to put onerous restrictions on the import and screening of Indian movies. Most Egyptians resented these curbs and missed Indian movies. Later in 1980s when Video Cassette Players became popular Indian movie cassettes became part of the gifts-kit of discerning Indian diplomats in serving in Arab countries and in many other parts of the world.
This tradition of the popularity of Indian movies conveying Indian family values and cultural traditions and values and entertainment has continued. Thus, Indian cinema is even now a part of Indian soft power. In recalling all this the contribution of Dilip Kumar who represented so fully India’s ethos cannot be forgotten.
Rest in Peace, Yusuf Khan; rest in the blessings and grace of Allah.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.