For a variety of reasons I was lucky to meet many practitioners of Hindi cinema over the years, but no encounter ever matched the first time I saw Dilip Kumar.

This was sometime in the mid-sixties. My mother, sister and I (a teenager then) came from Hyderabad to London to visit relatives. We were staying at the Ritz Hotel and heard that Dilip Kumar was checking in that morning. You’d have to be insane to miss such a moment, so I stood at the banister on the first floor, looking down on a grandish lobby to await his arrival.

A flurry of excitement broke out. The hotel staff made it manifest that a god had just entered their space and had turned a perfectly ordinary day into a lifelong memory. I watched the beaming faces gather around him. A few minutes later, Dilip Kumar happened to look up. When he spotted me transfixed over the banister, he smiled and spontaneously gestured for me to come down. I flew down those Ritz Hotel stairs as if I had sprouted wings under my feet. The impact of seeing Dilip Kumar in real life, and be spoken to, can only be described as truly overwhelming.

Dilip Kumar in Devdas (1955). Courtesy Bimal Roy Productions.

Based on emotional reasons (emotions being the only reason we have favourites), the fans of this wonderful performer each have their own list of best-loved performances. For me, Dilip Kumar made the characters in Andaz, Jogan, Amar, Devdas, Mughal-e-Azam and Gunga Jumna so absolutely intriguing and moving that it is difficult to pick one performance over the other. He was a director’s actor (and so unsurprisingly became the choice of the finest directors of his era who cast him opposite the finest actresses). He was also an actor’s actor, influencing at least two generations of performers who have consistently sung his praises.

American film critic Robert Ebert believed that cinema is the greatest art form conceived for generating emotions in its audience. That said, we are primarily moved by an actor’s ability to stir that emotion in us, and that’s before we think of the director’s skills. When we look back at the old movies, we see that nothing can date a film as much as an outdated performance.

The late 1940s and early 1950s have, in part, gained their reputation as a great era of cinema thanks to Dilip Kumar and his generation of actors. Away from theatrical tradition and training, they had a terrific understanding of film acting. They brought an instinctive and natural presence to the screen, achieving this through cinema techniques. They knew the restrained sound of sobbing could create the sadness moment and the close-up without words could say it all.

Andaz (1949).

Many of today’s filmgoers may not grasp the full impact of Dilip Kumar, but it must be remembered that he came into an era largely dominated by melodramatic acting and bombastic dialogue delivery. From his very early films, in the mid-1940s, Dilip Kumar cleverly used the language and tools of cinema to enhance emotion. Few can outdo the subtlety of expression in a Dilip Kumar close-up.

His greatest contribution to film acting was in his use of voice. It was absolutely right and never failed to deliver the right tone in every scene. He knew intuitively people might listen to a whisper with greater attention than a shout. Even in a cinema hall teaming with people you noticed the slightest gesture he made, and listened to every word he uttered.

Amar (1954).

But what made Dilip Kumar stand apart? Why was he so startlingly understated in Andaz? Was it his perfect dialogue delivery in Mughal-e-Azam? Remember how his eyes twinkled when he brought a song alive in Naya Daur? How did he convey the dark and brooding side of human nature in Amar? How did he manage to bring so much pathos to Devdas or so effectively become the wronged man felled by fate in Gunga Jumna?

Was it the brilliant songs he mouthed in film after film? Think of Ye Mera Deewanapan Hai or Ae Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal. Was it the kind of values he stood for in post-independent India? Was it his handsome face and soft voice? Was it his quiet depth and intensity?

Perhaps he was all these things – and yet, in his finer roles, Dilip Kumar managed to hold something back. In Hindi cinema, where everything is spelled out and emotions are unambiguous, Dilip Kumar kept a sense of mystery about him. Great actors leave you wanting more while setting the screen aflame.

Dilip Kumar in Gunga Jumna (1961). Courtesy Citizen Films.

In 1988, I interviewed Dilip Kumar for a documentary and remember spending an hour discussing the difference between sentiment and feeling. He was thoughtful and curious about the finer shades of emotion and it is with the same intense enquiry that he approached the role of Devdas in Bimal Roy’s 1955 film. In that soothing voice of his, Dilip Kumar spoke in a mix of Urdu and English about what Devdas would have felt as he travelled by train to Kashi at night. Could he have gone to sleep? And if Devdas had not slept, what was he preoccupied with?

He added: “This was just an exercise to induce the artist to become introspective. We have institutions these days where people go and learn how to act. There weren’t any acting institutions in those days, and all we could only learn was through instruction and persuasion, and then by one’s own personal application. The question in Devdas was quite often of trying not to do rather than doing.”

He was that rare actor who gave the impression of being rather than doing. Dilip Kumar’s passing is not only the passing of a glorious era, it is also the disappearance of a world of “tehzeeb”, of grace, which we can now only revisit in his movies.

Dilip Kumar in Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Courtesy Shapoorji Pallonji.

Also read:

Dilip Kumar (1922-2021): His contributions to cinema will reverberate for decades to come

How Dilip Kumar trained and trained to perfect ‘Madhuban Mein Radhika Naache Re’