The man, who inspired the likes of Naseeruddin Shah, Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, remained on the edges of public life with his films watched by those who grew old with him and also newer generations of film lovers who wanted to catch up with the best of Indian cinema.
The Dilip Kumar oeuvre is limited to just 60-odd films, most ranked as classics. These include Devdas — a tragic story of unrequited loved still associated with him despite its many screen iterations Madhumati , Mughal-e-Azam of course and Naya Daur that mirrored the man vs machine conflict of the 50s.
The second innings saw him play memorable character roles in films such as Kranti , Karma and Shakti .
It is often said that Kumar was the first of the Khans.
In a sign of the times that were, this Khan — born Muhammed Yousuf Khan, one of Pathan fruit merchant Ghulam Sarwar’s 11 children, on December 11, 1922 in Peshawar was rechristened the perhaps more acceptable Dilip Kumar.
His new name and new identity was given to him by Devika Rani, who was head of Bombay Talkies at the time and was of the view that a screen name would help audiences relate to him.
It certainly did. Though his first film, Bombay Talkies’ Jwar Bhata went unnoticed success beckoned with the next, “Jugnu” in 1947.
Till Jugnu , the acting career was hidden from his family. It was Basheshwarnathji, Prithviraj Kapoor’s father and Raj Kapoor’s grandfather, who pointed his father’s attention to a hoarding of Jugnu .
The two families had been neighbours in Peshawar and friends for years, and it was Raj to whom Yousuf turned to when his disappointed father refused to speak to him.
In a story that has become part of film lore, Raj got his father Prithviraj to mediate. And all was eventually well.
It was only fitting that both the Peshawar boys went on to become amongst India’s most loved and respected actors.
The fame did not always sit easily on Kumar.
So many of his stories had tragedies written into them. At some point, the reel started impacting his real lilfe. He went through a bout of depression in the 1950s and decided to opt for lighter roles in films like Ram Aur Shyam and Gopi .
Writing about this phase in his life, the actor wrote, “I had been playing characters who were ill-fated and a morbid outlook had seized me as a result of my extreme involvement and my living the character beyond working hours.”
Though a private person in life, Kumar’s name was sometimes linked to his leading ladies, the most discussed still being his relationship with Madhubala that ended due to a court case during the making of “Naya Daur” in 1957.
Many years later, he met Saira Banu, his wife of over five decades, at a party. She was 22 and he 45. There was a blip when Kumar married Hyderabad’s Asma Sahiba in 1981. The marriage lasted two years.
Other than that, Saira Banu has been a constant by Kumar’s side, supporting him through the years and speaking for him when he was no longer in a position to.
That story has now ended. But the legend that is Dilip Kumar will live on. And not just in film archives.