They called him the Tragedy King.
Dilip Kumar was known for throwing himself into serious roles, but the result was always gentler and more complex than his moniker suggested. Born Mohammed Yusuf Khan, he died on Wednesday at 98. The last of a golden Bollywood triumvirate that included Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, Kumar was among the leading men who helped craft the cinematic image of post-independence India. During a career that spanned six decades, he starred in some of the most beloved and successful Indian films ever made, including the largely black-and-white historical epic “Mughal-e-Azam” (1960), best remembered for its Technicolor dance sequence “Jab Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya” (“Why Fear When You’re in Love?”).
In the 1950s and ’60s, his work struck such a lasting chord that it set the template for entire genres that came to define Hindi cinema. The “double role,” for instance, is a commonly employed device in which an actor plays multiple parts, either in stories of lost twins or of reincarnation; Kumar’s films were so definitive that he had a hand in popularizing both versions of the concept. He even played twin brothers in his final film, “Qila” (1998).
Three of Kumar’s most famous works are available to stream in the United States. The advantage of watching them is that they feature not three, or even four, but five of his greatest performances, each one more moving and nuanced than the last.
Stream it on The Criterion Channel.
Though it was not the first Hindi film to feature a theme of reincarnation, “Madhumati” cemented the now-famous “reincarnation revenge” saga eventually aped by Bollywood hits like “Karz” (1980), “Karan Arjun” (1995) and “Om Shanti Om” (2007). Directed by Bimal Roy and written by Ritwik Ghatak, “Madhumati” follows Devinder (Kumar), a world-weary engineer who takes refuge in an old mansion during a storm. The mansion’s walls and paintings feel inexplicably familiar to him. Before long, he begins to recall memories from a life that was not his own, in which a young artist and estate manager, Anand (also Kumar), had fallen in love with a local tribal woman, Madhumati (Vyjayanthimala), before both were murdered by Anand’s envious employer, Raja Ugra Narain (Pran).
Devinder’s attempts to draw a confession out of the still-living Narain would inspire the overarching plots of many imitators, but in “Madhumati,” this revenge scheme is relegated to the final act. The majority of the film luxuriates in Anand and Madhumati’s star-crossed romance, set against the serene hills of Nainital. As Anand, Kumar has an unburdened grace and simplicity; he’s subtly mischievous in Madhumati’s presence, and visibly distracted by an unspoken romantic high whenever they’re apart. As Devinder, however, Kumar pulls off the herculean feat of turning déjà vu — a fleeting sensation — into an ever-present emotional fabric, as he begins to recall and reckon with an impossible kind of grief, though he cannot yet fathom its origin.
‘Ram Aur Shyam’ (1967)
Stream it on Amazon Prime and Eros Now; buy or rent it on Apple TV, Google Play and YouTube.
Like “Madhumati,” Tapi Chanakya’s prince-and-pauper twin comedy would go on to spawn a litany of imitators that also cast major stars to play opposite themselves. The blockbuster success of “Ram Aur Shyam” is largely owed to it playing like a one-man variety act. Kumar portrays twins separated at birth in a story that plays hopscotch across the boxes of tone and genre (a “masala film”). Kumar plays both Ram, a timid, soft-spoken man raised in a wealthy family, and his long-lost twin brother, Shyam, a cocksure villager whose magnetic aura lends itself to action heroics.
As Ram, Kumar cowers in the corner of every frame, especially in the presence of his violent brother-in-law Gajendra (Pran). He elicits pity through posture, often lowering himself to the height of his 8-year-old niece, while his hands fidget nervously and hover on-guard near his chest. In contrast, Kumar practically envelops the screen as the roguish Shyam, standing tall even as he leans against walls and pillars. Kumar was known for his immersive Method approach, but “Ram Aur Shyam” proves that no matter how far inward he dove, he was always aware of the camera’s gaze and his relationship to it.
Stream it on Hoopla and The Criterion Channel; buy or rent it on Amazon Prime.
Kumar plays only one role in “Devdas,” but the title character’s spiritual struggle makes it feel as if there are two entities at war. The film is based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1917 novel of the same name, of which there have been 20 screen adaptations. The title role is a calling card akin to Hamlet, and a chance for actors to spiral into an abyss of drunken sorrow. Many great performers have hammed it up along the way (see Shah Rukh Khan in the exotic 2002 version), but Kumar’s take in Bimal Roy’s adaptation is a painfully realistic portrait of a man wrestling with the ugliest parts of his nature.
When Devdas reunites with his childhood sweetheart, Paro (Suchitra Sen), all we hear is Kumar’s gentle voice whispering from offscreen. When he finally steps out of the shadows, his eyes are enraptured and enamored, delivering one of the most impactful entrances in Indian cinema. It’s hard not to fall in love with Devdas — which makes it all the more agonizing when his demons and insecurities turn him violently abrasive. Caught between his love for Paro, the courtesan Chandramukhi (Vyjayanthimala) and the bottom of his glass, he becomes consumed by his mistakes. The more he drinks, the more ill he becomes, and Kumar’s masterstroke is the way he turns a physical ailment into an emotional one, blending together his agony and self-loathing until all that’s left is an inescapable haze of regret. Few performances feel as if they run the entire gamut of human emotion. The first time Devdas takes a drink, Kumar runs that gamut in a single scene.
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