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Dilip Kumar, the Indian acting icon who was credited with bringing realism and the method style into Hindi cinema and was widely known as the “Tragedy King,” has died. He was 98.
Local news reports, citing Kumar’s family and doctor, say he died on Wednesday morning at a Mumbai hospital after a prolonged illness.
In a career that spanned five decades, Kumar is widely regarded as the finest actor India has ever produced. Starring in some of the all-time classic films of Indian cinema, Kumar’s versatility and command of his craft allowed him to excel across genres.
Some of his best-known films include Aan, Daag, Devdas, Madhumati, Azaad, Mughal-e-Azam, Gunga Jamuna, Kranti, Karma and Ram Aur Shyam. He was awarded the inaugural Filmfare Award for best actor in 1954 and is tied with Shah Rukh Khan for most wins at eight.
Hugely influential, his style directly inspired the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Naseeruddin Shah, Shah Rukh Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. His overarching importance to his craft and enduring popularity led to him being retrospectively dubbed the “First Khan of Bollywood” among film fans.
Born Muhammad Yusuf Khan on Dec. 11, 1922, in Peshawar, which was then part of British India and is now part of Pakistan, Kumar was one of 12 children of a fruit seller. His early years saw him lead something of a peripatetic life until he found himself in Mumbai in the 1940s. A chance encounter led to him meeting Devika Rani the owner of the Bombay Talkies movie studio and she gave him his stage name and signed him up as a contract star, despite his lack of acting experience and training. Rani cast him as the lead in the drama Jwaar Bhata (1944) which didn’t get much attention. His third film Milan (1946), based on the novel Nauka Dubi but Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, saw him work with director Nitin Bose who was a great influence and taught him to act in the more natural and realistic style for which he became known.
The late 1940s and early 1950s saw Kumar take on a number of tragic roles, which cemented his legacy as the “Tragedy King” in the public’s imagination. Self-trained in the method style years before the likes of Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty made their mark, he so thoroughly immersed himself in tragic roles that he became depressed and famously visited a psychiatrist who recommended he take on lighter comedic parts to lift his gloom.
His notable films from the period include the romantic drama Daag, for which he won the inaugural Filmfare best actor award in 1954, the lush musical Aan, India’s first technicolor film, and Andaz, a film he starred opposite his friend and rival Raj Kapoor and Insaniyat in which he co-starred with Dev Anand.
Kumar, Kapoor and Anand together would dominate Hindi cinema in the 1950s and 1960s, but Kumar stood out for his less mannered style and his tendency to inhabit roles, nailing accents and dialects and taking on a greater range of roles.
In his peak years, he was often paired with several leading ladies including Nur Jahan, Nargis, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nalini Jaywant and Nutan.
In 1960, Kumar starred as Prince Salim in the historical Mughal-e-Azam, which for many years was the highest-grossing Indian film. The following year he showed off his range by starring as the rural bandit Ganga in Ganga Jumna. Around this time, David Lean offered him the part of Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia but he turned it down, with the part going to Omar Sharif.
After the success of dramedy Ram Aur Shyam and drama Aadmi, his career went into a comparative fallow period that lasted for much of the 1970s and included a self-enforced hiatus. He made a roaring comeback in 1981’s Kranti, a star-packed historical drama and had a handful of other hits during the decade, often taking support roles but it was clear his acting career was winding down.
In 1993, he was awarded Filmfare’s lifetime achievement award and his final film role came in 1998 with Qila.
He was cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the Indian actor with a record number of awards. He was given the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1994, India’s highest award in the field of cinema. He also received the Padma Vibhushan in 1991, India’s second-highest civilian award. Notably, he was awarded Pakistan’s highest civilian award, the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, in 1997, which caused some controversy at home.
He is survived by his wife the actress Saira Banu. The couple married in 1966 and starred together in the films Gopi, Sagina Mahato and Bairaag. They had no children.
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