Besides marking the end of an epoch, the demise of Dilip Kumar also saw the passing of an era in Hindi films where the aura of screen icons was inextricably bound with the identity of the surroundings. The last surviving member of the fabled troika, along with Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, Kumar’s onscreen persona was intricately associated with the image of India’s first Prime Minister—Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru—whose brand of socialism often ended up being portrayed in the films of the three stars. The trio imbibed Nehru’s personality traits in the characters they played to showcase the idea of Nehurivian socialism, which was the driving force of the generation.
Kapoor was the simpleton who shifted from the village to the big city, searching for his piece of the collective ownership. Anand was the one suffering in the dark underbelly of the big bad city. While Kapoor’s characters in films such as Awaara and Shree 420 go back to being the simpleton, Anand was somewhat un-socialist and preferred to pay the price but strive for better days. Kumar was nestled between the two. He presented a mix of modernity and simplicity (read, the idealist). His films such as Naya Daur, Ganga Jumna, and Paigham, to name a few, did more to further Nehruvian idealism than any other actor.
Interestingly, Kumar’s filmography features the best of his films between the time Nehru became the PM and the year of his death, 1964. In a career spanning 45 years, Kumar featured in almost 60 films, with nearly 38 releasing during the Nehru era. It’s hardly surprising that the PM had great fondness for Kumar. According to the actor’s autobiography, The Substance and the Shadow, the PM asked him to campaign on occasions and championed his film Ganga Jumna when the Censors played hard.
In the mid-1960s, much like Lal Bahadur Shastri, popular stars such as Dharmendra and Manoj Kumar echoed the period’s sentiments that were not wholly disassociated from the past but questioned Nehruvian ideology. Their stardom shifted gears with Shastri’s untimely death, and the ones who followed (Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan) walked down the same path with Indira Gandhi.
In many ways, Dilip Kumar’s sense of identity as an actor not only developed in the Nehruvian years but also went on to become a magnanimous version of the aura of India’s first premier. This explains why with Nehru’s passing, Kumar seemed at sea when it came to capturing the zeitgeist as he had done just a few years earlier. Today, such associations persist. There is nothing wrong in it. However, refusing to change even when there’s reason to do so reveals a shaky foundation.
Film historian and bestselling author