Dilip Kumar, one of Bollywood’s most accomplished and respected film stars, died on Wednesday aged 98, prompting tributes from across Indian and Pakistani cinema, politics, sport and even animal rights. Alongside Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, Kumar was one of three big names who dominated the golden age of Indian cinema from the 1940s to the 1960s, enjoying a career spanning more than 50 years and nearly 60 films. Nicknamed “The Tragedy King” with brooding good looks, tousled hair, and a deep voice, he played the lead in some of the Indian film industry’s most commercially successful films of the period. But he missed out on international fame after famously turning down the chance to play Sherif Ali in David Lean’s 1962 classic “Lawrence of Arabia”. The part went to then little known Egyptian actor Omar Sharif.
Kumar was born Mohammed Yusuf Khan on December 11, 1922, in Peshawar, Pakistan, then part of British-ruled India. His father was a fruit merchant who took his family to India’s entertainment capital in the 1930s.
Actress Devika Rani spotted him on his father’s fruit stall in then Bombay, leading to a part in his first film, “Jwar Bhata”, in 1944.
Rani persuaded him to change his name, so he chose Dilip Kumar, allowing him to hide what he was doing from his disapproving father.
Although “Jwar Bhata” flopped and leading film magazines criticised his performance, Kumar was undeterred and broke through with the 1946 film “Milan”.
Among his most remembered roles was the lavish historical romance “Mughal-e-Azam”, based on the life of a great Mughal prince. It became one of Bollywood’s biggest-grossing films of all time.
Kumar, who cited Hollywood greats Marlon Brando, Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy as influences, later won acclaim in 1964 for the nationalistic “Leader”, screened against a backdrop of recent wars against China and Pakistan.
– Politics –
The 1970s saw fewer roles, as younger actors like Amitabh Bachchan, now the biggest star in India’s hugely prolific Hindi-language cinema industry, took centre stage.
Kumar even took a five-year break after a string of flops, returning in 1981 with the hit “Kranti” (Revolution) and a part alongside Bachchan in “Shakti” (Strength) the following year, plus a string of character roles.
Later Kumar took up a more active role in politics in 1998 and worked to end the feuding between India and Pakistan.
The same year saw him receive the highest civilian honour in Pakistan, angering Hindu nationalists. Two years later he became a lawmaker for the Congress party.
Kumar credited his successful career to his early days in Peshawar’s fabled Qissa Khwani (“Storytellers”) Bazaar where travellers would share tales of their adventures.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday joined the tributes, thanking Kumar for help raising funds for a cancer charity and saying he was “the greatest and most versatile actor” for his generation.
– Baffled by success –
Unlike many actors who appeared in hundreds of films, Kumar carefully selected roles which by Indian standards only increased his stature in the fiercely competitive industry.
In 2006 he accepted a lifetime achievement award at India’s National Film Awards in recognition of his contribution to Indian cinema.
Yet he still admitted that he was baffled at his success.
“Honestly, I’ve still to figure out how an intensely shy young man called Yusuf Khan became the actor Dilip Kumar,” he told The Hindustan Times in an interview to mark his 85th birthday.
Kumar also filed a case in the Supreme Court in the 1990s in support of lesbian love story “Fire” after cinemas were vandalised by Hindu fundamentalist groups.
Kumar married the actress Saira Banu in 1966 when she was 22 years his junior.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Kumar a “cinematic legend”.
“He was blessed with unparalleled brilliance… His passing away is a loss to our cultural world,” Modi tweeted.
Bachchan called him his “idol” while Anil Kapoor said he “was and will always be the finest & greatest actor of our industry for me”.
Former Pakistan cricket captain Shahid Afridi said his death was “a huge loss” while animal rights group PETA India said “animals everywhere have lost a great friend”.
Preparations were being made for his funeral in Mumbai scheduled for later in the day. The area around his house was sealed off by police.