Dilip Kumar: The Chekhovian amateur who redefined acting

Dilip Kumar

Anton Chekhov revolutionised modern playwriting and short stories. And he is one my favorite writers. Thus, I remember being confused when I first read that Hemingway had said the following about him: “Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories. But he was an amateur writer”. I have never quite been able to understand why Hemingway called Chekhov an amateur. Whatever the truth of it, I now realise that it’s at least not an illogical statement, lest one feels that an ‘amateur’ couldn’t possibly redefine plays and short stories. There is another ‘amateur’ who also redefined his field and it’s a pity that he is largely unknown outside the South Asian sub-continent. That person is Dilip Kumar, the legendary untrained actor of Indian cinema, who came to be regarded as the reference point, or as someone whose work paved a different style of acting, by all Indian and Pakistani actors to come after him, including Amitabh Bachchan, Nadeem Baig, Kamal Hassan, Amir Khan, and Shahrukh Khan.

Martin Scorsese says that American cinema can be divided into two periods: before Brando and after Brando. Similarly Amitabh Bachchan says that there is ‘before Dilip Kumar’ and ‘after Dilip Kumar’ in Indian cinema history. Actors before Dilip Kumar (as before Brando) were ‘actors’, while with Kumar (as with Brando) it all changed and a new era of acting was unleashed, where actors behaved rather than ‘acted’, to put it simply.

However, unlike Brando, Kumar didn’t have the good fortune of being trained by someone as special as Stella Adler (or being trained at all, for that matter). So in a way, his achievements are even greater than Brando’s because he truly was just an amateur. Also, Kumar didn’t have Brando as a reference point (unlike Pacino, De Niro et al.) because he in fact was senior to Brando by almost 5 years. So he was doing what Brando did, but all on his own. The most acclaimed of Indian directors Satyajit Ray called Kumar the ‘ultimate method actor’ (though Kumar claimed to have found the ‘method’ limiting for some roles and had to often go beyond its limitations).

Today marks the 91st birthday of the legendary actor. Dilip Kumar’s earlier movies are largely unseen by the younger generations and only a few of his movies, which he did in the 70s and 80s, are known to later generations. The same is the case with Brando, who most younger people know only through The Godfather, while better (and truly groundbreaking) performances in A Streetcar Named DesireJulius CaesarViva ZapataOn the Waterfront, etc. remain largely unseen. Similarly, Kumar’s earlier movies, such as Naya Daur (those who love Amir Khan’s Oscar nominated Lagaan should watch it; they would be pleasantly surprised at the similarities), FootpathDaagGanga Jumna, etc, also remain unseen. Also, upon watching these old gems, admirers of Amitabh Bachchan would be surprised to discover how heavy a debt their idol owes to his idol!

This is a good time as any to revisit these old classics!


Find more from Rameez Rahman at http://scensci.wordpress.com/

7 thoughts on “Dilip Kumar: The Chekhovian amateur who redefined acting

  1. As a Westerner I am not exposed to as much worldwide cinema as I would like. Your article is enlightening, and for a film buff, I feel as though I need to watch this man!

  2. Thnak you for writing about his fine actor who is obscure to most Western audiences. Regarding Hemingway’s statement about Chekhov: the Russian author’s primary profession was that of a doctor, relegating his writing to amateur status. At least in the eyes of the jealous American drunkard. I never thought of Brando’s eary work as being obscure, but perhaps you are right that younger people know him mostly
    through his later work. If that is true, it is a very sad state of affairs.

  3. Hi Rameez,

    Great piece! Up to this point, most of my Indian film education has been around the works of Satyajit Ray, and some of the more recent Bollywood cinema. You’ve definitely inspired me to delve deeper.

    • Thank you for putting it up James. I would be happy if people from outside the subcontinent would become interested in old Indian classics. ‘Mother India’ is a famous one…

  4. An interesting comparison with Brando, and a fine tribute to one of India’s great actors. His work is unknown to me, and I have not seen any of the films featured in the clip. I confess to avoiding most ‘Bollywood’ films, as I usually find the acting style confining, and the music is often irrelevant, at least to a westerner like me.
    I have seen the Ray trilogy, and ‘The Warrior’ (2001). I am certain that the massive film output from India deserves more consideration from us all, and I thank you for this introduction to something different.
    Regards from England, Pete.

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