Dilip Kumar, Film Star Who Brought Realism to Bollywood, Dies at 98

One of India’s earliest Method actors, he was the last survivor of a triumvirate of actors who ruled Hindi cinema in the 1950s and ’60s.

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Dilip Kumar, the last of a triumvirate of actors who ruled Hindi cinema in the 1950s and ’60s, died on Wednesday in Mumbai, India. He was 98.

His death, at a hospital, was confirmed by Faisal Farooqui, a family friend, who posted a brief statement on Mr. Kumar’s official Twitter account.

In post-independence India, Mr. Kumar and two other stars set about defining the Hindi film hero. Raj Kapoor reflected the newly minted Indian’s confusion: His signature role was that of the Chaplinesque naïf negotiating a world that was losing its innocence. Dev Anand, known as the Gregory Peck of India, embodied a Western insouciance that still lingered; he became a stylish matinee idol.

Mr. Kumar, though, delved deeply into his characters, breaking free from the semaphoric silent-movie style of acting popularized by megastars like Sohrab Modi and Prithviraj Kapoor.

As one of the country’s earliest Method actors, he was often compared to Marlon Brando, another early adopter of the technique, even though Mr. Kumar claimed he had used it first.

“I learned the importance of studying the script and characters deeply and building upon my own gut observations and sensations about my own and other characters,” Mr. Kumar said in his autobiography, “The Substance and the Shadow” (2014). “The truth is that I am an actor who evolved a method.”

His preparation for roles became the stuff of legend. For his death scene in the 1961 megahit “Gunga Jumna,” he ran around the studio so that he could enter the set at the point of exhaustion.

For a song sequence in the 1960 film “Kohinoor” (“Mountain of Light”), he learned to play the sitar. For emotional sequences in the 1982 movie “Shakti” (“Power”) and the 1984 movie “Mashaal” (“Torch”), he drew from memories of when his brother died, recalling the pain that registered on his father’s face.

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Mr. Kumar, right, with Raj Kapoor and Nargis in the 1949 film  “Andaz” (“Style”).Credit…via Alamy

Mr. Kumar was born Yousuf Khan in Peshawar (then part of British India, now in Pakistan) on Dec. 11, 1922, the fourth of Ayesha and Mohammad Sarwar Khan’s 12 children. His father, a fruit merchant, moved the family to Bombay, now known as Mumbai, and then to Deolali, in west India, where Dilip attended the Barnes School before enrolling in Khalsa College in Bombay.

He wanted to play soccer or cricket professionally, but the family’s financial situation forced him to look for work elsewhere. For a time he was an assistant at an army canteen in Poona (now Pune).

A chance encounter with a former teacher changed his life. When he said he was looking for a job, the teacher introduced him to the pioneering Indian actress Devika Rani, who, along with Himanshu Rai, had established the Bombay Talkies studio. The idea was to get a job, any job, but Ms. Rani asked if he would consider becoming an actor.

Mr. Kumar, who had seen only one film in his life — a war documentary — was flummoxed, but the money persuaded him. Ms. Rani said that taking on a Hindu screen name to obscure his Muslim background would help his career. He became Dilip Kumar.

His first film, “Jwar Bhata” (“Ebb and Flow”), released in 1944, was a flop; Baburao Patel, the acerbic critic of Film India, called him “anemic.” But three years later his performance in “Jugnu” (“Firefly”), alongside Noor Jehan, received more favorable attention. By the time “Shaheed” (“Martyr”) was released in 1948, Mr. Patel was singing his praises: “Dilip Kumar steals the picture with his deeply felt and yet natural delineation of the main role.”

The hits kept coming, including “Nadiya Ke Paar” (“Across the River”), “Shabnam” (“Dewdrops”) and Mehboob Khan’s “Andaz” (“Style”), in which Mr. Kumar was cast with Mr. Kapoor and the actress Nargis. In 1954, Mr. Kumar won the newly instituted Filmfare Award for best actor for his performance as an alcoholic in the tragic love story “Daag” (“The Stain”). He won seven more Filmfare statuettes for best actor in addition to a lifetime achievement award. Guinness World Records honored him on his 97th birthday for his “matchless contribution” to Indian cinema.

Many of his early films had him chasing unattainable women. The 1950 melodrama “Jogan” (“Nun”) ends with him weeping at his lover’s grave. That same year, he played a Heathcliff-like character in “Arzoo” (“Desire”), one of three variations on “Wuthering Heights” in which he acted.

He earned the nickname Tragedy King after appearing in a series of dramas that a psychiatrist later said had taken a toll on Mr. Kumar’s health. In the 1951 movie “Deedar” (“Sight”), Mr. Kumar played a blind man whose eyesight is restored through surgery but who blinds himself again when he realizes that he and the surgeon are in love with the same woman. (To prepare for the role, Mr. Kumar observed a blind beggar at the Bombay Central railway station.)

One of his best-known tragedies is Bimal Roy’s “Devdas” (1955), about a man who becomes an alcoholic when his childhood sweetheart deserts him.

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Mr. Kumar with Madhubala in “Mughal-e-Azam” (1960), made long after their well-publicized relationship had ended.Credit…via Everett Collection

Mr. Kumar’s love life made news; he had relationships with the actresses Kamini Kaushal, Madhubala (they co-starred in the 1960 blockbuster “Mughal-e-Azam,” about thwarted lovers, long after they broke up) and Saira Banu, whom he married in 1966 when he was 44 and she was 22. In the 1980s, while still married to Ms. Banu, Mr. Kumar married the socialite Asma Rehman in secret. The news quickly came out, and the marriage became a scandal, but Ms. Banu stuck with Mr. Kumar, who ended the second marriage.

He is survived by Ms. Banu.

Professionally, Mr. Kumar’s record was spotless, with films that have not only been successful but have also left a lasting impact. Films like “Naya Daur” (“New Era”) in 1957, “Yahudi” (“The Jews”) in 1958, “Madhumati,” also in 1958, and “Ram Aur Shyam” (“Ram and Shyam”) in 1967 are still remembered.

Mr. Kumar found fewer roles in the 1970s, with younger, more agile actors being cast as heroes, and he took a break.

He returned in 1981 with a blockbuster, “Kranti” (“Revolution”), which reshaped his screen persona as an older moral center. He had similar roles in star-heavy mega-productions like “Vidhaata” (“The Creator”) in 1982, “Karma” in 1986, Saudagar (“The Merchant”) in 1991 and especially “Shakti,” in which he was cast for the first time opposite the reigning Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan.

Mr. Kumar’s last film was “Qila” (“Fort”), released in 1998. By then, a reviewer wrote in India Today, his style felt “more than just outdated, it’s prehistoric,” adding, “Dilip Kumar’s long-drawn-out dialogue delivery is out of sync with the times.”

Mr. Kumar received the Padma Bhushan, one of India’s highest civilian awards, in 1991; the Dadasaheb Phalke, India’s highest award for cinematic excellence, in 1994; and the Padma Vibhushan in 2015. From 2000 to 2006 he served as a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament.

But these honors from the Indian government consumed far less newsprint than the decision by the Pakistani government, in 1998, to confer on him its highest civilian honor, the Nishan-e-Imtiaz. Amid heightened religious tensions, Mr. Kumar was branded an anti-national by Hindu politicians, who asked him to return the award to Pakistan. He did not. He said in his autobiography that returning it “could have only soured relations further and produced bad vibes between India and Pakistan.”

If Mr. Kumar was a tactful diplomat off screen, on the screen his characters would launch into more rebellious rhetoric. In the 1974 period drama “Sagina,” when labeled a traitor, his character responded, “If you’ve drunk your mother’s milk” — meaning, if you’re man enough — “then come get me.”

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting.

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