‘I drink so that I can breathe’


Dilip Kumar in and as ‘Devdas’ by Bimal Roy (1955) *

Talent needs no reason to be celebrated. Its existence is reason enough.

Speaking of talent, as the great actor Dilip Kumar turns 92 today, the time is more than opportune to celebrate him.  As arguably India’s greatest mainstream actor Yusuf Khan (his real name), it is hard to choose a specific scene from his long career that lights up his essential genius in all its glory. However, a particular scene from ‘Devdas’, the 1955 masterpiece by Bimal Roy is as good an example as any to illustrate Yusufsaab’s extraordinary command over different parts of the craft.

Dear friend, great writer, fellow journalist and probably Dilip Kumar’s greatest admirer Shireesh Kanekar and I have frequently talked about this scene from the film. In fact, there have been many occasions when Shireesh has broken into the opening lines rather unprovoked simply because of the way Dilip Kumar has intoned it.

Everything comes together in this film and this scene. ‘Devdas’ is a director’s film in as much as it is actors’ film. (What does this observation mean, Mayank?) In particular, Dilip Kumar as an alcoholic in the grip of debilitating melancholy just shines. In the scene, Vyjayanthimala as Chandramukhi tells him to go slow on his drinking since she is worried about his natural tolerance for alcohol. The film’s dialogue was written brilliantly by the literary giant Rajinder Singh Bedi.

Right from the time Devdas asks Chandramukhi “Kyon?” (Why?) when being advised by her to exercise restraint on his drinking to the point when finishes the scene, Dilip Kumar offers a master class in performance. The clarity of diction, the modulation of voice, the deliberate pacing of and emphasis on words, the economy of facial expressions and above all being immersed completely in the psyche of the character, Kumar owns it all. I wrote in my Facebook update that I defy any other Indian actor to capture the debilitating melancholy of an alcoholic as captured and articulated by Dilip Kumar. Notice the change of register from "Kaun kumbakht" to "Bas saans le sakun" to "Kuchh hosh reh hi jata hai."

When Chandramukhi tells a drunk Devdas, “Itni zyada bardasht na kar sakoge” (You will not be able to tolerate/withstand so much), I think his response is telling. “Kaun kumbakht hai to bardasht karne ke liye peeta hai. Main to peeta hoon ke bas saans le sakun,” (Who drinks to tolerate/withstand? I drink so that I can breathe),” he replies. The first line seems to suggest Devdas does not care what happens to him. “ Who drinks to tolerate/withstand?” appears to imply that. But then Bedi turns it around and gives the character’s conflicted state an interesting escape route when he says, “I drink so that I can breathe.” Let me not spoil the scene by injecting in it my own worthless analysis. For those of you who understand Hindi/Urdu in their brilliance, I guarantee one of cinema’s great scenes.

* I continue to have the problem of embedding YouTube videos on my damn blog. I have linked the picture to it.


I also republish here what I wrote about him on his 90th birthday.


(From left) Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Sunil Dutt at an award function in Bombay sometime in the late 1980s (File photo by Gopal Shetty)

As Dilip Kumar, by a wide consensus India’s greatest mainstream actor, turns 90 today I think of the four interviews that I did with him through the mid 1980s and early 1990s. By some strange coincidence all the four were done on telephone. I have never met him personally.

During my last interview in August, 1995, when he was honored by the Indian state with its highest cinematic recognition of the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, I pointed out this odd fact. He took a characteristically long pause before responding to my observation. Even by his standards it was a particularly long pause which prompted me to ask, “Yusufsaab (His real name is Yusuf Khan) aap hein ki chaley gaye? Kafi lamba pause le liya. (Are you still on the line? It is a rather long pause” )

He laughed and replied, “Abhi to hoon. Aap farma rahe they ki hum aur aap kabhi ruh-ba-rhu nahi miley. To yeh to meri kumnaseebi hi hui. (I am very much around. You were saying we have never met personally. That is my misfortune).” It was obvious to me he was saying that in jest and it was obvious to him I knew he was saying it in jest. We both laughed. “Who knows we might meet some day,” he said.

We are yet to meet personally and I doubt if we ever will. I happened to have that 1995 interview which was published in the New York-based weekly India Abroad. It was a short interview because he was pressed for time and, more importantly, as he said, “Mujhe migraine ki badi taqleef hai aaj. (I have an intense migraine attack today).” Who better than me to empathize with someone suffering migraine? By a crazy coincidence I have been suffering from one myself for the past couple of days.


The picture above was taken by Gopal Shetty at the wedding of actor, director and producer Dev Anand’s daughter Devina. (From left) Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Saira Banu, Devina and the groom (name not identified) and Kalpana Kartik.

Here is the interview:

People’s Approval Is What Counts: Dilip Kumar

By Mayank Chhaya
India Abroad
Dilip Kumar, reputedly India’s greatest actor, looks back on a career spanning 51 years and more than 80 movies with mellowed grievance about what he could have done but could not.

At 73, Kumar, whose real name is Yusuf Khan, has just been conferred India’s highest cinema honor, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, for his lifetime contribution.

There has been a popular feeling that the honor has come too late for an actor who has inspired generations of actors and whose understated style is copied even now. But he himself lets that pass saying, "Now that it (the honor) is here, it is here." The prime reward for him, he says, has come from ordinary people who have loved and admired him for decades.

Beginning his career in 1944 with a movie called "Jwar Bhata" (High Tide, Low Tide), Dilip Kumar has unfailingly turned in out-of-the-ordinary performances. Many of his portrayals have been considered all-time greats. Specially remembered are "Devdas," in which he plays the classic Indian lover who ruins his life because of unrequited love, "Ganga Jamna" in which he is a simple-minded villager who rises in rebellion against an oppressive social system, "Mughal-e-Azam," in which he plays with characteristic élan the Mughal king-to-be in love with a courtesan, and "Naya Daur," in which he plays a labor leader.

Kumar spoke to India Abroad in a brief interview over the telephone from his residence in Bombay.

Excerpts are:
Q. Do you think his honor has come too late for you?

A. I would not like to make any comment on that. Now that it is here, it is here. Whether it is sooner or later it is for the people to judge. The prime award or reward for me has been there for decades in the hearts of the people, in their looks, in the way they talk to me wherever I go out in India or abroad. I get that reward every day. I have always had people’s recognition. This is state recognition which I respect.

Q. Do you think there is anything left for you to achieve in terms of cinematic achievement? You seem to have done it all.

A. No, I did not even start. There was a lot to be done but we had to operate within the framework we have. To do better performances you need better films and themes and characterization. We have developed everything but surprisingly enough for a country of our size we don’t seem to have good modern literature. We have ignored and neglected our culture. Cinema reflects all this. I wish I could have got some better characters to portray in superior equations. If you rule out the earlier pictures that were based on the classics, it will be apparent that the intent has been, even on the part of Dilip Kumar, to make the best out of the material on hand. The effort has been to improve upon what we have.

Q. Do you feel frustrated that you got roles that did not do justice to your talent?

A: I would not quite put it that way but I did get frustrated at times waiting for weeks and months for a better proposition from a literary point of view. These days people come to me with ready-made audio cassettes instead of good script, and expect to imitate that.

Q. Don’t you get furious?

A. I stopped getting furious a long time ago.

Q. It was once said of Marlon Brando that he demolished future generations of actors. That has been said of you, too, in the Indian context. Do you agree?

A. No, no, Look at Dustin Hoffman and a host of others who have made a mark. If anything I would say Dilip Kumar was just a beginning. Some people may be stimulated, or to use a pompous expression, they may be inspired but I don’t think they want to copy me. They may inadvertently slip into a style that is similar to mine.

Q. Amitabh Bachchan believes that any actor of any standing that came after you, including he himself, would be lying if he said he was not inspired by your artistry.

A. Amitabh Bachchan himself is a complete actor. He can handle comedy, drama and so. It is unfortunate that he allowed himself to be branded as the angry young man and the monarch of the fisticuffs. He has versatility in him just like Raj Kapoor had. Raj Kapoor was a fine serious actor but then he took to filmmaking. Everyone who makes films is obliged to sell and selling is such a terrible job. Out of 100 rupees at the box office the picture-maker hardly gets about five to seven rupees. So filmmakers are forced to cater to the lowest common denominator.

Q. Why have you shied away from directing? You are in the process of directing your first movie "Kalinga" only now at 73.

A. I stumbled into it; I would not have liked to direct it at all. It was just that the producer thought I should do it because of the subject of the film.

Q. Do you care to look back on your career and do you like what you see?

A. Everybody likes to look back. When we started in the 1940s and the 1950s we were looking skywards and said now that the country is free we would make much better cinema. We felt that with our kind of human relationships we could produce films in league with other good cinemas in the world. But I think the government and authorities were silly. If an accusing finger has to be pointed it has to be pointed at the government and authorities for introducing a fiscal system that confiscated our revenue at the box office. There was no nurturing of the medium that everybody called influential. We stifled our cinema. We levied tax that progressively rose from 12 1/2 percent to 25, 36, 50, 55, 75, 90, 100, 120 and now 150 percent. This even before the picture-maker earns his capital. This abominable and immoral levy taxed our institutions out of existence. All our prestigious studious shut down. This fiscal system forced them to cater to the lowest common denominator.

P.S.: I want to acknowledge my friend and photographer Gopal Shetty’s generosity in sharing the two photographs from his collection.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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