On late Dilip Kumar birth Centenary memories of his roles championing Progressive causes

Dilip Kumar

Today we celebrate the birth centenary of late thespian Dilip Kumar. Not only was he arguably Hindi cinema’s finest actor ever but as an artist he was an epitome of Progressive values. Penetrating depth, intensity and sensitivity in realms rarely transcended he projected the theme of a character confronting the evils of social injustice. Dilip Kumar literally defined a new era in Hindi cinema, traversing spectrums unexplored in acting methods. Although portrayed as a ‘Tragedy King’ he also most effectively ventured into comedy. His expressions could be as natural as the ripples of ocean water.

Dilip Kumar during the peak of his Bollywood career although never professing to be a Marxist, became the mascot of communists looking to indoctrine masses against the rise of capitalism and industry-driven modern Indian society. His films had a common trait throughout the six-decade long career – the villain was always either a capitalist landlord/overlord, or a smuggler/industrial that profited unfairly, with Dilip Kumar as the hero, always waging a relentless battle against them. I dearly wish that the themes of his most progressive films could be resurrected in accordance with the modern era. Be it a dacoit Gangaram in Ganga Jamuna, or Vijay Khanna in Leader, Class struggle was portrayed at a boiling point, which gave a fitting jolt most against the malicious propaganda brainwashing people.

Dilip Kumar gave stellar performances in Devdas, Muhgal e Azam, Madhumati, Shakti, Amar,Milan,Kranti etc,but here I am dwelling on only movies in which his roles championed struggle against injustice.

Movies Projecting Social Struggle

The trend of such characters played by Dilip Kumar began in 1948 when the movie Shaheed (1948) was released in theatres. The film demonstrates how a freedom fighter’s true battle is the one waged against his father and friends. The movie indirectly but craftily portrays the figure of a capitalist ‘bad’ father. This is an important component of Marxist theory – where the wealth of any kind acquired by anyone is always looked down upon and the person accumulating the wealth is demonised.

In Naya Daur(1957) he portrayed a villager championing the struggle confronting  penetration of sophisticated machinery in his village .He manifested  the aspirations of common farmer ,in the very thick of the skin. It openly illustrated that if modern industries, modern transportation and other mechanised means of production were inducted in the country, it will destroy the backbone of India. Confronting industrialization was championed to the last straw..

His confrontation with Jeevan as Kundan on the issue of technology was most pictorial and so was his leading a rally of farmers. It is remarkable how he portrays the galvanising of rebellious spirit, which is relevant even today, in era of globalisation.

The tongawalla  Shankar and the woodcutter Krishna are best friends in a poor village. At a train station, Shankar meets Rajni, who arrives there with her mother and brother, and fall in love with each other. At the same time, Krishna also sees Rajni and falls for her.

Kundan from the city arrives at the village and wants to modernize and mechanize the business which he does so by getting an electronic saw thus making several workers at the mill lose their jobs. When Shankar and Krishna both come to know that they both love Rajni, they plan on deciding on who will marry her; if Rajni offers white flowers when she goes to the temple, she will marry Shankar and if she offers yellow flowers, she will marry Krishna. Manju, Shankar’s sister who is in love with Krishna, hears the conversation and stealthily switches Rajni’s yellow flowers with white flowers at the temple. Krishna, who sees Manju switching the flowers, thinks that Shankar has told her to do this and it leads Krishna and Shankar into a fight. The saddened Shankar tells Rajni that he will not looked at her if he knew that his friend also lover her. Rajni becomes heart-broken after hearing this tells him that she can not change her feelings for him, but he can if he wants and goes away.

Kundan introduces a bus in the village thus taking away the tongawalas’ livelihood. They ask him to remove it, but he refuses. Shankar says that what he has done is for the betterment of himself only. Kundan, however, tells Shankar that if he can drive his tonga faster than the bus then he will remove the latter. Shankar agrees to do it but the rest of the tongawalas tell him not to as the bus will be faster. Shankar consents to the race and asks time for three months to prepare for the race. He makes a plan to build a road, which is six miles shorter than the road which leads to the temple. The disturbed villagers tell Shankar that they has gone mad with his stubbornness and do not support him with the making of the road, letting him do it alone.

Shankar starts to lose heart when he starts to build the road alone, but Rajni joins him, saying that she will always be with him, which makes Shankar happy. Soon, the rest of the tongawalas join them to build the road. Krishna joins Kundan’s side and asks him to help to make sure that the road does not get complete. The villagers, all together, overcome difficulties along the way and finally finish the building. Krishna decides to take things up in his own hands and breaks the bridge made by the villagers which was the most important path of the road. Manju sees him doing this and confronts Krishna and tells him that she changed the flowers on her own and not on the words of her brother as she loves him. Krishna on hearing this realises his mistake and starts repairing the bridge immediately with the help of Manju.

Finally, the race takes place with Shankar emerging as the victor. Krishna comes to congratulate Shankar and both the friends make up with each other furthermore Shankar and Rajni untie while Krishna and Manju unite with each other.

Footpath (1953) was a classic in it’s own right in professing Marxist perspective. Such films are relevant even in this day and age, with people becoming a victim of the environment, and lured by corruption. Arguably the most realistic film of Dilip Kumar I admire the direct style of the theme, with sparse element of melodrama. The movie distinguished between crass materialism and idealism and how society makes it imperative for a man to sell his soul. It was a living proof that capitalism could not suppress the rebellious spirit in man. Dilip Kumar as Noshua with utmost conviction portrays a young and idealistic man who diverts from his path, but never at the cost of moral virtues. Even though Noshua indulges in black marketing, the journalist in him does not evaporate, and that is why he is ever determined to bring the grain hoarders and black marketeers to the book by reconstructing them adopting a pen name. The movie portrays the contradictory aspects of Noshua and the circumstances that convert him from a simple journalist into a millionaire with guilt written all over him Dilip Kumar projected the spiralling in  fortunes in a man’s life and how circumstances turn his life  , illustrating  human behaviour in  the mist of grave situations. A most naturalistic acting performance. I wish a modified form of this movie could be reproduced today in accordance with the times.

Readers must refer to Lord Meghnad Desai’s in book Nehru’s Hero Dilip Kumar in chapter on Politics of change and Corruption.,portraying that Noshua is not an a anti-hero and what compels him to tread the path of evil. It narrates that Noshua is merely a caricature, with very minute projection of real action. by Noshua and his friends.,and bad deeds treated as abstract incidents.

Jogan(1950) is a melodrama with tragic overtones ,being a protest against traditional India. Atheist Vijay (Dilip Kumar) is attracted to a woman mendicant Surabhi (Nargis) who lives in the vicinity of a village temple singing religious songs. Despite her protests and forebodings, Vijay pursues her relentlessly and at one point implores her to spell out her reasons for rejecting his overtures, since she seems to be making desperate efforts to suppress her own emotions.

She reverts to her past through a largely musical odyssey that shows her lost in a world of fantasy waiting for her lover. But her reverie is broken by a sudden twist. On the advice of a hanger-on, her alcoholic brother fixes her marriage to an older man in return for a large sum of money.

But Surabhi runs away and finds refuge in an ashram of mendicants under the patronage of Maha Mai (Protima Devi) who puts her through rigorous tests of devotion and celibacy.

She then comes to a village where the city lad Vijay is temporarily residing. He is instantly attracted first to her voice and then to her physicality. The narrative moves forward through short intense dialogues to reveal the jogan painfully resisting Vijay’s overtures to a point of sheer helplessness from which the only escape is to return to the sanctity of the ashram. But she finds no peace there and eventually succumbs to her doom. Before leaving the village she bids Vijay not to pursue her beyond a particular tree.

Finding no peace, Vijay does succumb in a brief interlude to a nameless friend’s (Rajendra Kumar in a fleeting debut appearance) persuasions and starts visiting a courtesan (Poornima) but returns to the village in pursuit of peace of mind.

Years later, another jogan comes to the village and hands over Surabhi’s diary to a waiting Vijay, telling him that he can come face to face with her only at her samadhi, which he does to end the film.

The film portrays the suppression of desires as an integral part of Indian culture, how an atheist is the truly spiritual person and how denial of desire is a prison and not liberation.

In Ganga Jumna (1960)he portrays the spiritual transformation undergone within a person   due to circumstances that revolve his life completely to rebel against social injustice. of zamindari system. His dialogue pleading for justice with the police inspector towards the end is one of the most convincing ever in Hindi cinema.  Ironic that in the climax he is killed by his very own brother who is a police inspector. Here he glorified the anti-hero or champion against injustice.He took intensity to almost unparalleled regions, depicting character of an oppressed villager turning into a dacoit.

Leader’ (1964) was a critique on corrupt politicians and the crisis emerging within Nehruvian Socialism. As ‘Vijay Khanna’ he depicted a  young man discovering his ideals and purpose .Dilip’s mannerisms transform  from the absurd to the sublime as his character finds his bearings. Most articulate political role Dilip Kumar enacted, portraying ideals of Nehru. The enemies are projected as obscurantists and religious revivalists, and centrally those who hate the Socialist policies of Nehru. Dilip Kumar berates and tricks them. No doubt commercial constraints preventing the movie from doing complete justice to realism. Arguably it did not bring about the best in Dilip Kumar’s acting, which was basically jovial and flirtatious.

In ‘Mazdoor’(1983), Dilip Kumar was a trade union leader who waged a battle against Suresh Oberoi’s policies. Dilip Kumar runs a newspaper, and circumstances force him to turn to crime as well. Dilip Kumar was a commerce union chief who fought in opposition to Suresh Oberoi’s insurance policies. The son of Mr. Sinha changes everything in order to maximize profits. This brings him into conflict with his employees including Dinanath Saxena.,enacted by Dilip Kumar.When Dinanath openly confronts Hiralal in a public meeting, Hiralal wants him to tender a written apology, but Dinanath instead resigns and decides to open his very own mill with the help of a struggling Engineer, Ashok Mathur. They do eventually succeed, go into production, hire employees, and soon earn a good reputation. Dinanath gets his daughter, Meena, married to Ashok, who becomes a housewife, much to the chagrin of Smita, the daughter of multi-millionaire Kundanlal Batra, who had expected Ashok to marry her. She soon concocts a scheme to bring discord in the Mathur family, and also ensure Ashok’s ruin. Rarely has an Indian actor taken conviction to such a scale in combating capitalist oppression as Dilip Kumar when replying to his employer, addressing workers or his final speech in the film.

In‘Mashaal(1984) directed by Yash Chopra, Dilip Kumar runs a newspaper, and circumstances force him to turn to crime as well. It portrays Dilip Kumar as an angry old man who, troubled by the corrupt system, first starts a newspaper that targets corruption and is later forced by circumstances to take up arms. Anil Kapoor stars as his protégé. Dilip Kumar who was in his 60s at the time portrayed anguish in magnitude of rare proportions and portrayed how anger was channelized into a weapon to confront injustice. Most artistically he portrays how circumstances transform the life of a man.

It is regrettable that one of Dilip Saab’s most progressive portrayals in film Sagina (1974) was hardly noticed. Sagina is the Hindi remake of the Bengali film Sagina Mahato (1971). His illustration of a free-spirited man governed by fortune to become the leader of the oppressed remains one of his best performances. Quoting the Hindu “We do get to see vintage Dilip Kumar in four or five scenes: the telephone sequence; while addressing the workers from the hillock; when he pleads with police to release the associate who killed the rapist at his provocation; when he calls for a strike; when he confronts the mill owner; the scene with Aparna Sen when the two talk about their families and childhood, and the short climax. Otherwise, we see the thespian at his loudest, though the subject demanded a sober enactment of the role of a factory worker manipulated by the owners into becoming a labour leader.”


Most Dilip Kumar’s films projected seeking justice within the social order itself, unlike the best films of Raj Kapoor. Afterall  he  championed Nehruvian Socialism. In both Naya Daur and Ganga Jamuna did not project a rebellion against the system. I differ with analysts who classify films like ‘Naya Daur’, ‘Leader’ or ‘Azaad ‘as those with Neo-Marxist themes. I recommend readers to refer to Meghnad Desai’s biography of Dilip Kumar in 2004, where he analyses the social reformist nature of most of Dilip Kumar’s best films as distinguished from propagating theme of social revolution. Perhaps he took on many commercial films in later stages of his career, not playing any roles in ‘art’ films.

After Footpath significantly did not play any anti heroes and stayed clear of communist or Socialist roles and abstained from Indian Peoples Theatre Association. By mid 1950’s even the Communist Party of India became supportive of Nehru’s policies.Dilip Kumar hardly gauged the reactionary aspects of the Nehruvian Congress.

The saddest blot on Dilip Kumar’s career was his supporting the 1975 emergency, failing to comprehend the merciless political nature of the Congress of Indira Gandhi.

Political Contribution

Championing secular spirit was the central theme of his life and he relentlessly backed Nehruvian Socialism. After Babri Masjid demolition Dilip Kumar played the role as a leader of the Muslim community and he was targeted by the communal parties. His house turned into a sanctuary, providing shelter and security to victims of riots. By late 1970’s he was disillusioned with the Congress, convinced that it had drifted from secularism.

Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist who has undertaken considerable research on life of Dilip Kumar

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