Dilip Kumar, born Mohammed Yusuf Khan, had an exhilarating life that was full of miraculous moments. He came from a modest background, and was given the opportunity of a lifetime when offered a chance to act in a film. His rise to stardom was meteoric, and his affairs with leading ladies were legendary. Yet, his fame didn't come without hardship, and his career went through a rollercoaster of successes and failures. Read on to learn about the extraordinary life of the man who was named the King of Tragedy in Bollywood.
On December 11th, 1922, in a suburb of Peshawar, Dilip Kumar—or, as his parents named him, Mohammed Yusuf Khan—made his introduction to the world. During that time, the British Empire ruled over a great portion of the world and directly presided over India.
The future must have looked uncertain for Indians living under an oppressive regime, but the political atmosphere didn’t stop the Khan family from thriving.
Anyone born into a family as large as Khan’s should never experience loneliness. He didn’t have just a few brothers and sisters—he had eleven. In order to provide for such a large family, his father, Lala Ghulam Sarwar Khan, sold fruit which he harvested from his own orchards.
His mother busied herself by monitoring the household and caring for the children. Luckily for her, there was one child she wouldn’t have to look after for long.
Something drastic happened in the Khan household in 1940. Khan and his father clashed over an unknown subject, and shortly after, the teenager ran away from his home. Where did he go?
To Pune in Maharashtra. There, he followed in his father’s footsteps by selling fruit and sandwiches at an army stall. For at least three years, Khan paid his bills while working as a merchant—until he was presented with a miraculous opportunity.
In 1943, during an otherwise ordinary day of work, the surprise of a lifetime awaited Khan. While selling food to soldiers, a glamorous figure approached and struck up a conversation with him.
He was probably quite shocked, because before him stood the legendary Bollywood actress Devika Rani, along with her husband, the producer Himanshu Rai. They must have loved his looks and personality, because they offered him a role in an upcoming film. How could he say no?
Not many people can say that they’re lucky, but even less can claim to be nearly as lucky as Khan. Amiya Chakravarty, a famous Bollywood filmmaker, signed on to do Jwar Bhata. This was Khan's first role, and Chakravarty directed his performance as a wandering musician.
Before completing the film, Devika Rani had one suggestion: his screen credit should not be Mohammed Yusuf Khan. Khan agreed—his name was now Dilip Kumar.
Fortune doesn’t always follow from fortune, and Dilip Kumar’s streak of luck quickly encountered a roadblock. Jwar Bhata failed to bring in as large of an audience as the producers had hoped, and the film’s reception was cool, to say the least.
The studio, however, had faith in the up-and-coming actor, and continued giving him chances to redeem himself. Soon enough, something grand happened for Kumar.
In 1949, another momentous opportunity presented itself to Kumar. He had the chance to work with the most talented men and women in Bollywood. Before directing the internationally renowned epic, Mother India (1957), visionary filmmaker Mehboob Khan brought together a spectacular A-list cast in his romantic drama Andaz.
That cast consisted of the immeasurably famous Raj Kapoor and Nargis, as well as Dilip Kumar. Kumar played alongside Kapoor and Nargis as part of a love triangle in the film. Little did the cast and crew know, greatness awaited them.
The cast of Andaz dazzled audiences far more than anyone had anticipated. The film grossed such a massive amount of revenue that it immediately became the most financially successful Bollywood production at the time. Audiences loved Kumar, especially as a young and charming lover who scandalously, although unsuccessfully, woos a beautiful married woman.
Overnight, Dilip Kumar became a household name. Not long after, he received an interesting nickname from his fans.
Some actors can only play a certain type of actor or in a particular genre, but that was not the case for Dilip Kumar. Despite his ability to play in romantic dramas, he excelled at tragedies. His impressive performances earned him a nickname.
To his fans, Kumar became known as the "King of Tragedy", and the moniker really stuck after he had masterfully played the role of an unrequited lover in Andaz. Yet, while his fans may have loved his roles, they poisoned his mental wellbeing.
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It has been said that actors use comedy to mask their sadness. In Kumar’s case, however, he acted out immensely sad roles, only to be upset by them. He portrayed his characters with startling accuracy, perhaps because he embodied his roles too intensely. It wasn't long before tragedy took a harsh toll on the actor.
Suffering from its mental effects, Kumar frequented a psychiatrist with the hope of conquering his demons. To an ordinary person, the psychiatrist’s advice may have seemed unlikely, but Kumar eagerly listened to his suggestions.
Artists are often represented as sensitive, but occasionally even truth can be found in stereotypes. Kumar's psychiatrist understood that he suffered from an excess of tragic roles. The psychiatrist's solution? Switch to comedy.
If only the rest of life’s problems had such a simple answer. In 1952, the King of Tragedy joined director Mehboob Khan’s cast as a village leader in a hilarious swashbuckling epic.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see why Mehboob Khan’s Aan would have been internationally successful. At the time, however, success wasn't certain. Considering that a primarily tragic actor played the lead role in one of the most expensive Bollywood comedies ever made, it’s easy to see why people may have been skeptical of its merit.
Yet, as the first Indian film shot in Technicolor, Aan exploded overseas and made Kumar global sensation. Even more success awaited him.
In 1954, Filmfare established an acting award, which it went on to present annually. Dilip Kumar, now in his early 30s, must have been ecstatic when he discovered that the first Filmfare award for Best Actor had his name on it.
Of course, that was only the beginning. He went on to defy the expectations of critics by winning the award another seven times throughout his life. With the success of his professional life practically guaranteed, Kumar began thinking about his romantic life.
The film industry loves young and beautiful people, and Kumar was far from blind. After playing a romantic lead in Shaheed (1948), a rumor about a real-life romance between Kumar and co-star, Kamini Kaushal, began to circulate. The pair apparently fell intensely in love with one another, but in a cruel twist of irony, their relationship became more tragic than Kumar's movies.
Imagine this: two young lovers are in a doomed relationship that is beyond their control. No, that isn’t the plot of a Shakespearian tragedy. It’s the heartrending story of Dilip Kumar’s first major romance. Kamini Kaushal and Dilip Kumar planned to elope with one another, but her brother warned them against doing so.
Kaushal had married her late sister’s husband in order to take care of her nieces, and her brother must have guilt tripped her into continuing to do just that. It was a heartbreaking turn of events. Kumar, however, quickly found a new flame.
During the 1951 filming of Tarana, a romantic comedy, Dilip Kumar met a woman who would forever haunt his dreams. If Kamini Kaushal exuded motherliness in her selflessness, Madhubala, who was only 18 at the time, can only be defined by her passionate intensity.
In retrospect, Kumar described her as "very sprightly and vivacious", enough to effortlessly pull him "out of his shyness and reticence". Kumar’s passion for Madhubala was mutual. In fact, she pursued him even more than he pursued her.
It didn't take long for Dilip and Madhubala to hook up. The spellbound couple must have been entranced with one another, because they remained together, although unmarried, for nearly a decade. Nothing held them together except for their undying love—or lust—for one another. Eventually, they decided to take their relationship to the next step.
After seven years of dating, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala decided they liked each other enough to become engaged. Maybe if they'd waited another ten years, they would have actually tied the knot.
As the famous power couple finally began moving their relationship on the path to marriage, romantic vows seemed inevitable. But trouble was on the horizon, and no one could have predicted the rift that was about to separate them.
In 1957, film director B.R. Chopra cast Dilip Kumar as his lead actor and hired Madhubala to star as the heroine in Naya Daur, a drama. The production required Madhubala to film some scenes in a nearby outdoors location, but her father refused to let her go. He also refused to return the advanced payment his daughter had received.
They took their dispute to the courts, and in a gesture that most likely shocked his fiancée, Dilip Kumar testified against his future father-in-law in favor of Chopra. Needless to say, Chopra won the case, but Kumar was left in an awkward situation.
Such a tumultuous legal battle is sure to tear apart any family, but one thing it couldn’t rend was the love that Dilip Kumar and Madhubala shared for each other. Her sister still remembers the time when Kumar pleaded with Madhubala: "Leave your father and I’ll marry you".
But such drastic measures were unnecessary—she only wanted Kumar to come home and apologize to her father, insisting that she’d marry him if he did. Kumar refused, and that was the end of their romance. They never got together again.
Heartbreak didn’t stop Dilip Kumar from committing to another relationship. This time, he fell for Vyjayanthimala, the actress who had replaced Madhubala in Naya Daur. Maybe that’s the reason why he wanted to end things with Madhubala, but we’ll never know for certain. Critics and moviegoers alike praised their onscreen chemistry. Well, it was real after all.
Dilip Kumar's relationship with Vyjayanthimala was short-lived and they broke up soon after filming. After enough failed romances, Kumar saw it was high time that he focused on his career. He had already appeared in Mughal-e-Azam, the biggest box office success in Bollywood history, or at least until 1975. Everything after that was a success.
In fact, Kumar cruised through the first half of the decade without appearing in any box office flops. He had gained so much star power that a legendary director contacted him from across the globe.
You’re a national superstar when every great director in the nation contacts you. You’re an international superstar when great directors from the other side of the world contact you. In 1962, renowned British filmmaker David Lean gave Dilip Kumar the opportunity to play as Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia, an epic about T.E. Lawrence. He would star alongside Peter O’Toole, another legendary actor.
No one knows why, but Kumar refused to act in the film. He probably regretted that because, in time, it would be recognized as one of the greatest films ever made.
Filmmakers weren’t the only sort of people who sought out Dilip Kumar, nor was he always chased after for professional reasons. He had plenty of romantic admirers as well. At only 12 years old, up-and-coming actress Saira Banu crushed over the much older Kumar. Unlike most healthy forms of attraction, Banu still obsessed over the actor four years later, when she turned 16, and tried to meet him at the premiere of Mughal-e-Azam.
Much to her disappointment, he didn’t show up. When she finally did meet him, she recalls that he referred to her as "pretty". Her whole world lit up in that moment. She says that she knew right then that she "was going to be his wife". That seems like a bit of a leap, no? Unsurprisingly, it wasn't long before she had to overcome a huge obstacle.
Saira Banu was no longer an amateur, and she and Dilip Kumar received offers to play alongside each other in films. But Kumar refused. He didn’t want to play the love interest of a girl that was 22 years his junior.
Or maybe he feared what would happen between them if he did, and possibly all of the gossip that would follow. Normally thwarted by close relatives, this time around, Banu’s mother came to the rescue and stoked the sparks of romance.
Brothers and fathers had always stopped Dilip Kumar from pursuing relationships in the past, but the opposite happened here. Naseem Banu, Saira Banu’s mother, must have empathized with the troubles of young people in love, because she intervened on her daughter’s behalf and helped bring the pair together. Soon enough, they became a couple and took the next step.
Love always prevails, or so they say. After trying to avoid Saira Banu for a long time, Dilip Kumar agreed to marriage and the couple tied the knot on October 11th, 1966. Despite the massive age gap, they doted upon each other. They bore the brunt of tabloids and gossip, and were ridiculed for their union. But they didn’t let that stand between them. Kumar even agreed to something he'd refused to do in the past.
After their marriage, Kumar found it a little difficult not to act alongside his wife. He could no longer say that she was too young to play as his love interest, considering they were married to each other. In 1970, producers replaced the cast of Gopi with Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu, thinking that their real chemistry might reflect on the silver screen.
They guessed correctly.
Fiction sometimes mirrors reality. In this case, the on-screen pairing of Kumar and Banu stunned audiences with their dazzling synergy. Fans of both stars also flocked to see the first appearance of their idols together in theaters. Kumar even received another Filmfare nomination for his role.
It seemed as if Dilip Kumar’s life had turned into a paradise on Earth, with both domestic bliss and financial success awaiting him on the horizon. Unfortunately, his good fortune was doomed to end.
Don’t fix something that isn’t broken. Dilip Kumar had followed that axiom throughout his life, and he paid special attention to such age-old wisdom throughout his career. He continued playing in similar films throughout the 1970s, but it seems his luck ran out—his movies were box office flops.
In 1972, Dastaan began Kumar’s descent into commercial—and critical—disaster. It's almost fitting that the film begins with an ominous storm, which could’ve been a metaphor for what awaited Kumar.
A parent’s biggest fear is losing their child. A couple’s biggest fear is losing each other. Dilip Kumar faced both fears, beginning with the tragic miscarriage of his son. Sorrow pervades every household after a tragedy, but when it came to Dilip Kumar, irony was playing a bitter, caustic game with the Bollywood king.
Saira Banu developed mortally ill conditions: her blood pressure reached awful heights, and doctors worried for her life. When she recovered, doctors informed her that she would never be able to conceive again. The couple may have lost a son—and the ability to have other children—but at least they still had each other.
Like many other Bollywood superstars, Dilip Kumar loved cricket. He often mingled with socialites and passed the time by playing matches. Once, after a match in Hyderabad, an attractive and prosperous woman approached him, letting him know that she admired his films.
She introduced herself as Asma Rehman, a married woman and mother of three children. Little is known about what took place, except that Kumar soon got to know her very intimately.
In 1981, while still married to the devoted Saira Banu, Dilip Kumar eloped with Asma Rehman. While Rehman thought it fitting to divorce her husband before marrying Kumar, the latter didn’t think the same. Retrospectively, he referred to this point of his life as a "grave mistake", and regretted it miserably.
Yet, at the time, he happily indulged in his passing fancies. He even went so far as to cover up the marriage from his first wife.
A secret is very difficult to maintain if everyone wants to know it. Not to mention that Dilip Kumar did a pretty poor job of keeping a clandestine affair, and he made some careless mistakes.
He allowed Asma Rehman to practically live at one of his residences, which was not far from his first wife’s house. Reporters didn’t only catch on to that, however. One day, they simply found a copy of his second marriage certificate and printed it into their issue. Unless you’re a president, it’s difficult to argue against the facts.
The marriage between Asma Rehman and Dilip Kumar did not last long. In 1983, two years after their secret union, the pair legally separated. Not many people experience the kind of love Saira Banu had for Kumar, because when the unfaithful actor returned to his wife, she embraced him with open arms.
Banu did not hesitate at all to take him back, and she later said that she had always wished to be Kumar’s spouse. She even described her marriage, with all of its pitfalls and roadblocks, as "a perfect dream". It’s difficult to imagine what could have ever drawn Kumar away from her.
All of his romantic dalliances probably exhausted Kumar, because he took a break from filmmaking. Between 1976 and 1981, the actor did not appear in a single film. The superstar who normally played in multiple films every year had receded from the limelight. But the public had not forgotten him—and soon, they would have a chance to show their adoration.
In 1981, moviegoers in India waited with baited breath for the return of the King of Tragedy. A now elderly Dilip Kumar returned to the silver screen by playing roles closer to his age. He starred in Kranti, which was a historical epic. The old star was likely anxious to see how he would be received in his mature years, but he didn’t have to wait long for the glowing reception of his comeback film.
Kranti ran for 67 weeks straight in theaters, and went on to be one of the top ten most successful Bollywood films of all time. The King of Tragedy had returned with a bang, but the best was yet to come.
For Bollywood, the 1980s can only be described as the second life of Kumar’s career. To say that he revitalized his career during this decade is merely an understatement. Playing in back-to-back blockbusters with Vidhaata (1982), Shakti (1982), and Duniya (1984), Kumar engraved his name into the pantheon of film legends, for all of posterity to witness.
No one had quite such a miraculous comeback as Dilip Kumar. He even wanted to try his hand at other parts of the trade.
Since he'd been in front of the camera for most of his adult life, Dilip Kumar wanted to see what the world looked like from behind the camera. He had already ghost directed films in the past, including Gunga Jumna (1961) and Dil Diya Dard Liya (1966).
Now in his late 70s, the star prepared to direct his own masterpiece—but a problem arose.
Producers delayed Kumar’s directorial debut, but the project continued nonetheless. Apparently, 70% of the film had been shot, but then, for unknown reasons, came Dilip Kumar's worst fear. The producers discontinued the projec, and the film that Kumar had dreamed of creating was never to be realized. The star slowly receded from the public’s eye and only appeared in one more film before he retired for good.
Not many celebrities or actors can say with certainty that they are as talented as Dilip Kumar. A masterful method actor, Kumar also had many skills beyond the world of lights and cameras. He could speak many dialects fluently—Urdu, Hindi, Persian, Punjabi, Bengali, and several more. He also knew English relatively well.
Kumar was a master on the cricket field and knew how to strum melodies on the sitar. Yet, despite an appreciation of the finer things in life, the ailments of old age finally caught up to him.
Unfortunately, Dilip Kumar didn’t retire and live in peace and health until the end of his days. He suffered from many illnesses, and lay bedridden for most of his final days, sometimes requiring hospitalization.
His lungs were failing him, and it soon became apparent that he wouldn’t remain in this world for much longer. At least Kumar wasn't alone in those last days, and his devoted wife, Saira Banu, remained by his side.
Dilip Kumar lived a very long life—almost a century. When he passed at 7:30 am on July 7, 2021, he was 98 years old. Kumar lived through the British Raj, saw India gain independence, watched the world go to war, and even witnessed the beginning of the 2019 pandemic. He had seen history unfold before his eyes.
When the famous actor passed, India had been maintaining strict restrictions to curb the spread of Covid, but they state made an exception for Dilip Kumar's funeral. The government of Maharashtra gave him state honors and allowed the proceedings to take place between around 5 pm in Mumbai. About 100 people attended his funeral, but many more would have been there if not for the pandemic.
Dilip Kumar’s legacy is that he will always be regarded as a legendary film actor. Immediately after his passing, many world leaders came out to extol his immeasurable influence on both the film industry and the culture. The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, said that Kumar was loved "across the [entire] subcontinent". If you're unfamiliar with India’s domestic politics, that's pretty massive praise.
Even the former prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, applauded Dilip Kumar as both an actor and a human being, reminding people of his humanitarian efforts. That was impressive, but another great act of recognition was yet to come.
Fame does strange things to people, and it also does strange things to those who admire the famous. In an interesting turn of events, the house of Dilip Kumar has recently become a pilgrimage site of sorts—at least for cinephiles in the subcontinent.
In Pakistan, the residence of Kumar’s birth has been designated a heritage monument. It is preserved so that future generations can see where a young boy ran away from, unaware that he would go from selling fruits on a busy street in Maharashtra to reigning as Bollywood's King of Tragedy.
Steamy, scandalous affairs during filmmaking are the stuff of Hollywood gossip columns and tabloids. Remember back when Dilip met Madhubala? Their relationship aspired to both poetic and romantic proportions. The sprightly actress, likely upon gleaning her co-star’s thoughts, sent him a rather telling gift—a pink rose.
Upon receiving the flower, Kumar wrote her a letter. The exact contents of the letter are unknown, but can be easily guessed, since we know their romance bloomed.
In 1961, Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala came together to star in Gunga Jumna, a story that Kumar penned on his own. According to the rumors on-set, the couple had a strange thing going on. Before every scene, Kumar picked out exactly what sort of garments his co-star would be wearing. Maybe he thought the art director was slacking.
Vyjayanthimala must have had enough of his antics, though, because their relationship didn’t last long. Yet, while Kumar’s romantic life was going through a slump, his popularity kept rising.
When a fundamental structural component breaks, the whole building comes crashing down. Not only did Dilip Kumar’s acting career suffer a devastating hit, but his family was about to go through a heartbreaking tragedy. Saira Banu was pregnant and soon the couple would have a baby boy.
But in 1972, the same year Kumar appeared in Dastaan, Banu lost their child. And, as we know, this took a dangerous toll on Banu's life.
Before the internet, it was a little harder to acquire information. That meant it was also easier to keep secrets from the public. Dilip Kumar, however, tried to do the impossible. He tried to keep his second marriage entirely hidden, but for celebrities, secrecy is a fairy tale.
Rumors eventually reached Saira Banu, who accosted her husband over the hearsay. He even swore to her "on the Quran" in order to dispel her accusations of infidelity. Yet, as we know, the truth soon emerged and it shattered his web of lies.
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