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‘Tragedy king’ Dilip Kumar dies aged 98

Dilip Kumar

MUMBAI: Dilip Kumar, one of Bollywood’s most accomplished and respected film stars, died yesterday aged 98, sparking tributes from across Indian and Pakistani cinema, politics, sport and even animal rights. Alongside Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, Kumar was one of three names who dominated Indian cinema’s golden age from the 1940s to the 1960s, enjoying a career spanning more than 50 years and nearly 60 films.

Nicknamed “The Tragedy King” – with brooding good looks, tousled hair, and a deep voice – he played the lead in some of India’s most commercially successful films of the period. But he missed out on international fame after turning down the chance to play Sherif Ali in David Lean’s 1962 classic “Lawrence of Arabia”. The part went to then little-known Egyptian actor Omar Sharif.

Kumar was born Mohammed Yusuf Khan on Dec 11, 1922, in Peshawar, Pakistan, then part of British-ruled India. His father was a fruit merchant who took his family to India’s entertainment capital Bombay in the 1930s. Actress Devika Rani spotted him on his father’s fruit stall, leading to a part in his first film, “Jwar Bhata”, in 1944. Rani persuaded him to change his name, so he chose Dilip Kumar, allowing him to hide what he was doing from his disapproving father.

Although “Jwar Bhata” flopped and leading film magazines criticized his performance, Kumar was undeterred and broke through with the 1946 film “Milan”. One of his most memorable roles came in the lavish historical romance “Mughal-e-Azam”, based on the life of a great Mughal prince. It became one of Bollywood’s biggest-grossing films of all time.

Kumar, who cited Hollywood greats Marlon Brando, Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy as influences, later won acclaim in 1964 for the nationalistic “Leader”, screened against a backdrop of recent wars against China and Pakistan. The 1970s brought fewer roles, as younger actors such as Amitabh Bachchan took center stage.

Kumar even took a five-year break after a run of flops, returning in 1981 with the hit “Kranti” (Revolution) and a part alongside Bachchan in “Shakti” (Strength) the following year, plus a string of character roles. Later he took up a more active role in politics, and in 1998 he worked to end the feuding between India and Pakistan.

The same year saw him receive the highest civilian honor in Pakistan, angering Hindu nationalists. Two years later he became an Indian lawmaker for the Congress party. Kumar credited his success to his early days in Peshawar’s fabled Qissa Khwani (“Storytellers”) Bazaar where travelers would relate their adventures.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Kumar a “cinematic legend”. “He was blessed with unparalleled brilliance… His passing away is a loss to our cultural world,” Modi tweeted. Bachchan called him his “idol” while Anil Kapoor said he “was and will always be the finest & greatest actor of our industry for me”.

Former Pakistan cricket captain Shahid Afridi called his death a “great loss” while the country’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was “the greatest and most versatile actor” of his generation. Funeral prayers were held outside his ancestral house in Peshawar.

Salman Khan called him the “best actor Indian cinema has ever seen and will ever see” and animal rights group PETA India said “animals everywhere have lost a great friend”. Several stars including Shah Rukh Khan and Anupam Kher visited his actress widow Saira Banu yesterday to pay their respects, before a small burial service in Mumbai. – AFP

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