A career playing roles that traced the politics of a nation

Nehru's Hero

January 14, 2005

Not so long ago, most Westerners knew only two things about Indian cinema: first, that the Indian film industry produced the largest number of films in the world; and second, only the works of the great Bengali director Satyajit Ray measured up to world standards. Perceptions have changed radically over the past decade. The hitherto-despised products of "Bollywood" now receive more column inches and academic scrutiny than the works of Ray.

The distinguished economist Lord Meghnad Desai has now contributed to this burgeoning genre with a book on the actor Dilip Kumar, who has been a Bollywood icon for five decades.

Desai is an admirer of the actor and argues that his long career reflected and refracted the optimistic early years of post-independence India. Those were the years of Jawaharlal Nehru's prime ministership and the nation was imbued with "Nehruvian values" of secularism, non-alignment and socialism.

Despite widespread poverty and injustice, the national mood was one of optimism.

All that began to change after Nehru's death in 1964. By the end of the 20th century, Indian politics had become incomparably darker and more fissured than it had been in the decade after independence. Kumar's early roles, says Desai, depicted heroic, Nehruvian figures, while the later ones were far less optimistic. As the character of politics changed in India, the Muslim actor (who was born Yusuf Khan) suffered from increasing persecution from fundamentalist Hindus, and was even accused of spying for Pakistan.

The book recites the plots of Kumar's films in detail, interspersing those interminable accounts with obiter dicta on the political context of the period, but there is little attempt at coherent, systematic analysis.

Anybody with any serious interest in the artistic, political or sociological dimensions of Kumar's career would be disappointed by this book.

That, however, is unlikely to trouble Desai, who did not write it for a scholarly audience. During his younger days in Bombay, he saw his share of "art films... and read highbrow writers" but his heart, he confesses, "was with commercial cinema. For me, the public quite rightly shapes cinema by its acceptance or rejection".

Unfortunately, however, Desai's book may not find much favour with his beloved masses either. It is just not sprightly enough to hold the attention; the prose would make an academic yawn. And there are, of course, no gorgeous starlets, sceneries or songs to ravish the senses. One does not have to be a Bollywood insider to suspect that the noble lord, for all his populist rhetoric, may well have produced a flop.

Chandak Sengoopta is senior lecturer in the history of medicine and science, Birkbeck, University of London. He also writes on film.

Nehru's Hero: Dilip Kumar in the Life of India

Author - Meghnad Desai
Publisher - Roli International New Delhi
Pages - 140
Price - Rs 295
ISBN - 81 7436 311 4

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