Dilip Kumar’s secular Nehruvian politics shone through his films. Older than the independent Republic of India, Kumar witnessed the rise and fall of several political systems in the country, with his final stretch governed by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), highlighting his alienation as part of the Muslim minority living in India. His patriotism was perhaps put most boldly into question in the year 1998 when the legendary actor was honoured by the Pakistani government with its highest civilian honour, the Nishan-e-Imtiaz.
The announcement of the award was met with extreme backlash from right-wing political parties, with Bal Thackeray of Shiv Sena demanding Kumar to refuse the honour. However, the actor was reportedly supported by founding member of the BJP and Prime Minister of India at the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who defended Kumar’s right to accept the award.
During a 2000 interview with NDTV, when asked about his response to the political parties that opposed him during the controversy, Kumar shared that the Shiv Sena was the only party that openly opposed his decision to accept the Nishan-e-Imtiaz. He explained, “It is only the Shiv Sena and their leader who said that I should return the award, and if I don’t return the award then I should leave this country, get back to Pakistan and live there. I think it is an abominable pronouncement by a responsible person. It has no legal validity.”
He continued, highlighting the hurt the pronouncements caused the actor, “It’s hurtful. It offends one’s sense of personal dignity, and one feels wronged. It makes you feel angry. And the fact that it comes from people who are concerned with the ruling party of your state, it’s also amazing and very surprising.”
Speaking about Thackeray’s demands to give up the award, he elaborated, “The fact that it comes from the head of a party who is also its architect, to make such demands which are fascist. They are fascist ways of fascist administrations. So, it is not a good sign. It’s alright for me. He levels these charges on me, but this is a sign that we shouldn’t have these people in the administration of such a large democracy like India. We are a federal democratic country. These are not happy signs.”
Kumar’s reservations about India’s rise in authoritarian politics was apparent. With reference to the absurd demands of political figures, he shared, “It’s because the party in power continues to enjoy power so they feel they have the validity to do what they are doing and perhaps that is something that is more beneficial to the administration of this great province.”
Reminiscing over the older days of the Indian film industry, he explained, “Bombay was one of the most lucrative cities in the country, and it also had a very rational and beautiful culture. It was supposed to be one of the best-administrated cities, also socially more vibrant and more cosmopolitan, but unfortunately over the years it has lost the distinction of place and the distinction of quality that it enjoyed, in its administration as well as its social civic ambience.”
On the question of his loyalties being put into question, the Mughal-e-Azam actor said, “I personally feel that it is because somebody else may be able to get away with it, but while I am targetted for these things again and again, which I am beginning to believe is because I belong to the Muslim minority.”
The Indian film industry in which Kumar’s career flourished in the mid-twentieth century was fundamentally different from the state the industry finds itself in today. With a BJP stronghold, ethno-religious tensions continue to escalate, with Muslim actors held with a suspicious public gaze. When asked how he felt the industry has transformed, Kumar spoke of how he is now too far removed from the Industry to gauge any real changes. “This industry had unfailingly stood up for cosmopolitanism and secular values. I cannot say that it has changed. I would not like to say that. I am no longer in the hub of thighs, I am a little away. So, I wouldn’t be able to read the climate and the new traditions,” he explained.
For Kumar, the onus of responsibility now lies on the shoulders of the newer crop of actors, performers and filmmakers to uphold the values the industry once held so dear. “The younger generation has to prove itself and its beliefs and views. On not just filmmaking, but the ethics involved in filmmaking and the obligation that workers or stars, producers and directors owe to society,” he shared.
The legendary actor passed away at the age of 98 on July 7 and was laid to rest with full state honours.