Grief swelled between his lines. The Dilip Kumar characters that occupy every fan’s mind are from the films he did from the late 1940s to 1960. Dilip in Andaz, Ashok in Babul, Vijay in Jogan, Shamu in Deedar, the eponymous Devdas, Devendra/Anand in Madhumati, Ganga in Gunga Jumna—they are self-conscious, egotistic and rebellious characters, but what sets them apart is an intricate self-pity. The great actor found his energy in this doomed combination; in their being wronged.

Indians love sad stories. The sweet, sorrowful film song is sweeter after two pegs. There is veneration and solipsism in the way people say in casual conversation, “Dilip Kumar is the ultimate tragedy king." A random search on Google Trends revealed Devdas’ angry alibi for dipsomania in Bimal Roy’s 1955 film—“Kaun kambakht hai jo bardaasht karne ke liye peetaa hai…"—was more searched (between 2005 and 2011) than Manmohan Singh. So Yusuf Khan from Peshawar (now in Pakistan), besides being one of our greatest actors, is perhaps also one of our drunk-surfing favourites. Statistics can’t prove that.

Then there is the unquantifiable oeuvre spread over more than 60 films. That number is thin compared to most male superstars of Hindi cinema. Dilip Kumar chose to work less, and work immersively. After his films with Mehboob Khan in the 1940s (Andaz, Aan) and Bimal Roy in the 1950s (Devdas, Madhumati)—two directors who shaped a lot of what he was to mature into—Dilip Kumar progressively became involved in every aspect of film-making.

“Nitin Bose, who directed Gunga Jumna, was a proxy director almost," says Sanjit Narwekar, author of the book Dilip Kumar: The Last Emperor, which came out in 2002, the year the actor turned 80. For Gunga Jumna, Dilip Kumar himself cast a teenage boy to play the young Ganga. He rehearsed with the boy for months. For him, it was an exercise in acting. By sculpting the young Ganga, he made the character more convincing and detailed for himself. In later films, he would often ask directors to shoot his back to the camera because he wanted to test his voice as an emoting tool. Dilip Kumar’s films are free of the obsessive attention that the camera often gives to a star’s face making close-ups meaningless.

Journalist Udaya Tara Nayar, who is writing Dilip Kumar’s autobiography with him—due to be released soon—recalls what she saw on the sets of Subhash Ghai’s Saudagar (1991)—one of Dilip Kumar’s last roles, a patchy phase beginning with Manoj Kumar’s Kranti (1981), when he came back to films after a six-year hiatus. Nayar says: “He has the habit of observing what is going on while a shot is being set up. So a shot was ready to be taken, Subhash Ghai called him to the set. Dilip saab said with the lighting that was set up, his moustache would not be visible." Ashok Mehta, the cinematographer, retested, and lit up the shot differently to ensure it was visible.

By the 1960s, Dilip Kumar was trapped in his own image—tragedy was in his veins. Around 1966, he frequently visited a psychiatrist in London who helped him overcome a short but intense bout of clinical depression. The doctor prescribed staying away from the melancholic roles. He took the advice seriously and forced a change of template. The buffoon in films like Gopi (1970) backfired—ill-chosen, slapdash and devoid of soul, some of these films were box-office whimpers. But during that period, another film won the fan back. Abdul Rashid Kardar’s Dil Diya Dard Liya (1966) is a petered down Wuthering Heights. As Shankar, he had to find Heathcliff’s dark beats in Naushad’s music and Shakil Badayuni’s lyrics (Koi sagar dil ko bahalata nahin; Phir teri kahani yaad ayi). Dizzy in love with Waheeda Rehman’s gorgeous Roopa, Dilip Kumar gave the battered lover’s role all the gravitas.

Satyajit Ray had famously called Dilip Kumar “the ultimate method actor". A few years older than Marlon Brando, who is considered the greatest method actor ever, Dilip Kumar’s obsession with over-rehearsed histrionics made him an idol for famous Indian actors who have followed the kind of dramatic pitch that they saw in Dilip Kumar. They are actors who have largely been arbiters of their own careers. Amitabh Bachchan, Naseeruddin Shah and Kamal Haasan talk profusely about imitating the Dilip Kumar of 1940s and 1950s—they have moved through some of their own best work, aware of Dilip Kumar’s record and potential.

Acting was Ashok Kumar’s gift to him. After he took up a job at Bombay Talkies in 1940—for the money, as he has said in interviews—he watched Ashok Kumar on set every day. Devika Rani christened him in the early 1940s at her Bombay Talkies office, then in Pune, because then a Muslim name was anathema to producers. Ashok Kumar even gave him formal lessons on acting. In 1944, when Dilip Kumar’s first film Jwar Bhata, a musical romance, released, the critics were largely indifferent. In the late 1940s, Mela and Andaz swung his career around.

Raj Kapoor was already on the rise and Dev Anand was to arrive two years later. The charismatic matinee idol in Hindi cinema was born at this time, as was the steely, sensitive and mindful Nehruvian hero. Lord Meghnad Desai overstretches this idea by deconstructing Dilip Kumar as the epitome of the Nehruvian man in his book Nehru’s Hero: Dilip Kumar in the Life of India (2004).

Women loved Dilip Kumar. Up to his 30s, he was tall and wiry but he always looked older than his age—the ingrained seriousness shadowing his high forehead. Sometimes a clump of hair covered the forehead. The smile deepened his eyes. Rinki Roy, director Bimal Roy’s daughter, recalls with glee: “We lived in the same area in Bombay and every time we saw his car pass by, a blue Impala, we would swoon. I remember the car number; 2424." Dilip Kumar’s love affairs with Kamini Kaushal and later Madhubala were long, much publicized and heartbreaking. In his early 40s, he married actor Saira Banu, 20 years younger than him.

His early life was fairly humdrum. Soon after he graduated from college, the fortunes of his family of fruit merchants in Mumbai’s Crawford Market ebbed. Yusuf had to quickly find a job. The 17-year-old set up a sandwich stall in Pune’s Wellingdon Club, a British army club. A passionate cook already (film journalists of that era say that while Dev Anand picked on one roti and a bowl of salad for a meal, Dilip Kumar’s sets had a wide spread, usually his favourite Awadhi style of kebabs and biryani, for everyone), Yusuf learnt how to make sandwiches the English way. The stall became popular. A group of ladies who used to visit the stall would fondly call him “chico", a “lad" in Spanish. Saira Banu often still calls him “chico".

Pakistan made Dilip Kumar their own—it’s a country he has never lost despite having shifted from there when he was a young boy. But Mumbai remains his home. Through the 1980s, he faced unfair public scrutiny from the Hindu right. A friend of the Congress party and a former nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, he was never in electoral politics. His secularism, questioned on many occasions, is in the broadest sense of the word—a philanthropist, he has fought against the censorship establishment, and for freedom and human dignity.

In Gunga Jumna, the censors wanted the last words of his character, “Hey Ram", cut—how could Dilip Kumar, a Muslim, use the same last words as Mahatma Gandhi, even if it was only on screen? In the 1980s, he was accused of being a Pakistani spy based on some bizarre grounds. He was the target of the late Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s ire when Pakistan bestowed its highest honour, the Nishaan-e-Imtiaz, on him. By then, he was in his 70s, and unwilling to fight.

Now, on rare occasions, the 90-year-old actor appears in commemorative photo shoots or visits celebrity parties with Saira Banu by his side. Most of the time, says Nayar based on her close interactions with him, he loves watching sports on TV or reading newspapers and books. His blog is a casual chronicle of the people who visit him, or friends he has lost over the years. “When it comes to films, Dilip saab does not miss a Rajkumar Hirani film even if it is on TV," Nayar says.

His clipped, halting manner of speech, in proficient Hindi, Urdu or English, gives away much of him. He has chosen his passions mindfully, and chiselled them to exemplary standards.

Dilip Kumar is beautiful. For a fan like me, there is no other way of saying it.