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Dilip Kumar, Iconic Actor From The 'Golden Age' Of Indian Cinema, Has Died At 98

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of cinema's biggest stars has died. In India, Dilip Kumar was often compared to Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier. He was 98 years old. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: If you want to see one of the most thrilling seductions in the history of movies, look no further than a sweeping Bollywood epic starring Dilip Kumar. The movie is called "Mughal-E-Azam." It was a blockbuster in 1960, like India's "Gone With The Wind," says film scholar Aseem Chhabra. Dilip Kumar, he says, plays a prince cuddling with a gorgeous dancer.

ASEEM CHHABRA: He has a feather, and he's basically caressing her face with a feather. It's so gentle and sensual and beautiful. And that's the kind of romance that he portrayed often.

ULABY: No wonder Kumar was compared to Marlon Brando, with his handsome heady features and air of pensive mystery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DILIP KUMAR: (Non-English language spoken).

ULABY: Like Brando, Kumar was a method actor, all about realism in an industry that would become known for its maximalism. At his peak in the 1940s through the 1960s, Kumar was known as Bollywood's king of tragedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KUMAR: (Non-English language spoken).

ULABY: Dilip Kumar was born in 1922, before India's independence. He had only ever seen one movie before he started starring in them. As he told India's NDTV in 2000, he never expected to find work in front of the camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KUMAR: It was of course a challenging proposition. And I thought that I will not succeed in it. Soon, they will find out that I know nothing about acting. And they'll say, sorry, sorry, sorry. No, sorry. Thank you, goodbye.

ULABY: Instead, Dilip Kumar won virtually every acting award India had to offer and served for a time in its parliament. He was born into a Muslim family in what's now Pakistan, and sometimes he found himself under attack as right-wing nationalism grew. In the late 1990s, when Dilip Kumar publicly defended a controversial woman-directed lesbian movie called "Fire," militants protested outside his house.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KUMAR: It's hurtful. It offends one's sense of personal dignity.

ULABY: Kumar had a huge following in Pakistan. And in 1999, the government there offered him its highest civilian recognition. He was pressured not to accept it, but he did. He wanted, he said, to be a bridge for art and understanding. Dilip Kumar was buried yesterday with India's full state honors. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YEH DESH HAI VEER JAWANO KA")

BALBIR AND MOHAMMED RAFI: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.