Certain stars are closely associated with the
period that they were famous in, and their success is redolent
of a particular time,
writes DINESH RAHEJA.
achievements become comprehensible when you consider the fact
that he was a star in the infant stages of the Hindi talkies in
1930s and he was still doing pivotal roles in 1970s-1980s
middle-of-the-road Hrishikesh Mukherji-Basu Chatterji fare (Khatta
Meetha, Khoobsurat or Victoria No 203).
Ashok Kumar is
widely regarded as a pioneering actor who introduced natural
acting to Hindi cinema.
He was the first
superstar of Hindi cinema as well as the first lead actor to
play an anti-hero.
He also became the
first star to reinvent himself, enjoying a long and hugely
successful career as a character actor.
Ashok Kumar, born
Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly, was a law student from Kolkata, was
interested in the technical aspects of film-making (not of
He failed his law
exams and, to escape acrimony at home, came to live with his
sister for a few months, until the exams were held again.
In order to earn
some spending-money for himself, he started off as a laboratory
assistant in Bombay Talkies.
He managed to
convince his father that he would not become successful as a
lawyer and would be able to earn a living as lab assistant.
Pioneering actor who introduced natural acting to Hindi cinema,
Ashok Kumar, born Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly.
His father finally
reconciled himself to the situation and granted permission to
Kumudlal to abandon his law studies.
Kumudlal thus began his film career, albeit as laboratory
assistant in a film studio.
He remained in that position for some five years.
His acting career started purely by accident.
Shooting was already
underway on the Bombay Talkies production Jeevan Naiya in 1936
when the male lead Najmul Hassan eloped with his co-star Devika
Rani, who also happened to be the wife of studio head Himanshu
returned to her husband who, out of spite, dismissed Hassan and
called upon Kumudlal Ganguly to replace him (against the advice
of director Franz Osten, who reckoned that the young man did not
have the looks needed for an actor).
Ganguly was given
the screen name Ashok Kumar, in keeping with the general trend
in an era when actors concealed their real identities behind
Rai thrust a
protesting Kumar in front of the camera opposite his wife Devika
Rani in Jeevan Naiyya (1936).
objections from Ashok’s family (his father was a lawyer and his
grandfather, a very moneyed district magistrate).
But Bombay Talkies
was prestigious and Ashok plunged into performance at a princely
salary of Rs 75 per month.
His acting, however,
was very raw. For one scene where he had to garland the
intimidating and polished Devika Rani, he kept getting the
garland entangled in her hair.
1936 was also
momentous for Ashok because he acceded to an arranged match with
In the same year,
Devika Rani and Ashok came together again for the smash hit-
Achhut Kanya (1936).
Ashok’s Main ban ki
chidiya is probably one of the earliest songs still in public
The film was seem
more as Devika’s success while Ashok was slotted as a chocolate
But soon, S.
Mukherji produced for Bombay Talkies three silver jubilee films
between 1939 and 1941 starring Ashok Kumar and Leela Chitnis -
Kangan, Bandhan and Jhoola (Kamal Haasan sings about this trio
in Ek Duje Ke Liye).
Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar in Nirmala (1938).
Ashok picked up
valuable acting tips from the stage-trained Leela Chitnis. These
films, adorned with Saraswati Devi’s hit music, made him a true
The mega blockbuster
Kismet (1943) proved Ashok’s crowning glory - and ironically his
last film at Devika Rani’s Bombay Talkies.
A precursor to the
famous lost-and-found formula, Kismet brought to fore an
exciting, new, grey-shaded hero who is glib, street-smart and
not above stealing from the rich to finance the poor.
Propelled by this
startlingly revisionist, modern hero, and Ashok’s exuberant,
stylised performance (the cigarette became his trademark),
Kismet ran for three years in Kolkata.
Such was his
popularity at the time that, in the words of Manto, “Ashok’s
popularity grew each passing day. He seldom ventured out, but
wherever he was spotted, he was mobbed. Traffic would come to a
stop and often the police would have to use lathis to disperse
After Kismet, Ashok
Kumar became the most bankable star of the era, delivering a
succession of box office successes with movies such as Chal Chal
Re Naujawan (1944), Shikari (1946), Sajan (1947), Mahal (1949),
Mashaal (1950), Sangram (1950) and Samadhi (1950).
forsook Bombay Talkies (after Himanshu’s death in 1940, the
studio split into factions), and became a freelance artiste.
World War II was at
its height and the studio system was breaking up. But S Mukherji
started Filmistan along with Ashok.
Some years later,
when Bombay Talkies was up for sale, Ashok bought his beloved
studio. Among the first things he did was to institute a bust of
mentor Himanshu Rai.
It is not hard to
believe Ashok when he says that he came to films to be a
Because soon after
his Kismet glory days, he cut down on his acting assignments and
concentrated on making films.
for him (it is said that Mehboob Khan who worked with Ashok in
Najma and Humayun wanted him for Andaaz too), but even for a
Bombay Talkies film like Ziddi, Ashok begged off and instead
cast newcomer Dev Anand as the hero.
The emergence of the
Raj Kapoor-Dilip Kumar-Dev Anand trio and the realisation that
he would not be able to keep Bombay Talkies afloat for long saw
Ashok concentrate again on his acting career.
the three Kumar brothers - Kishore Kumar, Ashok Kumar and
He had successes
like Mahal (1949) and Samadhi (1950). In 1951 he had three
releases—Afsana, Sangram and Deedar. All three were successful.
In the 1950s, when
Devika Rani retired and Leela Chitnis opted for mother’s roles
in Awara, Ashok teamed with younger heroines like Nalini Jaywant
(10 films) and Meena Kumari (14 films).
He acted in dark
crime thrillers like Sangram or Howrah Bridge or show depth as
the lover in Bimal Roy’s Parineeta or the hero who marries a
widow in B R Chopra’s Ek Hi Raasta.
After 25 years as a
hero, Ashok gradually moved to character roles in the early
1960s and met with unprecedented success.
In 1963 Ashok
starred in eight films, including Gumraah, Mere Mehboob and
His costars may have
been the current box office hotties but Ashok Kumar continued to
get top billing.
He was already a
legend. Awards and citations started pouring in.
A Padmashri in 1962,
a Filmfare Award for Rakhi (1962) and a National Award at the
ripe retirement age of 58 for Aashirwad (1968).
He was honoured in
1988 with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest national award
for cinema artists, by the Government of India and also received
the Padma Bhushan in 1999 for his contributions to Indian
experimented with his roles.
In Aarti, Jewel
Thief and Jawab (where he rapes Meena Kumari), he played
In Victoria No 203
and Shaukeen, he played variations of the naughty old man.
But perhaps he was
most enduring and identifiable as the patriarch in films like
Mili, Khoobsurat and Anuraag. He exuded warmth and wisdom.
In the late 1980s,
his health deteriorated and he cut down his workload, consenting
to do the occasional Return Of Jewel Thief (1996).
He had long
cultivated passions like painting (he painted in his bathroom),
astrology and homeopathy. He spent his last years in his Chembur
bungalow (a Mumbai suburb), battling asthma.
He was the eldest of
four children and outlived all his siblings.
In fact, he stopped
celebrating his birthday after his youngest brother, Kishore,
died on that very day of Ashok’s birthday, in 1987.
In the 1940s, his
sister Sati had called him Dadamoni (an elder brother who is
like a jewel) and the name caught on.
On December 10,
2001, at the age of 90, when Ashok Kumar passed away, he was
truly the industry’s Dadamoni.