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Coastweek -- Ashok Kumar and Madhubala in Shakti Samanta’s film Howrah Bridge in 1958 and with legendary singer Mohammed Rafi [right].
Ashok Kumar - The Jewel in Bollywood’s Crown

 Coastweek -- 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.

Ashok Kumar’s 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 acting).

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.

 

Coastweek -- 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 Rai.

Rani subsequently 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 screen names.

Rai thrust a protesting Kumar in front of the camera opposite his wife Devika Rani in Jeevan Naiyya (1936).

There were 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 Shobha.

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 memory.

The film was seem more as Devika’s success while Ashok was slotted as a chocolate hero.

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).

 

Coastweek -- 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 blue star.

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 his fans.”

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).

Thereafter, Ashok 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 filmmaker.

Because soon after his Kismet glory days, he cut down on his acting assignments and concentrated on making films.

Producers clamoured 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.

 

Coastweek -- Seen [from left] the three Kumar brothers - Kishore Kumar, Ashok Kumar and Anoop Kumar.

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 Bandini.

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 cinema.

Ashok gamely experimented with his roles.

In Aarti, Jewel Thief and Jawab (where he rapes Meena Kumari), he played villainous roles.

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.

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