The first super star of Indian cinema, the first ever anti-hero on Indian screen, a renowned homeopath scholar, an accomplished astrologer, an adept singer, a proficient cyclist, a science graduate and a vivid reader. Who comes in our mind when we read about so many traits in one man? He is the man who carried Indian showbiz forward even before Dilip Kumar or Raj Kapoor came into the picture. Ashok Kumar, the first Indian super star, was truly an all-rounder. He had a roller-coaster ride with his career that commenced from 1930s and continued till the late 1990s.
The establishment of Bombay Talkies, the partition era, the eventual fall of show business, the black and white decades and the old Bollywood music without playback, Ashok Kumar has experienced and gradually witnessed it all. The man himself is rich with history and if alive, then would have been celebrating his 102nd birthday this year on 13th of October.
Originally belonging to a family of lawyers, it was typically expected that he will also follow his forefathers. But been bored with the uninteresting sections, acts and provisions of the legal books, the young science graduate fled to Mumbai without any proper aim to achieve. He lived in Mumbai in a one-boxed room with ten other people with almost empty pockets. Who knew that one day this random and desultory guy would own the first biggest film studio of India?
Himanshu Rai, Devika Rani and Sashadhar Mukherjee already established the infamous Bombay Talkies by this time. The studio was the biggest during the contemporary period and was considered to be a prime location for film-making in India. Ashok Kumar, being a science graduate from the Calcutta University, landed up as a lab assistant at the Bombay Talkies.
His being an actor didn’t seem to be possible but fate had impossible plans for the man. Just like an unexpected climax in a movie, his life also faced some abrupt twists during this period.
Himanshu Rai was producing the movie ‘Achut Kanya’ at the time with his wife Devika Rani in the lead along with the male lead Najam-Ul-Hussain. Things took a complete about turn when Devika Rani eloped with her male lead to Calcutta leaving behind an incomplete film and a grieving husband.
Later, Sashadhar Mukherjee and Himanshu Rai succeeded in making her return but a major obstacle was faced due to the absence of the lead hero. Himanshu Rai, quite obviously, had sacked the earlier lead and was in search of a new face to cast opposite his wife.
Soon they discovered a young and good-looking lad at their own lab in Bombay Talkies. Without investing any more time they finalised him as the male lead opposite the then shining star Devika Rani. Ashok Kumar, a novice in acting, was playing the lead in a Bombay Talkies production even before he himself could digest the sudden developments that took place in his life. Thus, previously known as Kumudlal Ganguly was newly born as Ashok Kumar in the studio of Bombay Talkies.
This way ‘Achut Kanya’ became the debut film of Ashok Kumar and was one of the grand successes of Bombay Talkies in 1936.
Playback was still an unknown technology for composers at Mumbai then. Hence, the actors on screen had to sing also for themselves instead of the current trend of lip-syncing. The novice actor soon started to sing as well and his duet ‘Main Ban Ki Chidiya’ with Devika Rani from ‘Achut Kanya’ still remains to be the talk of town after almost seven decades!
After the success of ‘Achut Kanya’, Ashok Kumar went on to act opposite Devika Rani in other Bombay Talkies’ productions like ‘Izzat’, ‘Nirmala’ and ‘Savitri’. He was the male lead in all of them but wasn’t a star yet. Devika Rani was still the ruling star of Hindi cinema during the period.
Soon, Kumar came out of Devika Rani’s limelight and started working with Leela Chitnis in ‘Kangan’, ‘Bandhan’, and ‘Jhoola’. Almost all the movies were commercially successful but his biggest success was yet to come. The popular track ‘Ek Chaturnaar’ from ‘Padosan’ was originally sung by Ashok Kumar in his movie ‘Jhoola’ in 1941. Kishore Kumar (Ashok Kumar’s brother) later lifted the tune and sung the song for ‘Padosan’ in 1968.
The year of 1943 and India got its first ‘All Time Blockbuster’ hit ‘Kismet’. Starring Ashok Kumar and Mumtaz Shanti, ‘Kismet’ was the first ever Indian film to showcase an anti-hero or a ‘double-role’. Written by Niranjan Pal and directed by Gyan Mukherjee, the film ran in the theatres for three long years breaking all the existing records and setting new records. It remained to be the longest running film in the country until ‘Sholay’ broke its set records 30 years later.
If you ever wondered what makes a hero more attractive when he is smoking a cigarette or a pipe, then you are bound to watch Ashok Kumar, who is also the first hero of Hindi cinema to smoke on screen. Ashok Kumar evolved and moulded himself with a style and fashion that was unseen and unknown to Hindi cinema during the prevailing time. He gradually defined the term ‘Hero’ with his swooning persona on screen.
In 1940, the Bombay Talkies’ founder Himanshu Rai passed away. A battle for ownership took off between Sashadhar Mukherjee and Devika Rani. Devika Rani succeeded in establishing her dominion over the studio. However, she married the famous Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich in 1945 and left the industry forever to settle down with her husband in Karnataka. By this time Sashadhar Mukherjee already left Bombay Talkies to establish his own studio ‘Filmistan’. In order to save ‘Bombay Talkies’, Ashok Kumar took the title in his hands.
In 1949, he produced the historical thriller ‘Mahal’ showcasing the theme of reincarnation for the first time on Indian cinema under the banner of Bombay Talkies. The movie went on to set many records and produced unbeatable talents, who later on became legends. It was one of the highest grossing movies of 1949.
‘Mahal’ was a big break as a lead for the magnificent Madhubala. ‘The Indian Nightingale’, Lata Mangeshkar, also earned name and fame through her soundtrack ‘Aayega Aanewaala’ from the film. She became the first playback singer in India whose name was credited on-air at the All India Radio due to overwhelming inquiries made by the audiences after airing the song on the radio. The movie was director Kamal Amrohi’s debut venture who later went on to become one of the prolific directors of Bollywood. Bimal Roy was the editor of the movie who again later went on to become another ranked filmmaker in the industry.
In-spite of the back to back successes, Bombay Talkies was closed in 1954 marking the end of a historical era in Bollywood.
In 1950, he was seen in Ramesh Saigal’s blockbuster super hit ‘Samadhi’. The movie turned out to be the year’s biggest grosser. ‘Samadhi’ was the story of a young soldier of INA who falls in love with a British spy. Being true to the title of the movie ‘Samadhi’, Ashok Kumar as Shekhar, an INA soldier, is martyred at the end of the movie near the Indo-Burman border.
In 1953, he played Shekhar Ray in Bimal Ray’s ‘Parineeta’ opposite Meena Kumari. The film was adapted from Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay’s Bengali novel ‘Parineeta’. The movie was edited by the legendary Hrishikesh Mukherjee and is regarded as one of the finest screen adaptation of the original novel. It is known for the blooming chemistry between Meena Kumari and Ashok Kumar as Lalita and Shekhai Ray. ‘Parineeta’ was remade again later in Hindi by Pradeep Sarkar in 2005.
Another noted film by him in 1958 would be ‘Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi’ where he could be seen on screen along with his equally talented brothers, Kishore Kumar and Anoop Kumar. The film went on to become one of the biggest box office successes that year.
The 1960s came and so did B. R. Chopra’s ‘Kanoon’, which was the first Hindi film without any song. The crime thriller was a gripping film that would keep the audiences glued to their seats entirely throughout its 2 hours and 19 minutes run. Ashok Kumar, Rajendra Kumar and Nanda played the pivotal roles in the movie. Ashok Kumar would surprise any viewer through his transformation from a soft hearted judge to a wicked criminal. ‘Kanoon’ can be regarded as one of the best made crime thriller during the ‘black and white’ era.
Ashok Kumar received his first Filmfare Award for Best Actor (Filmfare started in 1954) in 1962 for his outstanding performance in ‘Rakhi’. Waheeda Rahman, Pradeep Kumar and Mehmood were his co-stars in ‘Rakhi’.
Remember ‘Jogi Thakur Chaudhury’ from ‘Aashirwad’? The semi-old man wearing a ‘dhoti’ and running behind a train of children with his ever-so-classic song ‘Rail Gaadi Rail Gaadi Chuk Chuk Chuk’? Ashok Kumar made this character immortal with his unbeatable portrayal of ‘Jogi Thakur’.
In 1964, Ashok Kumar got his second Filmfare Award for ‘Aashirwad’. The forever loved and respected Jogi Thakur would bring tears to anyone’s eyes. This masterpiece surely did bring out his best from ‘Dadamoni’. Also, Ashok Kumar happened to be the first rap-singer on Indian cinema through this film. ‘Rail Gaadi Chuk Chuk Chuk’ was the first ever rap song featured on Hindi cinema.
In the 1960s he also performed in a number of films like ‘Pakeezah’ (1972), ‘Bahu Begum’ (1967), ‘Chitralekha’ (1964) alongside Meena Kumari. By the 1970s, he was already playing father to the young generation heroes and heroines of Bollywood.
In the 1980s, along with the big screen, he ventured into the small screen as well. B. R. Chopra’s ‘Bahadur Shah Zafar’ was a milestone series on Indian television and is unforgettable even today. He also acted as the narrator in India’s first ever television soap ‘Hum Log’.
Ashok Kumar lived for 90 years and worked until 1997. He took his last breathe on 10th of December 2001. Dadamoni had a peaceful death during an amicable afternoon. He had his lunch and he calmly went for his afternoon nap which never broke later. He passed away due to a heart failure in his slumber.
He was not only a preeminent actor but also was a caring and humble family man. He fathered three children and was fortunate enough to witness the birth of his great grandchildren. He was shaken to bits after the death of his wife Shobha. It is said that Kishore Kumar had to sing for hours to get his elder brother out of his depression after his wife’s death.
In his long life, he witnessed the deaths of his younger brothers (Kishore Kumar and Anoop Kumar) as well. He denied attending their funeral saying that he hates to bid goodbye to anyone.
He was a terribly worried father who called up the IG of police at midnight to inquire about his would be son-in-law when he came to know about his daughter’s choice and also was a cheerful grandfather who danced with his trembling stick at the wedding party of his grandchildren at the age of 80. An amused Ashok Kumar even named his brother as ‘Kishore Mohabbat Khan’ when he came to know about his fourth marriage.
A child at heart but an enigma in mind, Ashok Kumar is a legacy, a trendsetter and a pioneer of Indian cinema who will continue to aspire today’s young generation.