Hindi cinema has perhaps rarely seen another actor with the refined, understated craftsmanship of Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly, better known by his screen name, Ashok Kumar. Here was an actor who straddled Hindi cinema from the mid-1930 to the 1990s, who pioneered the concept of 'natural acting' at a time when theatrical acting was the norm.
As Hindi cinema's first superstar, he, nevertheless, took box office risks. 'Kismet', in which he played a negative role, ran for three years in Kolkata's Roxy Theater. The film's record was broken by 'Sholay' 32 years later.
It was Ashok Kumar who introduced the suave, Westernized hero to Hindi films, puffing at his trademark cigarette, a habit he acquired to keep his hands occupied on camera. Years later he won the National Award for his role as an aging prisoner in Hrishkesh Mukherjee's 'Aashirwad', the film in which he also sang Hindi cinema's first rap song, 'Rail Gadi, Rail Gadi'.
He earned the title of the "grand old man of Hindi cinema", and for good reason. Ashok Kumar's career spanned an entire era in Hindi films beginning shortly after the advent of talking films.
Yet, barely 10 years after his death, even as Ashok Kumar's birth centenary is celebrated Oct 13, he remains an undervalued - some may even say forgotten - actor. In fact, one of his daughters laments that she is better known today as Kishore Kumar's niece.
Celluloid fame is notoriously fickle, with superstars of a previous era quickly consigned into the dustbin of history. But when I was doing research for my biography of Ashok Kumar, I was somewhat surprised at the enduring respect and affection for him. To the many directors and actors he had worked with, he remained Dadamoni, an affectionate elder brother.
Producer and director Yash Chopra, probably the biggest name in Hindi cinema today, spoke of the diffidence with which he approached Ashok Kumar for a small role in his first film. The actor not only agreed readily but did not charge him any fees for doing the role.
Waheeda Rehman is celebrated as the epitome of Indian beauty and when I met her, she was graciousness personified. Her eyes lit up when speaking of Ashok Kumar, as she reminisced about his pranks on and off the sets.
"With great respect and affection, I must say he was a 'kaam chor'," she said. While shooting in Chennai, he feigned an asthmatic attack because the director had given him his lines too late for him to memorise. She said that Ashok Kumar had insisted that Rehman tie a 'rakhi' on him every year, but when she took him up on his word, he led her on a chase through two studios to his home. I asked her if he had ever expressed regret for the inconvenience he had caused her.. Apparently not. "Woh bade jo the (he was the elder one)," she laughed.
The late Shammi Kapoor, who said he considered Ashok Kumar India's best actor, spoke of his deep regret on never having got a chance to sign a film with him, and of the dressing down he got from his brother, Raj Kapoor, when he did the "Pan Paraag" advertisement just so that he could work with Ashok Kumar.
Dharmendra remembered Ashok Kumar's fatherly indulgence when he arrived on the sets on New Year's Day too sozzled to shoot. Parikshit Sahni spoke of how Dadamoni had godfathered him when he returned from Russia, alone in Mumbai and devastated at the death of his father, Balraj Sahni.
Ashok Kumar belonged to an era when stars did not have a public relations apparatus, where even a superstar, as he was in the 1940s and 1950s, did not generate the hysteria lesser stars do today. Ashok Kumar himself did not take either his stardom, or the many accolades he received, seriously. His daughter Bharati Jaffrey recalled his remark when she excitedly congratulated him on being awarded the Padma Bhushan, "Kaunsa bada sher maar liya" (So, which big tiger have I killed). He had even turned a plaque that he was awarded into a doorknob.
Acting was a craft he loved, but he had numerous other interests. He was a connoisseur of music. Broadcaster Ameen Sayani recalled listening to his collection of Rajasthani folk songs. He was an avid reader of books from authors like Voltaire, Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant to Rabindranath Tagore, and a linguist. Many stars spoke of how he had cured seemingly intractable afflictions through homoeopathy. He cured Manoj Kumar of recurring warts and Moushumi Chatterjee's daughter of asthma.
Ashok Kumar was introduced to painting by actor Iftikhar and this quickly turned into a passion. He learnt the art of watercolors from G.D. Paulraj and was also influenced by masters like Vincent van Gogh and the Impressionists. He had done a painting of a nude Mona Lisa, and often painted in his bathroom, in the nude.
A law student before he joined Bombay Talkies as a laboratory technician, Ashok Kumar modelled his role as a judge in BR Chopra's "Kanoon" on MC Chagla (the chief justice of the Bombay High Court 1948-58, who also served as a union minister).
Aneeta Jamal, a US federal judge in Houston, said of her meetings with Ashok Kumar: "His range of interests was so diverse. You could talk to him about everything." He showed a keen interest in the judicial system in the US and arranged for her to visit the Bombay High Court when she visited the city.
Ashok Kumar had two qualities rare in the celluloid world - the ability to take his work, but not himself seriously, and magnanimity towards colleagues. Many of his fellow artists spoke to me on how he goaded them to perform better, completely oblivious to the notion that they could steal the scene from him. Once, he even pretended to forget his lines to relieve his co-star of her nervousness.
Ashok Kumar undoubtedly belonged to a very different era, when form did not overpower cinematic content. But even as we celebrate the global reach of today's hybrid Hindi cinema, it is worth keeping in mind that cinema is meant to be more of an art than commerce, and there are few who symbolized the craft of acting more elegantly than Ashok Kumar.
As director Shyam Benegal said: "They don't make them like Ashok Kumar any more. He belonged to a gentler and more innocent time."
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