Saturday, December 15, 2001
M A I N   F E A T U R E

The inimitable Dadamoni

Devinder Bir Kaur pays a tribute to the Grand Old Man of the Silver Screen. For a man who was reluctant to become an actor, Ashok Kumar went on to give memorable and sensitive portrayals in a career that spanned seven decades.

ASHOK KUMAR. The name has now passed into the history of Hindi cinema as a legend. And to think he never wanted to be an actor! But it is virtually impossible to imagine Hindi films without Ashok Kumar. He was as inseparable a part of the Silver Screen as air is to breathing. For the Grand Old Man of Hindi cinema had been around 70 years out of the 100 years of the Hindi film industry.

Even so, the fact remains that Ashok Kumar never wanted to be an actor. He had never in his life spelt ACTING. He had come to Bombay to become a director. Those days actors were really looked down upon. It was said that actors came from the lowest strata of society. They were thought to be pimps or prostitutes and he did not want to be associated with them. So he joined Bombay Talkies as a technician and learnt the fundamental techniques of film-making. Later, he was made a lab assistant.


Dadamoni, as Ashok Kumar was fondly called by the industry folk, became an actor by fluke. Apparently, the leading man of the film Jeevan Naiya had fallen ill. Himanshu Rai, its producer, pleaded with him to step in. But Ashok Kumar was not interested. He told him what he thought of actors. Himanshu told him he could change all that. His own wife, Devika Rani, was Rabindranath Tagoreís granddaughter. In fact, everyone who worked with him belonged to decent families. Finally, Ashok Kumar was convinced and agreed to do this one film and no more.

Scenes from Ashok Kumarís films: (From Top) Howrah Bridge, Gumrah and Kanoon

Strangely, while Himanshu had faith in Ashok Kumar, the German director of the film, Franz Osten, took one look at him and declared that he would never make it as an actor. He didnít like his jaw, saying it was too weak. Ashok was indignant and said who wanted to be an actor anyway. Himanshu pacified him and convinced Osten that Ashok was the right choice. "Indeed, for someone who was nearly shown the door, Iíve done fairly well ", Dadamoni commented years later.

Jeevan Naiya changed the course of Ashok Kumarís life. The success of the film led to him being coaxed into doing one more film, and one more, and one more.... Himanshu convinced him to do Achhut Kanya. The film was a hit and there was no looking back. More Bombay Talkies hits Izzat, Savitri, Nirmala, Bandhan, Prem Kahani and Janambhoomi followed and sent the affable singer-actor shooting towards superstardom.

His rise to fame, however, disturbed his parents no end. His mother feared that he would fall into bad ways and no decent girl would marry him. And many families did turn him down. Ashokís father rushed to Nagpur and met the then Chief Minister, Ravi Shankar Shukla, who was his college friend. He asked him if he could give his son a job. The CM offered two ó one as Chairman of the Income Tax Department, and second as a postal inspector. Ashokís father showed the two appointment letters to Himanshu Rai saying his son had a bright future outside films. But Himanshu convinced him that Ashokís future lay in films. So finally his father left him in Himanshuís care.

In the meantime, Ashokís mother arranged his marriage. He didnít even see his wife before the wedding, yet they went on to complete nearly 50 years of married life. Ashok Kumarís wife, Shobha, died just two days before their golden wedding anniversary.

In his early films, Ashok Kumar played a nice but callow and timid youth who bowed before the elders and tradition. But Kismet changed the image of the "ideal son" drastically. Now, Ashok Kumar was the smooth-talking, chain-smoking "criminal" hero who conducted his affairs, including those of the heart, on his own terms. He seemed to appeal to the audiences who saw him break the law and fool the British police. They loved him even as a thief. Kismet was heavily influenced by Francis Marianís book Screenplay Writing. The chart-busting success of Kismet put Ashok Kumar on the top-rung of stardom. In fact, Kismet ran for an unprecedented 187 weeks, a box-office record which was later broken by Sholay and now recently by Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge.

But after Kismet, the Bombay Talkies team disintegrated. Himanshu Rai died and Devika Rani took charge. She got the director Sashadhar Mukherjee replaced by an outsider. This hurt the team members and they all left. (Sashadhar Mukherjee was married to Ashok Kumarís sister. Her granddaughter is present-day actress Kajol).

Some years later, Devika Rani left, leaving Bombay Talkies in a financial mess. Ashok Kumar and his teammates bought Bombay Talkies and produced Majboor, Mahal, Mashaal, Ziddi etc. But they could not save Bombay Talkies eventually and it closed down.

Ashok Kumar owed a lot to Himanshu and Devika. They virtually groomed him. They would insist that he watched English films. He listened to their advice and watched foreign films ó thatís how he learnt to act. He always thought that being natural was the best. A gentle firebrand, he was never loud, and remained many miles away from overacting. When theatrics was in, he preferred to be natural.

The move to character parts was done with unrivalled grace. In the í50s and í60s, the actor added to his already rich repertoire with Deedar, Bhai Bhai, Parineeta, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Howrah Bridge, Dhool Ka Phool, Aarti, Bandini, Gumrah, Mere Mehboob, Meri Surat Teri Ankhen. Chitralekha, Bheegi Raat, Mamta, Bahu Begum, Jewel Thief, Aashirwad, Satyakaam to mention a few. In fact, as a character actor he did some of the finest roles, like in Aashirwad and Mamta.

Itís well known that Dadamoni was so dedicated to his work that he developed asthma while doing a scene for Rakhi. For his death scene in the film with Waheeda Rehman, he would drink chilled coconut water followed by hot coffee every day. By the time he had to shoot the death scene, he could hardly breathe. And all this to bring a death rattle during the dialogue delivery! The result was that he was affected by asthma for the rest of his life.

Dadamoniís selfless dedication did not go unrewarded. It was for Rakhi that he won the Filmfare Award for the Best Actor and later for Aashirwad. Critical acclaim quickly followed public approval and he picked up two National Awards for Gumrah and Aashirwad. And then came the prized award in 1988: Ashok Kumar was honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his outstanding contribution to Indian cinema. He was also bestowed with the Lifetime Achievement Award by Filmfare and Screen.

In fact, he was destined to make it big, as predicted by his fatherís astrologer friend. However, his prediction that he would become a Chief Justice went awry. Perhaps, he had into consideration that Ashok came from a family of lawyers and had been packed off to Calcutta to study law. But in Calcutta Ashok Kumar, then Kumudlal Ganguly, happened to see two Bengali films ó Chandi Das and Puran Bhagat ó and decided to join films, of course as a director. He reasoned with his father that there were already five lawyers in the family and promised to take up law if he failed in films. It so happened, not only did Ashok Kumar find fame in the industry, but he also paved the way for his younger brothers ó Anoop Kumar and Kishore Kumar. The trio even went on to act together in the evergreen Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi. However, while Anoop never did make it big, Kishore Kumar went on to become one of the greatest singers in the film industry. And to think, when Kishore was asked to sing, he wanted brother Ashok Kumar to do it. Dadamoni refused and told him that he had to do it. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Not that Ashok Kumar was not an accomplished singer himself. Few people know that it was actually Ashok Kumar, and not Baba Sehgal, who gave us our first rap number: Rail gaadi, ruk, ruk, ruk.... In fact, when Ashok Kumar began his film career, actors themselves sang their songs ó there was no playback singing. So we had young Ashok singing Main ban ka panchhi, ban ban mein doloon re....

While people were all too familiar with Ashok Kumar, the film personality, few knew of Ashok the doctor or the painter. His interest in homoepathy, like acting, was also kindled by accident and through a casual meeting with a German doctor in Bangalore where he had taken his wife for lung treatment. The doctor gave her some medicines and she actually started responding in a few days. Ashok asked him to teach him homoepathy. The doctor asked him to read about anatomy and physiology. Ashok finished reading them in just two weeks and went back to him. He was so impressed with his effort that he gave him more books, and gradually Ashok started practising on his servant and himself too. In fact, he went on to get formal degree in that field of medicine. So, he is actually Dr Ashok Kumar.

To his credit he even cured patients who had terminal cancer. Hospitals began terming cases as an "Ashok Kumar case." Once his patient was a 14-year-old girl suffering from polio and gangrene. She had been told by the surgeon that the affected portion of her leg had to be amputated, and that there was a chance that she would not survive the operation. It was a difficult case. But her father insisted that Ashok did it. So Ashok prescribed four medicines and within three days the blackness in her legs started reducing. Ashok then risked removing the girl from the hospital a day before the operation ó ignoring the doctorís warning that that would kill the patient. For the next six months, he treated the girl and she was cured not only of the gangrene, but also the polio. Ashok Kumar never did know how he had cured polio.

Ashok Kumarís success with arts too was manifold. His hobby as a painter developed during the time he suffered his first heart attack. Quite bored with the sedentary pace of life, he took to painting at the suggestion of his friend Iftikhar. Soon his interest developed into a passion. He was in particular fond of painting nude portraits, and sometimes, as some said, "in the nude." Among his paintings was one of his three "deviyans" which he said were his three daughters.

Besides painting, he also read the horoscope charts and was prompt to ask his visitorís date of birth so that even numerology played an active part in his predictions. For reading the charts he had to study Sanskrit, and consequently he learnt the language.

A rich tapestry of life woven with many-hued colours, Ashok Kumar did seem to have led a life full as it was varied. He even played the "sutradhar" for the highly acclaimed and Hindi TVís first soap Hum Log. Most of the mimics generally copy Ashok Kumarís mannerisms he displayed at the end of each episode. But, most remarkably, for all his serious contributions to cinema, he retained that truly remarkable joie de vivre ó right till the end when he died at the ripe old age of 90. But one wishes that he had gone on to complete a century. After all, men like him are not born again and again.

Some hallmarks of Ashok Kumarís career:

Ashok Kumarís long stint in the industry was a fascinating one from the shy Brahmin youth of Achhut Kanya besetted by the enchanting Harijan girl, the upright judge of Kanoon, the crook in Jewel Thief, the head of a crazy Parsi household in Khatta Meetha, to the dirty old man in Shaukeen ó were just a few of the regular movie watcherís favourite Ashok Kumar performances. A look at some of the others:

Kismet: Ashok Kumar plays a runaway son who indulges in all known vices. He is enamoured by a crippled danseuse who wants to be released of her performing contract, but owes her freedom to her debtors. The hero decides to commit his last theft for her cause. Kismet lands him at his own fatherís house where his younger brother is a police inspector. Thrills, chases and songs (Mera bulbul so raha hai...), the movie thrived on pace.

Parineeta: Like all Bimal Royís films, the film too had strong social undertones. Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari are childhood friends who grow up without realising their true feelings for each other. He gets engaged to another woman, while she is courted by an educated but caste inferior man. Only to realise their mistake.

Chalti ka Naam Gaadi: A hilarious, comedy with his brothers Kishore Kumar and Anoop Kumar. They just play themselves.

Kanoon: A tightly-packed courtroom drama san songs or any frills. A judge (Ashok Kumar) is accused of murder by his daughterís fiance (Rajendra Kumar). The fiance who is a budding lawyer had witnessed his to-be-father-in-law committing a murder. The drama begins.

Gumrah: Ashok Kumar again came up with a superb performance as the elderly husband of Mala Sinha. Mala is actually in love with a painter (Sunil Dutt), but after her sister dies, she is duty-bound to marry her widowed brother-in-law. Soon she receives a jolt in the form of a blackmailer. The film also had superb songs: In fizaon mein, in hawaon mein... and Chalo ek baar phir se, ajnabi ban jaanye hum dono... .

Mere Mehboob: Ashok Kumar is an aristocratic nawab, who cherishes the family izzat. So he does not marry sweeheart Nimmi who is a stage-dancer, since it will tarnish the family name. But the nawabís lovely sister, Sadhana, loses her heart to Rajendra Kumar who is Nimmiís brother. But it is Rajendra Kumar who sells himself as a bridegroom for 10 lakhs to save Ashok Kumarís haveli from being auctioned.

Meherban: A prosperous family comes to bad times when the share-market collapses. The real sons begin to squable while the adopted son (Sunil Dutt) stands by the father.

Aashirwad: The film establishes a deeply moving relationship between a father (Ashok Kumar) and his daughter (Sumita Sanyal). Separated during the daughterís childhood when the father is sentenced to life term for murder, he succeeds in turning up on her wedding day to give her his aashirwad.

Victoria No. 203: The film had audiences rolling in the aisles as the lovable rogues, Raja and Rana (Ashok Kumar and Pran) took off on a rollicking adventure in the quest of a diamond hidden in the Victoria of a pretty girl (Saira Banu) who is masquerading as a boy. Dadamoni and Pran are still remembered for the chartbuster Do bechare bina sahare... .

Khubsoorat: Ashok Kumar plays the understanding father-in-law-to-be of tomboyish heroine Rekha. He supports her in transforming a grim, spartan household into a home full of warmth and affection.