The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 13, 2002
Lead Article

Remembering a legend
Lab assistant who became matinee idol
A. C. Tuli

DESTINY, it is said, plays a decisive role in shaping the course of our life. It was perhaps destiny that inspired 22-year-old Ashok Kumar Ganguly, when he was a student of law at Calcutta University, to chuck up his studies midway and go to Bombay to carve out for himself a career in film direction. Little did he know then that destiny had already decreed that he would one day become a great film actor, not a film director.

Affectionately called Dadamoni (elder brother), in January, 1934, Ashok Kumar came to Bombay, where his brother-in-law, S. Mukerjee, was at that time working as sound recordist with Bombay Talkies, a premier film-making company founded by Himanshu Rai and his actress wife Devika Rani. Ashok Kumar was taken on the rolls of Bombay Talkies as laboratory assistant at a monthly salary of Rs 150.

He hoped to progress to film direction. He was not the least interested in acting. But he had perhaps not reckoned with what the future held in store for him. A year or so after his joining Bombay Talkies, a film Jeevan Naiya was to be made by this concern with Devika Rani as its heroine and Najmul Hussein as hero. But just four days before the shooting of the film was to start, Najmul Hussein disappeared, leaving Himanshu Rai and Franz Osten, the film’s German director, in the lurch.


Himanshu Rai had all these months observed his laboratory assistant Ashok Kumar very closely and grown to like him. So he asked Osten to go ahead with the shooting. "But where’s the hero?" asked Osten. "Ashok Kumar replaces Najmul Hussein," replied Himanshu Rai. But Ashok Kumar himself was not ready to act in the film. "I know nothing about film acting, sir," he pleaded desperately. But Rai was adamant. So, Ashok Kumar made his debut as hero in Jeevan Naiyya, which was released in 1936. Ashok Kumar was not very happy with his performance in it.

It was, however, the next Bombay Talkies film Achhut Kanya, made in the same year, that was to spell out for Ashok Kumar a very long and successful innings in the film industry. Achhut Kanya got rave views in film journals. Pandit Nehru and Sarojini Naidu admired its progressive theme — a low-caste girl in love with a Brahmin boy of her village. The film was the blockbuster of 1936, and its song, Mein ban ki chidya ban ban bolun re, sung by Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani, was on everyone’s lips.

Critics, however, still found a certain awkwardness in Ashok Kumar’s acting style. They felt he was not very comfortable before the camera and his dialogue delivery was also faulty. But, in the Bombay Talkies’ films that followed — Kangan (1939), Bandhan (1940) and Jhoola (1941)—Ashok Kumar was no longer the gawky lad that he might have looked to cinegoers in his first two films. There was now a natural ease about his acting that charmed the viewers. And by the time he came to act in Kismet (1943), a stupendous box-office hit, he had already honed his acting style. The film ran for more than three years at the Roxy theatre in Calcutta.

When Devika Rani left Bombay Talkies in 1947, Ashok Kumar and his friends bought it and worked hard to revive its sagging fortunes, but in vain. Ashok Kumar had a unique rapport with film directors like Bimal Roy, B.R. Chopra, Phani Majumdar, Satyen Bose, Tapan Sinha, Shakti Samant, Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukerjee.

In Bimal Roy’s Parineeta, Bandini and Benazir he gave memorable performances. B.R. Chopra began his career as film director with Ashok Kumar as hero of his first film Afsana (1951). Thereafter, Ashok Kumar starred in his films. Ek Hi Rasta, Kanoon, Gumraah and a few others.

Dadamoni appreciated Basu Chatterjee’s flair for making comedy films. The films directed by him—Chhoti Si Baat, Khatta Meetha, Safed Jhooth,Tumhare Liye and Shaukeen—had Ashok Kumar in prominent roles.

For his role in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Aashirwad (1968), Ashok Kumar received the National Award. And the comic, whimsical song, Rail gaadi, rail gaadi... sung by him in the film became an all-time favourite of children.

In a career spanning nearly six decades, Ashok Kumar acted in more than 300 films and a number of awards were conferred on him. In 1962, he received the Padma Shri. The Sangeet Natak Akademi too honoured him. In 1969, the National Award for Best Actor was given to Ashok Kumar for his role in Gumraah. Ashok Kumar received the Dada Saheb Phalke Award in 1989.

He also acted in television serials like Bahadur Shah Zafar, Bhim Bhavani and Dada Dadi ki Kahaniyan. Ashok Kumar was a man of varied interests. He was a good chess player, knowledgeable homoeopath, and an astrologer. Besides, he painted portraits and landscapes.

On December 10, 2001, at the age of 90, he passed away in Mumbai, mourned by the film industry as well as by millions of fans in India and abroad.