"Aayega, aayega aane wala... aayega, aayega, aayega.” The lilting song from the Indian film “Mahal” always reminded me of three persons who were to become legends — melody queen Lata Mangeshkar who had sung that eternally captivating song in her mellifluous voice, actress Madhubala, who enchanted the moviegoers so much that they went to see the film repeatedly, and Ashok Kumar, who won acclaim with his performance as he kept searching for the lady in the haunted palace in the movie.
Those were the days of early 1950s when Ashok Kumar had already made inroads into Hindi cinema as a successful actor from the days of Bollywood’s silent era. Having acted with leading heroines of those days, he wrote a cover story for Filmfare magazine titled “Three Faces of Eve” in which he extolled the acting virtues of Nargis, Madhubala and Meena Kumari, all of whom have left indelible marks on the history of Bollywood.
Ashok Kumar, who died in Bombay recently, was a truly professional actor and an unassuming person, whether on or off the sets. Fondly known as “Dadamuni,” he played the role of an elder brother in real life. He was also one of the few film personalities to invest his earnings in worthwhile projects. He set up his own Ashok Kumar’s Farming Corporation in Karla, near Bombay, and invested in real estate. Another actor of yesteryears who made huge investments was the legendary “showman” Raj Kapoor who owned a farm at Loni, also near Bombay, and made his R.K. Studios so attractive that dignitaries from all over the world included a visit to it in their itinerary to see the shoots.
Ashok Kumar was also a unique personality without any love tangles or scandals figuring in gossip magazines. A person always conscious of his health, he used to take home-cooked food whenever he was out for film shooting. Often his wife accompanied him.
The grand old man of Bollywood, who swept Hindi celluloid with his acting style for over six decades, was the eldest of three Ganguli brothers — Kishore Kumar, who became one of the most successful producer-director-actor-singers of the silver screen, and Anoop Kumar who also acted in movies.
He teamed up with his two brothers, both of whom died earlier, in “Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi” which was a major hit. With this riotous film, Ashok Kumar displayed his flair for comedy. In the mid-1960s, he turned to character roles, including the suave villain of “Jewel Thief” and the caring father of “Mili.” “Bandini” and “Pakeezah” were among his other hits. But it was “Kismet” in the 1940s, in which he played the chain-smoking anti-hero that turned out to be his biggest success. In fact, its record run was shattered only by “Sholay”. “Kismet” was a rage running for three years in Calcutta and the anti-hero image stuck with him for a while.
He starred in a series of crime films like “Sangram,” “Inspector,” “Howrah Bridge” and “Night Club,” all in the 1950s, when he had stiff competition from actors like Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. He charmed the audience with movies like “Deedar” and “Bewafaa” where he shared the screen with the leading trio of the Hindi screen.
By playing the rapist in “Jawab” (1970), he broke the conventional mold. It was in “Khubsoorat” in 1980 that he played one of his memorable roles. With a total of around 300 movies, he quit the scene due to poor health. He had not been keeping in good health for quite some time and had been bedridden before the end came at his Chembur residence on Monday (Dec. 10). The 20th recipient of India’s prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke award, he had been suffering from severe asthma and was confined to his home for most of the time.
He sang songs for a few of his movies and also tried his hand at playback singing. Some of his songs like “Main Ban Ki Chidiya,” “Chal Chal Re Naujawaan” and “Aaj Meri Nao Chali Re” were extremely popular. He even sang a raplike number in a movie.
Born in Bhagalpur in Bihar and educated in Khandwa, Ashok Kumar was elder to Kishore by 20 years. He was admired for his subtle style of acting, when most of his peers had a theatrical approach to acting. He successfully made the transition from black and white to color and although he never consciously sought stardom, the range of his performances from hero to anti-hero and even comedy and romantic dramas ensured his longevity as an actor.
Ashok Kumar won the national award for best performance in “Aashirwad” in 1969. He also received the Filmfare award for the same, adding to his Filmfare best actor award for “Rakhi,” which he had received in 1962. Filmfare also acknowledged his performance in “Afsana” (1966) for which he received the best supporting actor award. In 1995, he received the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award for his 62-year contribution to the film industry.
Before entering films, Ashok Kumar was a law student. Despite his father’s wish that he should succeed him in the legal profession, he arrived in Bombay hoping to become a film director. He started in movies as a laboratory assistant at Filmalaya Studios founded by his brother-in-law Sashadhar Mukherjee. He was first introduced as a lead actor in “Jeevan Nayya” (1936) by Himanshu Rai of Bombay Talkies. The story goes that Himanshu Rai, angered with the lead man, Najmul Hussein, in “Jeevan Naiya,” dumped him and opted for Ashok Kumar, then a laboratory assistant, for the movie.
Early in his career, he played second fiddle to Devika Rani, and it was with films like “Kangan,” “Bandhan” and “Jhoola” that he was recognized as a hero in his own right. All the three films had Leela Chitnis playing the female lead.
He had also cherished to become a director of Hindi films. One of the early hits of his was “Achhut Kanya” in which he played a Brahmin boy and featured opposite Devika Rani.
Ashok Kumar produced movies like “Mahal,” “Majboor,” “Mashaal” and “Ziddi” for Bombay Talkies. He later launched his Ashok Kumar Productions and went on to produce “Maa,” “Kalpana” and “Meri Soorat Teri Aankhen”.
He portrayed negative roles in “Kismat,” “Aarti,” “Ustadon Ke Ustad” and “Jewel Thief.” He switched over to character roles with “Kanoon” and “Oonchey Log.”
He even appeared on television as the anchor in “Hum Log,” an immensely popular soap on Indian TV channel Doordarshan.
With his death, the world of cinema has lost a legend.