A quarter of a century since his last screen appearance and two decades after he died, film buffs still recall Ashok Kumar’s (1911–2001) multiple contributions to Indian cinema. Starting as a reluctant actor in 1936, his career, that spanned 64 years and 350 movies, spanned the evolution of cinema in the country. Launched opposite Devika Rani in Jeevan Naiya, Kumar went on to become Hindi cinema’s first super star. Such was his popular appeal that, for seven continuous years, Roxy Cinema in Bombay showed only Ashok Kumar films.
With no school of acting to fall back upon, Kumar rehearsed before the mirror, much like Adolf Hitler did before he appeared in public. It is a sheer coincidence that Hitler sent Kumar a congratulatory message on the success of Achhut Kanya, the iconic film on untouchability. Far from drawing any promotional value from it then or later, Kumar tore and threw away the historical document. “Laurels can never be more important than principles and human values,” he said. Kumar’s eldest daughter Bharati Jaffrey mentions the incident in the preface to this reissued biography and confirms that he valued equanimity in the pursuit of excellence.
Nabendu Ghosh (1917-2007), author of Dadamoni, who scripted cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Parineeta and Abhimaan, has drawn a warm and intimate biography of one of Hindi cinema’s great icons. Kumar transformed the prevailing theatrical acting style to a naturalistic one, and played every role to perfection – from the young romantic to the mature hero, to an ageing character actor. The list of his remarkable performances is long and impressive – the suspected judge in Kanoon, an old man in Aashirwad, an unassuming villain in Jewel Thief, and a lecherous senior in Shaukeen. With his signature smoking style and distinct hand movements, Kumar was both smooth and natural in diverse roles.
But things could have been different. German director Franz Osten who was associated with Bombay Talkies rejected him after a screen test: “You have a square jaw; you look so young and girlish”. However, studio boss Himanshu Rai’s insistence on casting him as a hero prevented Kumar from returning to Calcutta to pursue his unfinished study of law. The rest is history. Apart from delivering a series of hit films during the 1940s and early 1950s, Kumar contributed to building Bombay Talkies. He invited the illustrious Bimal Roy, launched Dilip Kumar, initiated Dev Anand, gave a break to BR Chopra, got Sachin Dev Burman to compose music, and introduced Kishore Kumar. He also gave a platform to writers like Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Saheed Latif, Kamal Amrohi, and the author of this volume Nabendu Ghosh himself. All these writers introduced complex social reality to cinematic storytelling.
The vibrant culture of filmmaking in the formative years of Hindi cinema comes through in this slim book on Ashok Kumar’s life. Few could have imagined that the initially reluctant actor would one day serve as a textbook for actors wanting to perfect characterization, voice control, timing, gestures and posture. “In acting, you have to give so much of yourself yet not be yourself,” said Kumar who worked with the virtual who’s who of Indian cinema.
An accomplished script writer, Ghosh has not allowed Ashok Kumar the actor to get the better of Ashok Kumar the person. His reservation about embracing female co-stars, his confidence in his fans as he drove with Manto through a tense Muslim neighbourhood during Partition, and his real life persona as an ordinary family man are all touched upon. Ashok Kumar lives on in the minds of all those who cherish quality acting.
Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic.