The first superstar

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The first superstar

Sunday, 05 January 2014 | Deepa Gahlot

The first superstar

Today when we talk of superstars in Bollywood, the count starts with Dilip Kumar. But then there was a superstar even before the ‘tragedy king’ took over the stage with a storm. A look at the stardom of Ashok Kumar during the formative years of Hindi cinema

Much before the word “superstar” was coined and appropriated by any star who had a hit, Ashok Kumar was already one. He had several hits in a row as well as a classic called Kismet (1943), which for many years held the record for the longest running film in Indian movie history (three years without a break), and still remains in the list of top-grossers of all time (when the figures are adjusted for inflation.)

He was a reluctant actor; the embarkment of his career was as exciting as a film script. Devika Rani, the co-owner and leading lady of Bombay Talkies eloped with actor Najam-ul-Hussain. She returned soon enough, but her enraged husband and producer of the film Jeevan Naiya (1936), Himanshu Rai, replaced Hussain with the studio’s lab assistant Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly. The director Franz Osten took one look at the skinny guy with a square face and said that he would never make it as an actor. The producer persisted and the shy, handsome young Bengali man was thrust into the spotlight, and he stayed there for six decades, moving gracefully from juvenile singing leads to a suave hero to a character actor with ease. His sister Sati Devi married his Bombay Talkies partner, the legendary Shashadhar Mukherjee, and for many years he controlled the fortunes of the studio. He also discovered Dev Anand, then a struggler, prowling the studios for a break.

Renamed Ashok Kumar, he became a star with Achhut Kanya (1936), also opposite Devika Rani; an anti-caste love story that created a sensation at the time, reportedly the only film Mahatma Gandhi saw and was reduced to tears at the tragic ending. He did more films with the beautiful leading lady — Izzat (1937), Savitri (1937), Nirmala (1938), etc — and went on to form a successful romantic pair with leela Chitnis in films like Kangan (1939), Bandhan (1940) and Jhoola (1941). Furthermore, along with being a remarkably natural actor, he was also an acceptable singer. His songs Main Ban ki Chidiya, Chal Chal re Naujawan and Na Jaane Kidhar Aaj Meri Nao Chali Re ruled the radio airwaves for years.

His image of a sweet romantic hero was broken with Kismet in which he played Hindi cinema’s first major anti-hero. He was a raffish, cigarette-smoking thief in the film, who enters the house of a crippled Rani (Mumtaz Shanti) to steal, but stays back to help her instead.

His taste in films and astute business sense ensured that his early films were successful. In 1943, he left Bombay Talkies and along with Shashadhar Mukherjee, Gyan Mukherjee and Rai Bahadur Chunilal, set up a rival company, Filmistan, which was a successful venture.

He also entered his suave urban character phase — not the hero who sang and danced with the leading lady, but a man with style and an air of mystery — with Mahal (1949) Sangram (1950), Inspector (1956), Howrah Bridge (1958), Night Club (1958). But to show that he had a range that a good director could tap, he did memorable films like Naubahar (1952), Parineeta (1953), Ek hi Raasta (1956) and the madcap comedy Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (1958), with his brothers, Kishore and Anup Kumar. The three Ganguly brothers together were a riot, and the film remains one of the best loved Indian comedies.

By this time, the three ‘Golden Boys’ of Hindi cinema — Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand — were ruling Hindi cinema, but Ashok Kumar was rock steady. Even if he was gently nudged into parallel roles, he left his stamp on films like Baadbaan (1954), Deedar (1951) and Bewafaa (1952) that he did with the three, as well as masterpieces like Aarti (1962), Gumrah (1963), Bandini (1963) and Pakeezah (1972).

In the late 1960s, after nearly two decades as a leading man, he started playing character roles, but they were always dignified and never without charm — the sympathetic lawyer in Mamta (1966), the smooth villain in Jewel Thief (1967), and in the crowning glory of his career, the misunderstood husband and father pining for his daughter in Aashirwad (1968) — in which he sang the rap number Rail gaadi, before rap was invented — and the great comic caper Victoria No 203 (1972) in which he paired up with Pran as one half of a duo of petty criminals.

By the 1980s, when he played father-in-law to Rekha in Khubsoorat (1980), he was the industry’s “Dadamoni” — a beloved grandfather. This was also when he did the sweet romantic drama Khatta Meetha (1981) and raunchy comedy Shaukeen (1982).

Age was catching up with him, but he was always in high spirits and exhibited utmost professionalism. His roles as the sutradhar of the pioneering television soap opera Hum log (1984) and as the beleaguered last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar kept him steady.

He passed away at the age of 90, after winning innumerable honours, lifetime achievement awards, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, and a Padma Bhushan, for his contribution to Indian cinema. His massive filmography lists over 275 films, over a career rich with a multitude of characters that never let a great actor ever get typecast. Whenever there was any danger of getting repetitive, he had the chameleon-like ability to reinvent himself and surprise the audience.

Because Ashok Kumar belonged to a pre-fanzine generation, he was not perceived as glamorous; also, actors of his time kept away from gossip and scandal, preferring to project a clean image to the world. As interest in film history and classic cinema waned, Ashok Kumar’s immense body of excellent work was also pushed out of memory, but even his minor films are lessons in acting, voice modulation, and elegance.

There is an amusing story about him; while shooting with Dilip Kumar in Duniya (1984), Ashok Kumar observed the meticulous method actor run around the location till he was out of breath before shooting a scene in which he was supposed to pant. He quipped, “Why doesn’t he try actingIJ” Ashok Kumar, who never wanted to become an actor, went on to become a legend.


Manto and Ashok

Ashok Kumar was an unlikely superstar. The first scene of his debut film, Jeevan Naiya, needed him to put a necklace on Devika Rani, the leading actress of her era. He was very nervous and ran to the toilet every few minutes. It took many shots and lots of encouragement from the more experienced heroine before he got it right.

Ashok Kumar’s original name, “Kumudlal”, was deemed unsuitable for a hero. So, he started using the name Ashok Kumar Ganguly, but by the time that the shooting was over, ‘Ganguly’ was dropped too. He was our first ‘Kumar’ and many have followed over the years, dropping caste and regional names.

Eminent Urdu scholar Saadat Hasan Manto recalls in his memoirs, Stars from Another Sky: The Bombay Film World of the 1940s: “On the eve of Partition, Hindu-Muslim riots had begun, and as wickets fall in cricket matches, so were people dying. There were big fires everywhere... One day Ashok and I were returning from Bombay Talkies. We stopped at his place, where I stayed for several hours, and then he offered to drop me home in the evening. He took a short-cut through a Muslim neighbourhood. A wedding procession led by a band was approaching us from the other side of the street. I was horrified.”

Manto asked, “Dadamoni, why have you come hereIJ” To this the actor told him not to worry. “He knew what I was thinking. But it failed to calm my nerves. We were in an area that no Hindu would dare enter. And the whole world knew Ashok was a Hindu, a very prominent Hindu at that, whose murder would create shock waves. I could remember neither prayers in Arabic nor an appropriate verse from the Quran. But I was cursing myself and praying in broken words, ‘O God, don’t let me be dishonoured... let no Muslim kill Ashok because if that happens, I will carry that guilt to my grave. I am not the entire Muslim nation. I am only an individual but I do not want the Hindu nation to curse me forever and ever if something happens to Ashok’,” writes Manto.

When the procession reached the car, some people spotted Ashok Kumar and began to scream, “Ashok Kumar... Ashok Kumar.” Manto went cold. “Ashok had his hands on the steering wheel and he was very quiet. I was about to scream to the crowd that I was a Muslim and Ashok was taking me home when two young men stepped forward and said, ‘Ashok bhai, this street will lead you nowhere. It is best to turn into this side lane’.”

Manto was shocked. “Ashok bhaiIJ If Ashok was their brother, then who was IIJ I looked at my clothes which were homespun cotton... had they thought I was another HinduIJ Or had they not even noticed me because of AshokIJ When we got out of the area, I thanked God. Ashok laughed. ‘You were nervous for nothing. These people never harm artists,’ he said.” Such was the stardom and appeal of Ashok Kumar.

The writer is a veteran film writer and historian

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