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Ashok Kumar – The First Superstar of the Indian Talkie

October 13, 2020 | By

Legendary actor Ashok Kumar left behind an indelible mark in Indian cinema as someone who could effortlessly step into any role. From the shy, gawky lad of Jeevan Naiyya, 1936 to his first negative role in the box-office smasher Kismat, 1943; from playing the charismatic hero to essaying any kind of character role, Ashok Kumar made acting look simple, spontaneous and natural. SMM Ausaja pays tribute to the legend, fondly called “Dadamoni‘ (which means gem of a brother).

Ashok Kumar

Ashok Kumar, fondly called ‘Dadamoni’

The 2000s have several megastars, the 90s had Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan sharing the limelight, the 80s had Amitabh Bachchan, the 70s had Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, the 60s and 50s had Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor sharing honors with Dharmendra, Shammi Kapoor and Rajendra Kumar. No one talks about the 30s and 40s. The man who ruled the box office in these decades, and continued his charm the following years in none other than Ashok Kumar, endearingly called ‘Dadamoni’ within the film fraternity. His enormous contribution to Hindi cinema is largely unsung for inexplicable reasons.

Born Kumudlal Ganguly in Bhagalpur (Bihar) on October 13th, 1911, Ashok Kumar was a product of Presidency College, Calcutta. In 1936, Himanshu Rai of Bombay Talkies launched Ashok Kumar in Jeevan Naiya. Ashok worked as a lab assistant in Bombay Talkies, and when the lead hero of Jeevan Naiya eloped with actress Devika Rani, Rai replaced him with Ashok starting a resplendent career lasting almost six decades.

Ashok introduced a natural style of acting quite divergent from the theatrical form prevalent in the 30s. Jeevan Naiya was declared a hit, and this followed six successive hits including Achhut Kanya, Savitri and Izzat, leading to a meteoric rise of an actor into mega stardom. Achhut Kanya is memorable for its theme of untouchability and the song Main ban ka panchhi… filmed on Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani.

Achhyut Kanya

Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani starred in the superhit Achhyut Kanya

In 1940, on the silver jubilee of Bandhan in Lahore, Ashok Kumar was accorded a hero’s welcome at Nishat cinema. Amidst the huge crowd was Dev Anand trying to get a glimpse of his favorite hero, but couldn’t. In 1943 Ashok Kumar smashed all records with Bombay Talkies’ Kismat, which proved to be the biggest success of Hindi cinema all the way till G P Sippy’s Sholay in 1975! It was also his first negative role.

Once he became a huge star, he got a stake in the prestigious Bombay Talkies where he launched the success of several actors including Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. He signed Dev Anand for Ziddi at a time when the latter was struggling to for a hit. Ziddi (1948) gave Dev Anand stardom, which was reaffirmed with Guru Dutt’s Baazi.

Ashok Kumar ruled the forties. Bandhan (1940), Anjan and Jhoola (1941), Kismet (1943), Chal Chal Re Naujawan (1944), Humayun (1945), Shikari (1946), Sajan (1947), Padmini (1948) and Mahal in 1949 were huge hits.

Dilip Kumar, Ashok Kumar and Raj Kapoor

Dilip Kumar, Ashok Kumar and Raj Kapoor

Even when Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor were emerging as the new heart-throbs on the horizon, Ashok Kumar held his own with memorable hits all through the fifties. Sangram and Samadhi in 1950 with his favorite actress Nalini Jaywant were super-successful, with Ashok Kumar playing a freedom fighter in the latter. He shared acting honors with Dilip Kumar in Deedar (1951) and in the same year did Afsana for B R Chopra in which he had a double role. This film was later remade with Dilip Kumar as Dastaan, and failed.

Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari

Ashok Kumar launched Ashok Kumar Productions with his first venture Parineeta, based on a story by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay.

In 1952, Betaab and Nau Bahar did well, while 1953 had him working in Bimal Roy’s classic Sarat Chandra adaptation Parineeta with Meena Kumari. A superb performance.

Bombay Talkies closed in 1954 with Baadbaan being its last film with Ashok Kumar and Dev Anand leading the cast. It was made to help the workers of the studio and none of its stars had charged money. The same year Naaz was released which was extensively shot abroad. In 1955, Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari surprised the audience with their delightful comedy in Bandish.

baadban

Meena Kumari, Dev Anand, Usha Kiron and Ashok Kumar in Baadban (Pic: Facebook)

After Bhai Bhai (1956) Ashok Kumar teamed once more with brother Kishore Kumar taking Anoop Kumar as well to create magic with Madhubala in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) an unforgettable comedy made in the country featuring the Ganguly brothers.

Ashok Kumar’s notable films in the 60s include Kanoon (1960) a songless taut drama by B R Chopra, Rajshri’s Aarti with Meena Kumari and Burma Road (1962). In 1963, he once again joined hands with Bimal Roy for Bandini, a milestone of his career. He did this film amidst strained relationship with the celebrated director, and gave a marvelous performance, and his cameo in Ye Raaste Hain Pyar Ke was the most talked about aspect of the film besides the beautiful Leela Naidu. Meena Kumari complimented his stature as an actor in many ways and their team worked wonders in Benazir, Chitralekha (both 1964) and Bheegi Raat (1965).

Amitabh Bachchan and Ashok Kumar

Amitabh Bachchan and Ashok Kumar in Mahaan (1983)

Ashok Kumar excelled as an actor as the decade progressed. Mamta (1966) with Suchitra Sen, Bahu Begam (1967) with Meena Kumari, and Navketan’s Jewel Thief (1967) made him the icon of histrionics in the eyes of talented directors.

Ashok Kumar, Satyajit Ray and Kishore Kumar

Ashok Kumar, Satyajit Ray and Kishore Kumar

Alongside, in Bengal, his few but notable films were winning critical acclaim. Hospital, 1960, where he was paired Suchitra Sen, who would later co-star with him in Mamta, is still remembered especially for that ethereal song by Geeta Dutt, Eyi shundor swarnali sandhyaye. Tapan Sinha’s award-winning Haatey Baajarey (In the marketplace) (1967) was another performance that won many hearts.

Eyi shundor swarnali sandhyaye (Hospital, 1960) Amal Mukherjee / Gouriprasanna Majumdar / Geeta Dutt

He gradually switched to character roles as age advanced, but even in such roles he made a niche for himself, which was irreplaceable with any other actor. The process started with Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Aashirwad (1968) in which his rap song Rail gaadi chhuk chhuk became a rage with kids.

He continued to enthrall his fans in 70s as well as 80s. Films like Pakeezah (1971), Victoria No.203 (1972), Chhoti si Baat (1975), Mili (1975), Arjun Pandit (1976), Anurodh (1977), Safed Jhoot (1977), Khatta Meetha (1977), Khubsoorat (1980), Shaukeen (1982), Mahaan (1983), and Duniya (1984) are truly memorable.  His name appeared first in the Shakti (1982) credits, although he had just a single scene cameo! That was the respect he commanded in the industry.

Ashok Kumar in Aashirwad

Ashok Kumar in Aashirwad

Ashok Kumar in Anand Ashram

Ashok Kumar’s was a multifaceted personality. He was a painter and a homeopath when he didn’t act. He helped several actors and directors gain foothold in the industry. His narration of TV serial Hum Log is still remembered, so is his appearance as Bahadur Shah Zafar in a historical made for Doordarshan. His last film was Aaakhon Mein Tum Ho in 1997. He died at the age of ninety in Mumbai on December 10, 2001.

Vijayendra, Ashok Kumar and Zareena Wahab

Vijayendra, Ashok Kumar and Zareena Wahab in Anpadh (1978)

(Pictures are courtesy SMM Ausaja Archives)

More to read

Ashok Kumar: A Colossus of Indian Cinema

Hrishikesh Mukherjee: In a Humane Genre of His Own

Nabendu Ghosh: The Master of Screen Writing

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Film historian, author and archivist of vintage film memorabilia SMM Ausaja is Sr Vice President of Osianama, the world’s largest art and cinema archive online. Based in Mumbai, Ausaja has collected, preserved, archived and restored a phenomenal collection of posters, movie stills, song synopsis booklets, lobby cards, glass slides, post cards, LP records and other film memorabilia over the last two and a half decades. He is the author of Bollywood in Posters and has co-authored Bollywood: The Films! The Songs! The Stars! He can be contacted on smmausaja@hotmail.com
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2 thoughts on “Ashok Kumar – The First Superstar of the Indian Talkie

  • A Bharat

    It was hightime someone knowledgeable thought of writing about this giant of the silver screen. The words which spring to mind when thinking about him are “unobtrusive” “laid back” “simple” and so on. He was in that respect similar to another icon Balraj Sahni.

    As the writer very correctly puts it no one remembers his 30s and 40s triumphs despite the fact that he never left the stage at all for half a century, seemingly unchanged in appearance.

    For me the best of Ashok Kumar roles were in Kismat and Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi. both light-hearted and in the latter he is far more funnier than Kishore Kumar! Need one say more? Well one can. Who can forget the chilling scene of this “Unobtrusive” man strangling the lecherous villain in Haatey Baajaarey?

  • Pingback: Carnival of Blogs on Golden Era of Hindi Film Music – October 2020 – The world is too small? or Is it?

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