Silhouette presents an excerpt from Dadamoni: Life and Times of Ashok Kumar, an authoritative biography of the thespian by screen writer and director Nabendu Ghosh, published by Speaking Tiger.
By Nabendu Ghosh
When Ashok Kumar and Savak Vacha took over the leadership of Bombay Talkies they shouldered the burden of Rs 28 lakh to be paid to the debtors. It was a public limited company. During the board meetings various malpractices and defalcations came to light. One of the directors had an umbrella shop and he had sold 1200 umbrellas to Bombay Talkies!! Another had a sari shop and had sold several hundred saris to the company!
Ashok said to Vacha, “We are trapped but we must steer through it carefully, we have to make films with low budgets.”
“Right Dadamoni,” Vacha nodded gravely.
‘Dadamoni’—another name for Ashok Kumar—started to circulate in the industry since then. Before that only Sasadhar Mukherjee, his wife Sati Rani and Ashok’s younger brothers, Anoop and Kishore addressed him by that name.
There was a reason why Vacha started to call him Dadamoni. Earlier, when Ashok was Vacha’s assistant in the lab, he would call him ‘Ashok.’ But when Ashok became the boss of Bombay Talkies, Vacha hesitated to address him by his first name. And ‘Mr Ganguly’ would rob them of their intimacy. One day during this dilemma Sati Rani stopped by to visit Ashok. Vacha heard her address him as ‘Dadamoni’ and liked the word very much. His problem too was solved.
‘Dadamoni’ denoted brotherhood. It denoted both nearness and dearness, respect and love. As he started to address him ‘Dadamoni’ the word was taken up by the whole industry —nay, the whole country. It resounded in the paan-shops as much as in the palaces.
Bombay Talkies had once employed a director named Nazir Ajmeri. But he’d made no film before he opted for Pakistan. He had once narrated a story which lingered in Ashok’s memory after he shifted following the Partition. So he called Ajmeri and from his story started making Majboor, the first production under Dadamoni’s stewardship. The hero was an actor named Shyam and the heroine was Munawar Sultan.
This was happening in 1948, when India was convulsed with communal riots. The talents Ashok had selected for the new phase in Bombay Talkies were the acclaimed Urdu writer Sadat Hasan Manto, Kamal Amrohi, Shahid Latif, his wife Ismat Chughtai, Hasrat Lucknawi, Nazim Panipati, music director Ghulam Haider, and of course Nazir Ajmeri. All Muslims. This antagonized the Hindu workers, then racked by the riots and traumatized by the post-Partition sense of loss.
Sadat Hasan Manto writes about the times in Meena Bazaar. He had cautioned Ashok Kumar about the feelings of the Hindu workers, he writes. Refusing to pay any attention to his words, Ashok had simply laughed. But there were threats that Bombay Talkies would be burnt down. “This is all madness,” Ashok had said to Manto. “I’m sure everything will settle down gradually.”
Instead the situation worsened.
One day Manto came to Ashok’s house and they talked late into the night. So Ashok went to drop Manto to his house, and trying to take a shortcut he drove through a Muslim locality.
At that moment a marriage procession was coming up. Manto panicked at the thought that they might hurt Ashok since he was a Hindu. He started to pray.
The car had to stop to make way for the procession, and people recognized Ashok. They started chanting his name—“Ashok Kumar! Ashok Kumar!!”
Manto was gearing up to fight in case the crowd misbehaved with Ashok, when two youths came forward and said, “Ashokbhai, this road is blocked, please go out by the lane on the left.”
“Shukriya Bhailog!” Ashok responded and followed the direction. When they were out of the neighbourhood Ashok laughed. “Manto,” he said, “people do not question artistes. They are neither Hindus nor Muslims.”
Ashok had inherited his father’s faith about Hindu Muslim integration. The riots subsided gradually as he had maintained, and when Majboor released it celebrated a Silver Jubilee.
Shahid Latif, Ismat Chughtai and Sadat Hasan Manto sat down with Ashok to create a story for the next film which was to be directed by Shahid. They all requested Ashok to play the hero opposite Kamini Kaushal. But he said nothing, only smiled. He had no desire to act at that time.
While smoking a cigarette he went out to the garden and as he threw away the stub he noticed a handsome young man seated there.
“Why are you seated here?” Ashok asked. “What do you want?”
“Sir, my name is Dev Anand,” the young man stood up and said. “I’m an actor, and I want a job.”
“Have you acted before?” Ashok quizzed him. “Are you acting in any film right now?”
“I acted in one film which did not do well,” he informed Ashok. “I have no work now.”
Ashok looked at the young man sympathetically. “Come with me,” he said and took him to Shahid Latif. “Meet this young man Shahid,” he said, “he may answer your requirement.”
“I’ll see,” Shahid said and Ashok went back to his room.
Soon Shahid, Ismat and Manto trooped in. “Dadamoni,” Shahid said, “I insist that you do the role.”
“Yes Dadamoni,” Manto echoed him, “this role has been tailored for you and you alone.”
Ashok said, “Don’t think about me but tell me, does the young man suit your requirement to the maximum?”
Shahid shook his head. “No Dadamoni, he looks like a chocolate bar.” The other two repeated the word ‘chocolate’ to convey that the young man was handsome, yes, but expressionless.
Ashok said, “No, I don’t agree. He is not as much of a chocolate as I was. You have to work with him.”
The three vociferously argued on but Ashok was adamant. “No, I’m not mentally fit for any work now,” he said. “Let that chap Dev Anand do the role, I will stand behind him.” That was the last word and Dev Anand was cast as the hero of Ziddi, made in 1948.
Nitin Bose is a shining name in the annals of Indian cinema. He had directed classics at New Theatres and was a superb technician who had rendered pioneering service to the film craft.
Ashok invited Nitin Bose to Bombay Talkies, and he made Samar in 1949.
Next year he made Mashal. This time Ashok acted opposite Sumitra Devi of New Theatres and Ruma Devi, a niece of Satyajit Ray who would later become Kishore Kumar’s first wife. Sachin Dev Burman had scored the music for Filmistan’s Shikari but three years later he was still unable to make a place for himself in Bombay. He decided to go back to Bengal and came to bid goodbye to Ashok. “Score the music for Mashal and then go back,” Ashok told him. S.D.Burman composed the music and the songs became so popular that Bombay made him a prisoner for life.
Arvind Sen, a new director, made Muqaddar starring a new face, Nalini Jaywant. Ashok Kumar then assigned the direction of Tamasha to Phani Mazumdar, another renowned director of New Theatres who had made Bengali hits like Street Singer, Kapal Kundala, Sapera and Doctor. Mazumdar’s Tamasha paired upcoming actress Meena Kumari with Dev Anand.
Ashok now invited Bimal Roy, then the craze of Bengali cinegoers for Udayer Pathey. The first NT super hit after Chandidas, it had introduced social realism and the clash between capitalism and trade unionism. The film made its mark in its Hindi version, Humrahi, as well for its masterly handling of story, situations, dialogue and performances. Moreover, every film of Roy was brilliant in terms of cinematography, for at base he was a cameraman. Before leaving Calcutta he had made Anjangarh and Pahela Aadmi, regarding Netaji’s INA.
Bimal Roy came down with his crew and made Maa with Bharat Bhushan and Shyama. It was a silver jubilee hit.
In 1950 Ashok Kumar invited Gyan Mukherjee of Kismet fame to make a film. This time they planned to go off the trodden path. In a total contrast to the goody-goody roles he had done so far, Ashok Kumar would play a negative role. One where the character does the opposite what is done by a ‘hero’ – things that are wrong, things prohibited by law.
So this story unfolded around a handsome young man who does everything that is frowned upon by society. He was the son of an honest police officer but he gambled, extorted money, abducted the girl he loved from her marriage hall, shot down a policeman and is finally shot down by his father.
Ashok knew his audience loved him, adored him, idealized and even idolized him. Yet the artiste in him felt challenged to play this ‘repulsive’ character to prove his artistic range. The man who had once hated the thought of acting was by now in love with acting, having tasted the rasa of merging with a character.
Sangram was perhaps the first film about an angry young man, which seems to be the modern trend. A well-crafted mixture of sex and violence, it became a hit. All the theatres showing it ran to full house for 16 continuous weeks. People would rag police constables on the streets saying, ‘Go see how Ashok Kumar has taken you to task.’
Piqued police officers reported this to the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Morarji Desai.
He summoned Dadamoni and said, “You have to do two things Mr Ashok Kumar. First, you must withdraw the film from cinema houses –tomorrow. The second: I request you to play the role of an honest police inspector.”
Sangram was thus banned in Maharashtra after the 16th week. Ashok Kumar did not protest, he felt happy that the audience had accepted him in a negative role. He had laid bare another dimension of his acting capability.
For three consecutive years after he took over Bombay Talkies, from 1947 to 1949, Ashok Kumar did not accept any outside film roles. Nor did he act in every Bombay Talkies production although he was the most popular hero of the day, constantly chased by producers. The reason lay in his own character: He was serious about anything he took up.
During those three years Ashok did not seek anything for himself. Whatever he did then was for his love, Bombay Talkies. His ambition was to breathe life into the flagging institution. He invited the best directors, artists, writers and the best music directors to work for the house. He would write scenes, discuss, sit-in at editing, listen to music, explain scenes by demonstrating to artistes how to act but never hankered after credit for all he did.
His love for Bombay Talkies percolated down to all the workers of the concern. Everyone stayed in Malad and considered each other as the members of one big family.
At that time he was perhaps unconsciously seized with the ambition of playing God.
Everything is temporal. Even an institution.
Majboor, Ziddi, Mahal, Muqaddar, Mashal, Tamasha, Sangram, Maa: these films ran to packed houses and earned good money. But out of the outstanding Rs 28 lakh, Rs 3 lakh were still unpaid! Did it mean that no profit had been earned after all these films?
When they sat down with the account books Ashok detected corruption and shameless dishonesty. The accountant had procured Ashok’s signature on blank papers and removed huge sums. Besides many other discrepancies, he found that handsome allowances were remitted every month to someone’s mistress!
Ashok felt outraged. Out of disgust he started to pay off the outstanding sum from his own pocket. He sold off his shares at throwaway prices and bid adieu to his love, in 1953.
Those who took control of Bombay Talkies were neither fit nor imaginative enough to run the concern. They lost interest and Bombay Talkies went into liquidation.
Life moved on to the next page in the history of Indian films. For everything that is born under the sun must die. Even institutions.
Excerpted with permission from Dadamoni: Life and Times of Ashok Kumar
Author: Nabendu Ghosh
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
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