From a reluctant starter to be eventually crowned as the most accomplished actor of the Hindi screen ever. Forcibly cast as the leading man in Bombay Talkies’ Jeevan Naiya, 1936 (where he worked as a lab assistant) by the legendary Himanshu Rai, Kumudlal Kunjlal Ganguly—a graduate from Presidency College, Calcutta—(rechristened Ashok Kumar), son of a lawyer, was born in Bhagalpur, grew up in Khandwa (Madhya Pradesh) went on to dominate for at least nearly the next six decades first as a leading man and then as a character actor, notwithstanding enacting negative characters. He was the richest, and the highest paid actor of his time, towering above everyone else once he came onto his own. At the peak of career, he owned 17 expensive cars.
Landing up in Bombay, he holed up with his brother-in-law, Sashadhar Mukherjee (later a towering producer) who then worked as a sound engineer with famous recording studios, he worked in films. Mukherjee took him to meet Himanshu Rai of Bombay Talkies. The studio boss instantly made him face the camera to disastrous results but was hired as camera assistant on a princely salary of Rs 150 a month. Kumudlal Kunjlal Ganguly alias Ashok Kumar was barely 22 years old. But soon there was a crisis in the studios. The next film was ready to go on the sets when Rai’s wife, Devika Rani eloped with the Muslim hero. She was forced to come back, but the hero given the marching orders, and replaced by, despite the earlier failed screen test, Ashok Kumar was asked to apply grease paint. The success of Jeevan Naiya set in a chain reaction, and a series of hits starring the two together took the nation by the proverbial storm. Achhut Kanya, Izzat, Savitri (1937), Nirmala (1938). Playing almost a second fiddle in these films, he came into his own with Leela Chitnis as heroine in Kangan, Bandhan and Jhoola (1939-41). But it was Kismet (43) that proved to be the turning point. There was no looking back until he switched over to character roles with. But he made sure he was never typecast.
He also became a producer with Bombay Talkies. Mahal (49) with Madhubala. Husanlal Bhagat Ram’s music making it a haunting success, the song Aye ga, aye ga aanewala aye ga, continuing to be a perennial favourite of music lovers. It also established the struggling writer, Kamal Amrohi as a director though his output remained limited. In all he acted in nearly 300 films, maximum starrers being opposite, both in lead and otherwise, with Meena Kumari (14). And though his earliest heroines were Devika Rani (8) and Leela Chitnis (4), it was only with the latter that he forged a successful on-screen alliance. Amongst his earlier heroines who, though married fell head over heels in love with him, was Nalini Jaywant with whom beginning with Sangram (1950) he went on to star in as many as ten films, mostly between 1950-55, the last being Nanabhai Bhatt’s fantasy Mr X with which the romance also seemingly disappeared. Interestingly, the story of Mr X continues to inspire film-makers even today. His last film with Bombay Talkies had been Baadbaan in which he co-starred with Dev Anand and Meena Kumari, and the proceeds of which were used to pay off the workers’ salaries pending settlement.
Dadamoni was an extremist, a dependable friend, visibly gentleman to the core, a romantic idol he was not unduly romantic though later in the day he went onto become one of the greatest womanisers in the game. It was a case of from the sublime to the ridiculous, a transformation from gentleman hero to a lecherous villain. A conservative and cautious guy to begin with. According to his authorised biographer, Kishore Valicha: “There were the women, sophisticated and ambitious, on the one hand, and glamour-struck or even love-struck, on the other… they approached him willingly… more ambitious ones sought favours… quite a few wanted something bigger, more powerful. A few sold for money… felt safe as long as he was dealing with money and with pleasure.” The change was largely due to an upsetting and oppressive atmosphere at home for which he was himself largely responsible. To quote Valicha again: “Ashok Kumar generally went in the company of his wife to these occasions (parties)… Gradually… Shobha’s rigid moral code began to loosen. She too felt drawn to pleasure; in her case it took the form of a drink…. Ashok Kumar often rebuked her openly… Each time he admonished her, he called her a dipsomaniac… wife’s alcoholism was perhaps the only escape she knew… Ashok Kumar tried everything except see her as a person who was sick and who was in need of treatment.”
It was as a consequence of this frustration that he sought the company of women, yet cautious not to break the family. Now sex was the only escape, and he gave in to the pleasures of the flesh with gay abandon, and these women “were dancers, actresses and socialites. Ashok Kumar slept with women whose number he lost count of”. Unable to cope up with pressures, much to the dismay of the family, Ashok Kumar eventually decided to live alone, and shifted into a bungalow in Chembur which he had bought during the shooting of Kalpana directed by Rakhan co-starring the Travencore sisters, Ragini and Padmini, and produced by him. The remake of a Marathi flop, it was only a moderate success in Hindi. Unfortunately, almost all his forays as a producer at different times in his distinguished career, except the early Bombay Talkies production, proved turtle at the box office.
Ashok Kumar died at the age of 90 in Mumbai. He had altogether starred in over 275 films. In his later years he also turned an avid painter, and a practitioner of homeopathic medicine. A short documentary had been made on the legendary actor.
By Suresh Kohli