Ashok Kumar was 90 when he died on Monday, 10 December. Of these, he spent at least 62 years in the film industry, first as a camera assistant, then as a singing actor, then as a very popular anti-hero and finally as a 'character' actor doing the roles of uncle or father, or in a rare departure, as an old lech in Shaukeen (1982). He also taught acting at his daughter Priti Ganguly's school.
Ashok Kumar was born on 13 October 1911 in Bhagalpur, a town that was to become notorious later for a brutal police blinding of prison undertrials. His father, Kunjalal Ganguly and mother Gouri Rani Devi, travelled around quite a bit. Ashok Kumar spent his early years in this Bihar town. The family then moved to Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh.
In his last days he was troubled by asthma, and lived in his Chembur bungalow. His dialogue delivery in many of his '80s and '90s films had become a little whiny and breathy, and the dancer and TV host Javed took great delight in mimicking his gestures and style. But Ashok Kumar is recognised as an actor who broke away from the heavy theatrical style then popular in Indian cinema to pioneer a 'natural' style.
With his two brothers -- Anoop, Kishore -- he acted in the hit Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi. Kishore was to become one of the Indian film music industry's all-time greats. Ashok was 19 years older than Kishore, and the younger brother often wondered as a boy why his hero-brother acted in tear-jerkers rather than in swashbuckling adventures.
Gouri Rani took her son Ashok to the tent cinema, although this wasn't something his father approved of. Ashok Kumar got an opportunity to watch more films after he finished his B Sc in Jabalpore and when went to Calcutta to study law. Around 1934, he decided he wanted to direct films, and made a trip to his brother-in-law Sasadhar Mukherjee in Bombay.
To his luck, Himanshu Rai of Bombay Talkies hired him as a camera and lab assistant, which the elder Bengali considered the first step to the teaching of the craft of direction. Eight months later, when Himanshu Rai had launched Jeevan Naiyya with Devika Rani, his hero Najmul Hussein disappeared four days before the start of shooting, and a furious Himanshu Rai replaced him with Ashok Kumar.
Ashok Kumar and his heroine Devika Rani become a hit pair with their next film, Achut Kanya, which stood out for its daring subject. He played a brahmin in love with an untouchable girl. Ashok Kumar sang the famous song Main ban ke chidya in this film, in a sort of childlike and unsophisticated voice, but that didn't stop it from becoming a much remembered number. As playback singing came into vogue, he later gave up singing. Incidentally, his heroine Devika married the famous Russian painter Roerich and settled down in Bangalore to a long retired life, and in her last few years turned neurotic, haunted by fears of who would snatch her huge estate and wealth.
In 1943 Ashok Kumar left Bombay Talkies to found a new production company, Filmistan, with Sasadhar Mukherjee. In a year from then, he had signed 30 films, and become a huge star. In Kismet, he played an anti-hero, a stylish pickpocket who outwits the police and escapes in a whiff of smoke. This genre was to gain ground in Bombay cinema later. He acted as an arrogant playboy in Afsana (1951).
During his Bombay Talkies years, he acted in films like Mahal, Majboor, Mashaal and Ziddi. Under his own banner he made Maa, Kalpana and Meri Soorat Teri Aankhen.
In Meri Surat Teri Aankhen (1963), the movingly rendered Manna Dey number Poocho na kaise in raga Ahir Bhairav was filmed on a blind Ashok Kumar. He teamed up with Pran and did the comedy Victoria No 203.
When the television era dawned in India, Kishore Kumar became a household presence again with the mega serial Hum Log. He continued to do good-natured roles as in Gol Maal and Khubsoorat, and received the Dada Saheb Phalke Award in 1989. His last film was released in 1995.
on 12 December 2001
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