The life and times of the ‘Dadamoni’ of Indian cinema
He was a shy man with average looks, definitely not the Bollywood type; yet destiny had other plans for Ashok Kumar who got into showbiz by chance and never looked back. As the late actor’s 100th birth anniversary dawns Thursday, film historians and fans remember the ‘Dadamoni’ of Indian cinema. Born in a Bengali family October 13, 1911, he did his schooling from Presidency College in Kolkata, and graduated in sciences and law. Not quite starry-eyed, he came to Mumbai in 1936 in search of a job. He got the role of a lab assistant in the newly established Bombay Talkies. But one day film director Himanshu Rai was furious with the lead actor of his film who had vanished without informing him. On the spur of the moment, he laid his eyes on Ashok and wanted the man as the lead in his film Jeevan Naiya.
“Ashok Kumar was compelled to join films. He was working as a lab assistant in Bombay Talkies. He was very shy and not a hero type; he wasn’t that handsome either. He even cut his hair to escape this offer, but nothing worked. Finally, he had to give in and this is how he accidentally landed in Bollywood, and as they say, the rest is history,” said film historian Nalin Shah.
The accidental actor tasted real success with Achhut Kanya starring Devika Rani and the road ahead was smoother as he delivered hits like Kismet (1943), Parineeta (1953), Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958), Khoobsurat (1980) and Khatta Meetha (1981), building a strong fan base all along. He has also lent his voice to songs like Main ban ki chidiya and Rail gaadi.
His unconventional and average looks never posed a problem for the actor. His personal life, however, was troubled as his wife Shobha was reportedly an alcoholic. “In an era when handsome and good looking actors were popular, Ashok Kumar with his unconventional looks surpassed everyone and made his mark. He went on to do very good films. He not only became a well-known character actor but he impressed all equally in main leads,” said film critic Ram Kishore Parcha. Noted film historian Gautam Kaul agrees with Parcha. “He was one of the first artistes of the Hindi cinema who did not rely on looks to prove his acting; neither did he go bare. He was not the typical Bollywood actor in terms of looks, but he had a very mature appearance,” said Parcha.
Ashok Kumar is also remembered as a good human being who helped his brothers – Anoop and Kishore – and some of his friends to get a break in the industry. “He was a pioneer in making the careers of many actors. He played a prominent part in framing the career of actor Moushumi Chatterjee. He even brought his brothers Anoop and Kishore on the silver screen. He was a very helpful man and enjoyed his life,” said Parcha.
In a span of over five decades, he worked in more than 300 films (Hindi and Bengali), and on the small screen as well. His role of a narrator in the TV serial Hum Log reinforced the common man’s fondness for him. His fine acting also won him four Filmfare awards, the Dadasaheb Phalke award in 1988 and the Padma Bhushan in 1998. But Kaul feels the versatile actor got his due only after he passed away in December in 2001 at the age of 90. “I think he started getting credit for his talent and his contribution in the cinema world after his death. He was the first to introduce the ‘fluid and relaxed’ way of acting on screen. He emoted naturally without any preparation,” he said.
For Diana Mathias, 25, a media professional, Ashok Kumar’s name immediately flashes the couplet and limericks he used to narrate in Hum Log. “I haven’t seen much of Ashok Kumar’s films but I will always remember him as the soul of Hum Log. He would appear at the end of each episode and deal with the story. I remember waiting for the couplet and limericks that he would recite while deliberating on the story,” she said.
A great believer in astrology, a practicing homeopath who treated friends for free and a painter, Ashok Kumar was much more than just an actor.