Today is the 110th birthday of the great man. And sadly, by a quirk of destiny, the 34th death anniversary of his youngest sibling. He was being trained to be a lawyer, and thankfully didn’t pursue that career, instead he used a sabbatical he took, seeking refuge with his sister Satidevi and brother in law Sashadhar Mukherjee to effect a change in career course. From taking up a job as a technician with Himanshu Rai’s Malad based Bombay Talkies, he was accidentally (and almost without a choice) made a leading actor, without any formal training nor experience, due to Himanshu Rai getting rid of the previous incumbent who had tried to spirit his wife, the leading actress of the day, Devika Rani, in Jeevan Naiya, a film that was under production. Najm ul Hasan got a boot from Himanshu Rai, who anointed Kumudlal Ganguly on a whim to be the male lead. He sent out a strong signal to Devika Rani , as well as the director Franz Osten (who didn’t think Kumudlal had the looks or talent to become a film hero). Himanshu Rai christened Kumudlal Ganguly for films and launched him as Ashok Kumar. Arguably he was Himanshu Rai’s greatest legacy apart from spawning great production houses. Filmistan was formed by Sashadhar babu hiving off teams from Bombay Talkies, and later Filmalaya was similarly created by him by separation from Filmistan.
Ashok Kumar tasted success as an actor and how!! He acted in conventional lead roles (romantic singing actor as was the norm then). The Gyan Mukherjee directed movie Kismet made during WWII times, featuring Ashok Kumar (amazingly bold decision at the time) as the first anti-hero in the history of Bollywood, smashed all existing box office records, becoming the first Hindi movie to gross 1 crore at the box office. The success of Kismet made Ashok Kumar the first superstar of Indian cinema. Such was his popularity at the time that, in the words of Saadat Hasan Manto, “Ashok Kumar’s popularity grew with each passing day. He seldom ventured out, but wherever he was spotted, he was mobbed. Traffic would come to a stop and often the police would have to use lathis to disperse his fans.”
Ashok Kumar remained amazingly versatile and his readiness to take on any kind of role stood him in good stead, there was never any staleness in his acting and he undoubtedly contributed to a prolongation and enriching of his legendary professional career. Who could have thought of doing a comic caper of sorts in Victoria 203 with an equally capable (& almost similarly old) Pran? The roles reduced the lead pair of Navin Nischol and Saira Banu (the latter even had to go through a titillating scene in the movie) into insignificance. Or the unforgettable role in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Khubsoorat with Rekha? (Does anyone even remember that Rakesh Roshan was the notional male lead in the movie??)
I can never forget his roles in movies like Bandini and my favourite tearjerker Aashirwad. His versatility is shown from this amazing song from Aashirwad, which will always appeal to every child, irrespective of age. https://youtu.be/Gw092yHKX7I
Isn’t it sad that the apple of his eye, his youngest sibling, Abhas Kumar Ganguly that the world knows by his screen name, Kishore Kumar should pass away on this very day in 1987, at a way-too-young age of 58 just as guests were gathering for Ashok Kumar’s birthday party? The tragedy broke Dadamuni’s spirit and he never celebrated his birthday for the next 14 years that he was with us. Amazingly despite his preeminent position and enviable success and riches, he brought up his children with simplicity, giving them middle class values.
13th October concentrates on an outpouring of grief for the flamboyant and multifaceted quirky genius that Kishore Kumar undoubtedly was. People tend to forget the gentle giant and highly respected Dadamuni, the very reason I opted to concentrate on him. There will never be another one like him. My eternal respect for this amazing, complete actor in the truest sense.
Stay safe, folks. Stay healthy and happy. Take the jab, if you’ve not already done it.