Ashok Kumar (Bengali: অশোক কুমার গাঙ্গুলী) (13 October 1911 – 10 December 2001), born Kumudlal Ganguly (Bengali: কুমুদলাল গাঙ্গুলী) and also fondly called Dadamoni (Bengali: দাদামণি), was an Indian film actor who attained iconic status in Indian cinema. He was honoured in 1988 with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest national award for cinema artists, by the Government of India and also received the Padma Bhushan the same year in 1998 for his contributions to Indian cinema. He is considered to be one of India’s finest ever actors, playing leading, negative and character roles with equal panache.
Ashok Kumar was born Kumudlal Ganguly in Bhagalpur, then in the Bengal Presidency and now lying in Bihar. His father, Kunjlal Ganguly, was a lawyer while his mother, Gouri Devi, was a home-maker. Kumudlal (as he was then known) was the eldest of four children. A couple of years younger to him was his only sister, Sati Devi, who was married at a very young age to Sashadhar Mukherjee and became the matriarch of a large “film family”. More than fourteen years younger than Kumudlal was his next brother, Kalyan (b.1926), who later took the screen name Anoop Kumar, and youngest of all was Abhas (b.1929), whose screen name was Kishore Kumar and who became a phenomenally successful playback singer of Hindi films. Although the eldest of the three brothers by several years, Ashok Kumar outlived his siblings. In fact, he stopped celebrating his birthday after his youngest brother, Kishore, died on that very day (Ashok’s birthday) in 1987.
The young Kumudlal was married to Shobha early into his acting career in a match arranged by their parents. Their lifelong marriage was a harmonious and conventional one, and despite his film career, the couple retained a middle-class outlook and value system, bringing up their children in a remarkably simple home. They were the parents of one son named Aroop Ganguly and three daughters named Bharati Patel, Rupa Verma and Preeti Ganguly. His eldest daughter, Bharati Patel, is the mother of the actress Anuradha Patel. His second daughter, Rupa Verma, is the wife of the actor and comedian Deven Verma. His youngest daughter, Preeti Ganguly, was the only one of his children to enter the film industry. She acted as a comedienne in several Hindi films during the 1970s, and died unmarried in 2012.
Reverently called Dadamoni (affectionate term for elder brother), Kumudlal Ganguly was born in Bhagalpur and educated at Presidency College of the University of Calcutta, Kolkata, where he studied to become a lawyer. However, his heart was not into his law studies. Ganguly was more interested in cinema, in which he dreamt of working as a technician.
It was the lure of cinema and the presence of his brother in Law Sashadhar Mukherjee in a fairly senior position in Bombay Talkies which prompted Kumudlal Ganguly to move to Bombay (Mumbai) in the mid 1930s, where he started off as a laboratory assistant in Bombay Talkies, one of the biggest film studios of that era.
Kumudlal Ganguly was happy working as a laboratory assistant, when his acting career started purely by accident. Shooting was already underway of the Bombay Talkies production Jeevan Naiya in 1936, when the male lead Najmul Hassan eloped with his co star Devika Rani, who also happened to be the wife of studio head Himanshu Rai. Rani subsequently returned to her husband who, out of spite, dismissed Hassan and called upon Kumudlal Ganguly to replace him (against the advice of director Franz Osten, who reckoned that the young man did not have the looks needed for an actor). Ganguly was given the screen name Ashok Kumar, in keeping with the general trend in an era when actors concealed their real identities behind screen names.
Ashok Kumar, as Kumudlal Ganguly was now known, started off his acting career reluctantly. His subsequent venture with Devika Rani in Achhut Kanya the same year was one of the early blockbusters of Hindi cinema. Like several movies of that era Achhut Kanya was a reformist piece featuring a Brahmin boy falling in love with a girl from the so-called untouchables in Indian society. The runaway success of Achhut Kanya cemented Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani as the most popular on-screen couple of that era.
Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar in Achhut Kanya, 1936
The two did a string of films thereafter, including Janmabhoomi (1936) Izzat (1937), Savitri (1937), Vachan (1938) and ‘Nirmala’ (1938). Their last on-screen venture was the 1941 movie Anjaan, whose failure at the box office brought an end to the legendary on screen couple. All through, Devika Rani was the bigger star with Ashok Kumar working in her shadow.
He started emerging from Devika Rani’s considerable shadow owing to pairing opposite Leela Chitnis, another actress who was senior to him in age as well as stature. Back to back successes with Kangan (1939), Bandhan (1940) and Azad (1940) saw Ashok Kumar emerge as a popular actor in his own right. The success of Jhoola (1941), in which he starred opposite Leela Chitnis, established him as one of the most bankable actors of the era.
The Gyan Mukherjee directed 1943 movie Kismet, featuring Ashok Kumar as the first anti-hero in Indian Cinema 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 Manto) “Ashok’s popularity grew 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.”
Post Kismet, Ashok Kumar became the most bankable star of the era, delivering a succession of box office successes with movies like Chal Chal Re Naujawan (1944), Shikari (1946), Sajan (1947), Mahal (1949), Sangram (1950) and Samadhi (1950).
He produced several films for Bombay Talkies during the final years of the company including Ziddi (1948), which established the careers of Dev Anand and Pran, Neelkamal (1947), which marked the debut of Raj Kapoor, and the famous Mahal in 1949 in which he co-starred with Madhubala.
With the advent of the 1950s Ashok Kumar switched over to more mature roles, with the exception of the 1958 classic Howrah Bridge. Despite the arrival of a younger crop of stars like Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, Ashok Kumar remained one of the stars of the era with hits like Afsana (1951), Nau Bahar (1952), Parineeta (1953), Bandish (1955) and EK Hi Raasta (1956). His most successful film of that era was Deedar (1951), in which he played second fiddle to Dilip Kumar.
Ashok Kumar appeared in several movies opposite Meena Kumari and Nalini Jaywant (with whom he was rumoured to have an affair) in the 1950s. He played the suave cigarette-smoking criminal or police officer in several films in the mid to late 1950s, in what was the Indian film-noir movement.
By the 1960s, Ashok Kumar switched over to character roles, variously playing the parent, uncle or grandparent, being careful never to be typecast. From a judge in Kanoon (1960), an aging freedom fighter in Bandini (1963), an aging priest in Chitralekha (1964), a vicious zamindar in Jawaab (1970) and a criminal in Victoria 203 (1971), he played a wide variety of roles.
Ashok Kumar played an important role in several landmark movies in the 1960s and 1970s, including Jewel Thief (1967), Aashirwad (1968) (for which he won a Filmfare Award as well as National Award in 1969), Purab aur Pashchim (1970), Pakeezah (1972), Mili (1975), Chhoti Si Baat (1975) and Khoobsurat (1980).That was great Movie in the career of ashok Kumar.
He acted in fewer films in the 1980s and 1990s and occasionally appeared on television, most famously anchoring the first Indian soap opera Hum Log and appearing as the title character in the unforgettable Bahadur Shah Zafar. He is today largely remembered for his television appearances in the 1980s.
Ashok Kumar’s last film role was in the 1997 movie Aankhon Mein Tum Ho. Besides acting, he was an avid painter and a practitioner of homeopathy. A qualified homoeopath, Ashok Kumar earned a reputation for conjuring up miracle cures. Altogether, he starred in over 275 films. He has done more than 30 Bengali dramas in Dhakuria.
Ashok Kumar died at the age of 90 in Mumbai on 10 December 2001 of heart failure at his residence in Chembur. The then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee described him as “an inspiration… for many generations of aspiring actors.”
Ashok Kumar is widely regarded as a pioneering actor who introduced natural acting to Hindi cinema. He was the first superstar of Hindi cinema as well as the first lead actor to play an anti-hero. He also became the first star to reinvent himself, enjoying a long and hugely successful career as a character actor.
Ashok Kumar is also credited with mentoring several personalities who went on to make significant contributions to Indian cinema. As producer with Bombay Talkies, Ashok Kumar gave Dev Anand his first break in Ziddi (1948), which also established Pran (then a struggling actor who had just fled to India during partition) as one of the leading villains of the era. The 1949 film Mahal, starring Ashok Kumar and made under his watch at Bombay Talkies launched the career of Madhubala, one of the leading actresses of the 1950s. The legendary song ‘aayega aanewala’ from Mahal was the turning point in the career of a hitherto little known young singer called Lata Mangeshkar.
Off the screen, Ashok Kumar gave B.R. Chopra (then a film critic and unsuccessful filmmaker) his first break as director with the 1951 film Afsana. The success of Afsana established Chopra as a respected filmmaker. Ashok Kumar also played mentor to his assistant at Bombay Talkies, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who went on to become one of the great directors of Hindi cinema. He was the lucky mascot for a promising young director called Shakti Samanta in the late 1950s, delivering a series of hits with Inspector (1956), Howrah Bridge (1958) and Detective (1958) which helped the young man establish himself as a successful director. Shakti Samanta would go on to deliver several movies in the 1960s and 1970s which are regarded today as classics.
Ashok Kumar also paved the way for his younger brothers Kalyan (Anup) and Kishore Kumar. While Anup is best remembered for his role in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958), Kishore went on to become a legendary singer. Arguably, Kishore is today the most popular of the brothers.
The distinctive style and mannerisms that Ashok Kumar adopted in his late career still remains extremely popular among mimicry artists.