Ashok Kumar: Hindi cinema’s first superstar – Firstpost

Ashok Kumar was to Hindi cinema what Chandni Chowk is to Delhi. Single Handedly he represents a whole ethos, an entire era and aura of Hindi cinema. The only Bollywood actor to be given top billing in the credits even when he was in his 70s, Ashok Kumar Ganguly was a reluctant actor.
He never wanted to face the camera. His first acting stint Jeevan Naiyya happened purely by a freak accident when the film’s leading lady Devika Rani had a fling with the film’s leading man Najm-ul-Hassan. In retaliation producer, Himanshu Rai who was Devika’s husband sacked the hero and told his assistant the gangly Ashok Kumar Ganguly to step in.
From there began Ashok Kumar’s 60-year journey as an actor. When it comes it longevity and excellence Ashok Kumar, known as Dada Moni to one and all, was unparalleled.
Kismet in 1943 gave India its first superstar Ashok Kumar and was also the first film to bring Hollywood slickness into Hindi cinema. The lost-and-found formula that Manmohan Desai later patented began with Kismet. The superhit from director Gyan Mukherjee cast Ashok Kumar as the pickpocket Shekhar who eventually discovers he is the film’s villain’s father. Slick and thrilling the film broke records with audiences clamouring to get in. It ran for three years non-stop in a theatre in Kolkata.
In a career spanning 60 years ‘Dada Moni’ better known as Ashok Kumar did nearly a 100 films beginning in 1936. Some of his films co-starred Dharmendra who admits he had a lot to learn from his senior. “By the time I began acting Dada Moni was already a veteran. I think the first film we did together was Bimal Roy’s Bandini. Though both Nutanji and Dada Moni had bigger roles than me, I regard Bandini as one of my favourite films. It was an honour to work with Bimal Roy and Dada Moni for the first time. I think Dada Moni was Bimalda’s favourite. They had already done a major film together Parineeta before Bandini.”
The affable ever-charismatic Dharmendra says there was a lot to learn from Ashok Kumar, “Being natural on screen, not exaggerating emotions….this is what I learnt from Dada Moni.He was a complete natural in front of the camera. I also tried to be as authentic as possible in all my characters. Dada Moni and I didn’t have any scenes together in Bandini. But when we worked together in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam I got the chance to do many scenes with him. I observed him closely,and came away a better actor.”
Satyakam, Dharmendra’s all-time favourite film, featured Ashok Kumar as the younger actor’s father. “We had many very difficult scenes together. But Dada Moni made it seem effortless. He was that rare kind of actor who could bring any scene alive. We did other films together, like Asit Sen’s Mamta and Sharafat. In both, he was a leading man. Dada Moni never graduated to character roles. He remained the hero till the end. In every that he starred in he got the highest credit billing. He didn’t have to fight for it. It was his by right.”
I once asked the great Hrishikesh Mukherjee who was his favourite actor? Dharmendra or Rajesh Khanna? Hrishida had smiled mysteriously and said, “Shall I tell you? It is Ashok Kumar. Dada Moni is simply the most versatile actor I’ve worked with.”
When he was past his prime Ashok Kumar was cast as the lead in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Aashirwaad which won the actor a well-earned National award for best actor. Never one to give up, Ashok Kumar was a super trouper right till the time when his body could no longer keep up with his spirit.
Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.
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