December 10, 2001


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Dadamoni never wanted to be an actor.

But to think of Hindi films without Ashok Kumar is to think the earth is square. For the grand old man of cinema had been around 70 years out of the 100 years of the Hindi film industry!

Even so, the fact remains that Ashok Kumar refused to act in his first film, Acchut Kanya. His director Himanshu Rai urged him. He consented. And never looked back after that. He brought naturalness to acting when theatrical acting was in.

Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar started in the film industry as a singing actor and went on to become a jubilee star with films like Achhut Kanya, Jeevan Naiyya, Kangan, Jhoola.

But he did fulfil his dream of making films. He joined Bombay Talkies as their production chief and produced Mahal, which introduced the venus of the silver screen, Madhubala. Ashok Kumar also made comedies with brothers Kishore and Anoop -- Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi and Chalti Ka Naam Zindagi.

His most famous role was in Kismet as the cigarette smoking anti-hero. His style of holding the cigarette became a trademark.

When Sharmila Taliculam met the thespian, she found an asthmatic winded after mere minutes of conversation. That still didn't dim the twinkle in his eyes when he spoke of his first passion -- films.

He loved citing examples from his own films and readily screened them on his television, pulling one or the other out to illustrate his point better. This is an excerpt from one of his last interviews:

When did you realise you wanted to be an actor?

Ashok Kumar I was doing law in Calcutta. I wasn't interested in practising it because I had five lawyers in my family, including my father. Also, Khandwa is such a small place -- its population is 30,000. So there wasn't much incentive to practise law.

I always wanted to do something else. Those days I loved watching films. After class, my friends and I would watch films. I saw two of them, Chandidas and Puran Bhagat and was so impressed I wanted to become a director.

I never thought of acting -- it was considered disreputable those days. Call girls became heroines and pimps became heroes. So nobody thought of acting and neither did I.

How did your family react to your decision about joining the film industry?

Nobody liked it. But my brother-in-law Chandru Mukherjee, a producer and sound engineer at a theatre, took me to Himanshu Rai. Ashok Kumar Himanshu said he wanted only boys from good families working with him. And being a graduate was necessary. He asked me whether I would like to act. I refused because I wanted to do some technical work. He said all those who joined him worked in whichever department of the theatre he wanted.

It so happened was that the hero of the film eloped with heroine Devika Rani. She came back after quarrelling with him. I was handling the script then and briefing everybody on their scenes. So I would go around with a script in hand.

Since Himanshu Rai needed a hero and since he always wanted to cast me in a film, he asked me. I refused, thanks to the reputation actors have. But he assured me he only hired actors from cultured, educated families, citing examples of women working in his theatre. He urged me to get him out of trouble.

He also promised I could come back to whatever I was doing.

How did your family react to your becoming a hero knowing their opinion of actors?

Oh, there was quite a furore over it. News reached my house in Khandwa; my marriage broke off. My mother started weeping. My father went to Nagpur, to meet Ravi Shankar Shukla, the then chief minister. He was my father's college friend.

My father asked him whether he could give me a job. He (Shukla) offered two. One was the chairman of the Income Tax department. I would earn Rs 250 every month. So I went to Himanshu and showed him the appointment letters. I also told him my father had got them and he was waiting outside to talk to him.

Ashok Kumar Himanshu wanted to speak to my father alone. He asked me to leave the room. After some time, my father came to me and tore the letters. He said, "He (Himanshu Rai) says you will rise to eminence if you work with him. I think you must stay here."

Meanwhile, my mother was desperately searching for a girl who would marry me! No one was willing to because of the line I was in.

How then did your marriage happen?

Actually, the girl was chosen for me almost eight years ago by my maternal uncle. He took me to see her. I was 18; she was eight.

In those days, girls were not allowed to step out of the house. And there she was, making chapatis. She was rolling them so fast. She made almost 50. I was quite impressed.

I had no clue my uncle had seen her for me. Years passed. One day in 1936, my father called me to Khandwa. I went. My father met me at the station. He said we were going to Calcutta. Scared of him, we just went. We never questioned him.

My sister-in-law was in the ladies' compartment. I wanted to know what was happening and asked her. She calmly told me I was getting married. Nobody had told me!

I wasn't ready to marry -- I thought I would marry only when I started earning Rs 500 per month. Now I was earning only Rs 200. My mother wasn't sure whether I would agree to the marriage. Since everything was arranged, I said yes.

Ashok Kumar But you hadn't seen your bride!

I saw her again when she was 15 and I was 25. I didn't recognise her until my uncle told me where I had seen her earlier. She was asked to sing and did, badly.

She was introduced to me a day before we got married. I had no say in my marriage. Those days, it was the done thing. I was married on April 20, 1936.

When we completed 50 years of marriage in 1986, my wife wanted to throw a party at Hotel Searock and invited 100 people. Four days before the party, she fell ill and passed away.

She kept telling my daughter she was excited. She wanted to get better and attend the party. Unfortunately, she couldn't.

Did she like films? Did she ever object to your being in the films?

No, not at all. See, for 13 years, I was very faithful. After that, I went a little haywire. I was doing a film called Naaz. It was then that I started drinking, meeting girls, having affairs. I had an affair with this heroine, Nalini Jaywant. My wife never believed it.

Did you not think of telling her the truth?

No, she never believed rumours. For two-and-half years, Nalini and I were together. It fizzled out after a while.

And then my wife died. I have been honest with msyelf since.

How was your relationship with Himanshu Rai, the man who made you a hero?

He was very good to me. I wasn't going to act in any more films but he asked me act again in Acchut Kanya. It was a superhit. All my films before marriage were hits.

Post marriage, I did Kangan, Bandhan, Jhoola, Naya Sansar and Kismet. I was a jubilee star by then. For someone who had never learnt acting, I was considered very natural.

To whom would you give credit for grooming you?

Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai groomed me. They would insist I watch English films and arranged tickets for me. I watched so many stars like Humphrey Bogart, their styles -- that's how I learnt to act.

You see, our style of acting was very different. We spoke dialogues in a particular way which I didn't much like.

I always thought natural was best. Mind you, it is very difficult to be natural in front of a camera. Talking eye to eye is easier than talking to a camera or an audience. That is why there are many artistes who like theatre better.

I do find some actors artificial. I like Shatrughan Sinha and Nana Patekar. I think they are good artistes. But they are in the background today.

I tell my students to watch my films and analyse my acting. I then tell them the importance of acting as naturally as possible. How many ways can there be of saying, "Come in"? Only one.

You see, once there was a scene in Gumraah. Mala Sinha was my costar. There was a scene where I had to rush to work early morning.

In real life, I have always had leisurely breakfasts. We work so hard all day that breakfast was a very important meal. So it was vital that I practise this particular scene. The next day, I told my wife I wanted breakfast fast. She was puzzled. I just gulped the tea down and walked out of the house.

When I reached the sets, I told the director I wanted my wife. She came and I acted out the scene as I did that morning at home. My wife was so surprised!

Did you always act your scenes at home?

Yes, to make scenes look natural. I always observed how people reacted and how I would behave if I were in a situation at home. That is how I could be so natural on screen.

People have to connect films with themselves; it was my job to do that for them.

You were such a big star those days. When did you start doing character roles?

I don't know when I started doing character roles. Hero or not didn't matter. The role mattered. Ashok Kumar But every role is a problem! Enacting them in a particular way to retain the naturalness. That's the fun of it.

You also got your brothers into the industry. How did you manage that?

I taught Kishore to sing until there wasn't anyone who could sing like him. Actually, when he was first asked to sing, he wanted me to do it. I refused, told him he had to do it.

He went on to become a great singer. There are so many who imitate him; they never can be like him.

You see, I would send them money every month for their education; they would stay with me for the holidays. Then I thought they should start earning. I brought them to Bombay. I would take them to the studios.

Though you and Kishore Kumar were famous, your youngest brother Anoop Kumar never quite made it. What went wrong?

I don't know. He had some good breaks but never quite made it. I bought him a house. I got him married. His son is now married into my home.

We made Chalti Ka Naam Gadi for Anoop, gave him the money the film made. Still I couldn't do much for him. We brothers loved each other. We were very close-knit.

Today, all my nephews come to meet me.

They call me Dadamoni. Moni in Hindi means jewel. Everybody calls me that.

Why did you stop working in films?

Ashok Kumar I stopped because I fell ill. In fact, four years ago, the doctors had given up on me. But I was well in two days and they sent me home.

I was so angry when the doctors told me I wouldn't survive. Who were they to tell me when to die?

It seems I ran out and chased the doctor who said I wouldn't survive and boxed him. I don't remember it; my daughter told me about it later. I had to be injected to be calmed down -- I was so angry.

The last film I did was Return Of The Jewel Thief.

I had never suffered from any illness. This asthma started with a film called Rakhi about a brother and sister. Waheeda Rehman was my sister. We die in the last scene and we were supposed to say some dialogues in a very hoarse voice. I was asked to drink ice-cold water and then immediately mouth the dialogues.

Twenty-five glasses of ice-cold water later, my voice remained the same. I did this for two days. On the third, I got the flu. I was shooting in Chennai with Waheeda Rehman. Since I had the flu, we decided to wrap up soon. Only, I fainted after I finished and was taken to hospital.

After that, I started getting breathless regularly. I have suffered since then. I still have a normal voice. But the doctors told me I had asthma.

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