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The immortal Dadamoni

Besides his versatility as an actor, Ashok Kumar's skills ranged from painting to palmistry. RATNA RAJAIAH pays tribute to the veteran who passed away recently.

An artiste who was an artist too... Ashok Kumar with a picture painted by him.

Chal chal re naujawan

Rukna teri shaan nahin

Chalna teri aan...

BY THE time Filmfare instituted the Filmfare Awards in 1953, Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly was already about 45 films and exactly 42 years old. Six of his biggest hits, including "Kismet", which became the first Indian film to run for a year (and for three years in Kolkata's Roxy theatre) and whose box office performance was rivalled only 32 years later by "Sholay", were already behind him. Filmistan, the studio he had set up along with Shashadhar Mukherjee (his brother-in-law), Gyan Mukherjee (the director of "Kismet") and Rai Bahadur Chunilal (Madan Mohan's father) producing hits like "Ziddi", "Majboor" and "Mashaal", was already 10 years old. And together with Motilal and K.L.Saigal, he was already one of the reigning monarchs of Hindi cinema. More importantly, Hindi cinema had entered the decade that would mark the reign of the triumvirate — Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor.

Yet, in the next 46 years to come, Kumudlal, whom the world knew as Ashok Kumar, went on to act in 200 more films. Films like "Bandini", "Parineeta", "Chalti Ka Naam Gadi", "Chitralekha", "Meri Soorat Teri Ankhen", "Afsana", "Aarti", "Mamta", "Gumraah", "Aashirwad", "Pakeezah", "Victoria 203", "Jewel Thief", "Chhoti Si Baat", "Khoobsurat" and "Mili" — milestones in cinematic history which made Ashok Kumar one of the most enduring stars of Hindi cinema. In between all those films, totalling around 250, he found time to paint, learn and practise homeopathy, play chess, dabble in palmistry and read voraciously. And also become the most beloved and best remembered symbol of middle-class angst when, as the sutradhar of the TV serial "Hum Log", week after week, he asked India the question,``Ab kya karenge hum log?"

No man who has crammed as much into a lifetime — even one that is ninety long years — as Ashok Kumar has, can be an easy man to write about. Especially since by now, the obituaries have taken care of the more well known parts. So perhaps it is now time to take the paths less trodden...

For many of us, the most enduring image of Ashok Kumar, both on and off screen, is embodied in the word, Dadamoni, which in Bengali means a very dear and beloved elder brother. It's difficult to imagine him as anything else.

Yet it was Ashok Kumar who introduced the suave, Westernised hero, his understated acting style as cool as the way he smoked his cigarette, his attitude as dashing as his suits. Who can forget the charming, cheeky thief in "Kismet"? Or the neatly handsome face watching with narrowed eyes through back-lit veils of smoke, as a languorous-eyed, magnolia-skinned Madhubala draped herself around a microphone and crooned seductively, Aayeeye mehrabaan, Baithiye jaanejan, Shaukh se leejeeyeji ishq ki intehan in "Howrah Bridge"? The cigarette had come to stay on the Hindi film hero's lips and became Dadamoni's trademark in a spate of thrillers — "Sangram" (1950), "Inspector" (1956), "Night Club" (1958). Until he re-invented himself again as the sensitive character actor playing everything from a sadhu who has renounced the world, in "Chitralekha" (1964) to the polished, crafty old colonel who teaches Amol Palekar how to fight the war of love in "Chhoti Si Baat" (1975)!

The affectionate sobriquet of Dadamoni was because that is what Ashok Kumar became to the generation of actors who came after him — a kindly elder brother who was a source of advice and moral support. In 1957, when B.R. Chopra, just a few hits old, narrated the story of "Naya Daur" to Dilip Kumar, he turned it down. It was Ashok Kumar who then persuaded Dilip Kumar to listen to the story again with an open mind. He did this after knowing that Subodh Mukerji, Mehboob Khan and even Raj Kapoor had dismissed the story as ``box office poison". Dilip Kumar listened, both to Dadamoni's advice and B.R. Chopra's story and "Naya Daur" became one of the biggest hits in Hindi cinema winning Dilip Kumar his third Filmfare award and the second in a row, after "Devdas".

B.R. Chopra has other reasons to be grateful to Dadamoni. When his first film flopped miserably and he wanted to turn director, it was Ashok Kumar who agreed to act in his debut film. The film, "Afsana", (in which Ashok Kumar played a double role) became a silver jubilee hit, launched B.R. Chopra's career as a path-breaking director and began a professional relationship with Dadamoni that lasted over 15 films and a friendship of over four decades. (Interestingly, Ashok Kumar won his second Filmfare Award as Best Supporting Actor — his first was for Best Actor in "Rakhi" in 1963 — also for a film called "Afsana", but this one was produced in 1966.)

Even after he had left one brother-in-law and Bombay Talkies to join another brother-in-law and set up Filmistan, he returned to produce and act in one of the studio's last and biggest hits — "Mahal" (1949). As the story goes, when Khemchand Prakash wanted a frail little girl called Lata Mangeshkar to sing the songs, Mukherjee objected, saying her voice was too thin and reedy. Ashok Kumar stood by Khemchand Prakash's choice and ``Aayega Aanewala'' went on to become one of Hindi cinema's most beautiful and haunting songs.

(As Lataji herself recalls, at the time it was the practice not to put the name of the singer on the record, only that of the character on whom the song was filmed. When ``Aayega Aanewala'' was first played on AIR, there was such a flood of calls asking for the name of the singer that AIR was forced to find out from the record company and announce it on air.) Music was an important part of Ashok Kumar's life in many ways. There are many stories about Ashok Kumar and Kishore Kumar, his younger brother by 19 years. (At one point in time, it was Ashok Kumar who was the singer in the family, having proved his mettle by singing his own onscreen hit songs like "Main Ban ki Chidiya", "Chal Chal Re Naujawaan"). But the perhaps the less known but more endearing story is the one which Ashok Kumar himself narrated once.

When Kishore was just three years old, he hurt himself badly. Apparently the pain was so bad, that Kishore cried non-stop for several days. As Ashok Kumar laughingly said, it was this crying that must have developed little Kishore's voice to its prodigious quality! Kishore Kumar died on October 13, 1987, waiting for his beloved Dadamoni to arrive for the birthday party that he was throwing in his honour. Ashok Kumar never celebrated his birthday after that day.

With Waheeda Rehman in ``Rakhi''... a film that won him the Best Actor award from Flimfare

In his later years, one of Dadamoni's greatest enjoyments was to invite a journalist friend for lunch and watch his own old films, of which his favourites were the films he did with Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

It was in "Aashirwad" (1969) that Ashok Kumar played perhaps his most memorable role that won him the Best actor Filmfare award and it was also in "Aashirwaad" that Hrishida persuaded Ashok Kumar to sing again — the unforgettable``Rail Gadi..."

The legacy of Ashok Kumar is not just that of a great actor but also of a great human being, everybody's Dadamoni. Perhaps the final tribute to this actor and a gentleman is in one of Dadamoni's favourite songs, from one of his films, "Mamta", a song which his wife used to sing to him...

Jab ham na honge tab hamaari khaak pe tum rukoge chalate chalate,

Ashkon se bheegi chandani mein ik sadaa si sunoge chalate chalate,

Vahin pe kahin, vahin pe kahin hum tumse milenge,

Banke kali banke saba baage vafaa mein

Rahe na rahe hum, meheka karenge

Ban ke kali, ban ke saba, baag-e-bahar mein.

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