This year marks the birth centenary of Ashok Kumar, a legend unto himself. To mark the celebrations, a retrospective of select film screenings was held in Kolkata where the family members shared personal anecdotes that threw light on the late thespian. Shoma A. Chatterji reports
The legendary actor Ashok Kumar’s family today comprises his eldest daughter Bharati Jaffrey, grand-daughter Anuradha Patel and daughter-in-law Meena Ganguly. “Our father was everything one expects in a father and more,” recalls Bharati Jaffrey, remembering the days she spent with her illustrious father. “He was loving, affectionate and gave us the freedom of space and choice to do whatever we wished to do. He didn’t bring his studio back home and was full of jokes that would send us into peals of laughter.”
Mother Shobha Rani Ganguli played the disciplinary role in the family. “His multifaceted talents that reached out to areas and fields that had nothing to do with films, was amazing,” Jaffrey adds.
In memory of this philanthropy and his multifaceted character, his children and grand-children have formed the Ashok Kumar Foundation to commemorate their father’s multi-faceted talents.
Ashok Kumar who this writer had the good fortune of interviewing at his residence in Chembur, Mumbai, was the first actor in Hindi cinema to usher in the natural style of acting where dialogues are delivered as people talk in real life. This is interesting in the backdrop of his film-script-like entry into films as an actor. He was a lab technician at noted Bombay Studio when studios were the epicenter of filmmaking and stars worked on monthly salaries. During the shooting of a film, the leading lady ran away with the actor who was playing the hero. She happened to be the wife of the studio proprietor too. She was brought back pronto but the hero was shown the door. Who then would substitute the hero? The shy lab technician was persuaded to step in. He stepped in with great reluctance. The rest, as the clichéd saying goes, is history.
Ashok Kumar’s long and illustrious career is a happy mix of genres from action films, ghost dramas, family entertainment, through comedy to thrillers to musicals to literary classic and satire. Any listing of names would be just a small drop in the ocean of his performances. He has left behind a great legacy for the next generation to watch, view and learn from.
Ashok Kumar was one of the first actors wise enough to invest in another line of business and attain success in it too. In those days many actors and actresses wasted their wealth in their heyday to repent later. He had invested in a poultry farm which soon became a big supplier to many big and small hotels in and around Mumbai.
He was a brilliant homeopath and for 45 years he practiced homeopathy as an exercise in social service on Sundays and on his shooting holidays.
Moushumi Chatterjee, who acted with him in many films, says that one of her daughters was hit by a severe back pain once which the doctors could not give a happy solution. “I asked him to look into the case and he asked me to bring my daughter to him. He treated her for some days and the pain was not only cured but it never came back,” says Moushumi. “The Ashok Kumar Foundation donates homeopathic medicines to a clinic that takes medical care of deprived and poor children. It also funds solid scripts and its first benefactor was the Marathi film Shwaas that went on to bag many awards both in India and abroad,” says Meena Ganguly who looks after the entire workings of the Foundation.
“He had a passion for learning. He learnt to write his dialogue in Urdu from Dilip Kumar; he spoke French and German fluently. He used to say that one should be open to learning till one dies,” says Jaffrey. The rickety antique car used in Chalti Ka Naam Gadi was Ashok Kumar’s favourite. He helped his cousin when the latter was in trouble to produce Bimal Roy’s Parineeta in which he played Sekhar opposite Meena Kumari. He rescued Kishore Kumar when the latter invariably landed with massive backlogs in his income tax dues.
“Our father didn’t like his daughters to enter the films. But we have it in our blood; so how can we not come in? We never went anywhere near a studio when we were in school. But our youngest sister Preeti became one of the most talented comediennes in Hindi cinema and I made a career in television and in a few films. My daughter Anuradha has also done some good films. So, the bloodline begins to speak no matter how much you want to silence it,” says Bharati laughing at memories of happier days.
One of his sons-in-law, Deven Varma, husband of his second daughter Rupa had a long and successful career in films and a very close friend of his father-in-law. Actor Kanwaljeet, married to Anuradha Patel, is also into films and television. His son Arun Ganguly did just one film which was a disaster and never returned.
The actor was a chess player, a practicing astrologer and also a very good painter. “When he learnt that I am basically a painter by qualification and profession, though I switched over to acting, he made it a point to visit every single one of my painting exhibitions whenever I held them in Mumbai,” recalls actor Amol Palekar who was a fresh actor when he did a role with Ashok Kumar in Basu Chatterjee’s film. Late actor Iftekar who was an old friend, was his daily companion for chess so Ashok Kumar became a lonely man after his companion’s demise.
When he stopped working, his sat on a comfortable chair in his bedroom with his paintings decorating every empty space in the room. There were some knick-knacks scattered around and he picked on his nebuliser to take a few breaths as he had serious respiratory problems that had stopped him from smoking. He felt very lonely he said and wished that those who came to interview him would stay back and watch some of his films along with him on video. Unfortunately, few young journalists with deadlines to submit could spare the time to spend for an old and lonely actor.
(Shoma A. Chatterji is an award winning film critic)