In 1936, after Achhut Kanya Ashok Kumar became the idol for school and college students. College boys would stroll around singing, ‘Tu ban ki chidiyan, mai ban ka panchhi, ban ke ban ban bolun re’e’e…’
The same Ashok Kumar who would fumble in the beginning gradually revealed his talents to emerge as the classic, languorous lover of the Indian screen. Sadat Hasan Manto writes in his Meena Bazaar about an unusual admirer: A certain bold lady took Ashok Kumar home hoping to win him over. But he was so very firm that she had to change her tactics. She told him, instead, ‘I was just testing you, you see! You are my brother!’
Ashok Kumar was never a flirt. He just did not have the guts to be one! Which was very surprising, considering that hundreds of young women adored him. He used to get love-letters from thousands. But, to the best of my knowledge, he has not read more than a hundred out of this heap!
Ashok Kumar’s popularity grew by the day. Because he seldom appeared in public, because he mostly kept to himself, when people did get a glimpse of him, they were riotous. The traffic would come to a halt because the crowd of admirers refused to budge. There were even occasions when the police had to resort to lathi-charge.
Manto has also written about the post-Partition incident, recounted earlier in this book, when the two were caught in a procession late one night, in a Muslim area. Ashok had then expressed his faith in the viewers, saying, ‘You got frightened unnecessarily—people don’t question artistes.’ I was therefore surprised by an incident I was witness to, sometime in the June of 1951.
I was travelling with Dadamoni from his residence at Kala Ghoda to VT station. We were to take a train to Matheran where we were to discuss the script of Kafila along with its director, Aravind Sen. As soon as the pedestrians noticed Ashok Kumar, they started to chant and cry out:
Ashok Kumar! There goes Ashok Kumar! Oh Ashok Kumar! Hello Ashok Kumar!
But to every excited exclamation, Ashok angrily replied:
Shut up! Damn you! Go to hell.
Ashok reclined, merging with the seat in order to avoid being seen. I laughed as I asked him, ‘Dadamoni, why do you resent the admiration of the public?’
Ashok Kumar replied, ‘I am fed up. For so many years now they have been doing this whenever they see me—Ashok Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Ashok Kumar! The call now irritates me.’
I said, ‘Dadamoni, I’m sure an intelligent person like you knows why they do so?’ Ashok said, ‘I know, but they invade my privacy. I am not an actor all the time.’
‘You are arguing like a child, sir,’ I reasoned again. ‘For the viewers, you are always Ashok Kumar the actor. They have a personal image of you formed from the roles you have enacted on screen. More importantly, they are deeply impressed by you, by your performances. They love you. You are more popular with them than even a political leader. Their cries are love-calls. You are a fortunate man, their calls are God’s whispers.’
Ashok frowned, ‘Have you seen God?’
‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘but I feel he exists.’
Ashok said, emphasising his words, ‘I have not yet met him nor do I feel him!’
‘I withdraw my reference to God,’ I immediately responded, ‘but the rest of my dialogue remains intact. Please, I request you, apply your extraordinary reasoning power and desist from your angry reactions to the public. It is they you owe your success to.’
With a smile Ashok Kumar looked at Aravind Sen, the director, and said, ‘Nabendu argues well. After all, he is a good writer. All right, Nabendu, I will consider your arguments.’ There ended our talks for the moment. But after that I never saw Dadamoni react angrily, nor heard anyone speak of such a reaction.
An Admirer of Other’s Talent
Ashok Kumar has a rare quality: he has always admired talent in others. This came to the fore when he, as a producer, offered a platform to so many directors and artistes.
As an actor he has always paid compliments to Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand. About the ‘current’ actors, he says, ‘There is no doubt that Amitabh Bachchan is a great actor. I liked him in Mili and some of his angry young man roles… Anil Kapoor is fine… Among the girls I have liked Rekha, now I like Madhuri Dixit. She is lovely, she has a subdued screen presence…’
This excerpt from ‘Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar’ by Nabendu Ghosh has been published with permission from Speaking Tiger.