Ashok Kumar: The Evergreen Hero

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On Ashok Kumar’s birth centenary, we bring you an excerpt from Saadat Hasan Manto’s brutally honest essay on his friend and colleague.
Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from Stars from Another Sky: The Bombay Film World of the 1940s by Saadat Hasan Manto, Translated into English by Khalid Hasan, Penguin, Rs 250

When Najmul Hasan ran off with Devika Rani, all of Bombay Talkies was in turmoil. The film they were making had gone on the floor and some scenes had already been shot. However, Najmul Hasan had decided to pull the leading lady out of the celluloid world into the real one. The worst affected and the most worried man at Bombay Talkies was Himanshu Rai, Devika Rani’s husband and the heart and soul of the company.

S Mukherjee, Ashok Kumar’s brother-in-law, who was to make several hit movies in the years to come, was at that time sound engineer Savak Vacha’s assistant. As a fellow Bengali, he felt sorry for Himanshu Rai and wanted to do something to make Devika Rani return. Without saying anything to Rai, he somehow managed to persuade her to come back, which meant that he talked her into abandoning the warm bed of her lover Najmul Hasan in Calcutta and return to Bombay Talkies where her talents had a greater chance of flourishing.

After Devika Rani came back, Mukherjee convinced the still shaken Himanshu Rai to accept his runaway wife. As for Najmul Hasan, he was left to join the ranks of those who are fated to be deserted by their beloved for less emotional, but weightier political, religious or simply material considerations. As for the scenes he had already done, they were trashed. The question now was: Who was going to be his replacement?

Himanshu Rai was a very hard-working man, a filmmaker totally absorbed in his craft, and basically a loner. He had set up Bombay Talkies on the lines of a teaching institution, choosing the village of Malad outside Bombay as the site. He wanted nosy outsiders to be kept out—outsiders like Najmul Hasan. A replacement was needed. Once again, Mukherjee came to the rescue of his emotionally disturbed boss. His wife’s brother, Ashok Kumar, after taking a bachelor’s degree in science and reading law in Calcutta, had joined Bombay Talkies as an unpaid laboratory apprentice. He was quite good-looking and could sing a little. Mukherjee suggested him as Najmul Hasan’s replacement. Himanshu Rai, who had spent his entire life experimenting, agreed to look at the young fellow. His German cameraman Wirsching gave Ashok a screen test and showed it to Himanshu Rai, who was satisfied. His German film director, however, had a different opinion, but there was no one who could overrule Himanshu Rai. And so it came to pass that Ashok Kumar Ganguly, who was then no more than 22 years old, was chosen to play Devika Rani’s leading man.

They made one film, then another, then another, becoming filmdom’s inseparable team. Most of their movies were hits. The doll-like Devika Rani and the young and innocent Ashok Kumar looked just right together on the screen. Her artless gestures and girlish ways won the hearts of film-goers who had until then been fed on love’s ‘heavier’, more aggressive screen version. These two delicate, almost fragile-looking young lovers became the toast of India. So popular were they that college girls would pine for Ashok Kumar, while boys would go about wearing long and loose Bengali shirts, sleeves unbuttoned, one of which Ashok Kumar had worn in that famous duet with Devika Rani: Mein banki chidiya banke bolun re (I shall become a forest bird and sing from grove to grove).

I had seen some of Ashok’s films and as far as acting was concerned, Devika Rani was streets ahead of him. In the beginning, he used to look like someone made of chocolate but as time passed he matured and his style became more assertive.

When he moved from the laboratory to acting, his monthly salary was fixed at seventy-five rupees, a sum he accepted happily. In those days, for a single person living in a far-flung village, which Malad was, it was a lot of money. When his salary was doubled, he was even happier. Not long after, when it was raised to two hundred and fifty rupees, he was very nervous. Recalling that occasion, he said to me, “My God…. it was a strange feeling. When I took the money from the studio cashier, my hand was trembling. I did not know where I was going to keep it. I had a place, a tiny house with one bed, two or three chairs and the jungle outside. What would I do if thieves paid me a visit at night? What if they came to know that I had two hundred and fifty rupees? I felt lost... I have always been terrified of thefts and robberies, so I finally hid the money under my mattress. That night I had horrible dreams, so next morning I took the money to the post office and deposited it there.”

While Ashok was telling me this story, outside, a filmmaker from Calcutta was waiting to see him. The contract was ready but Ashok did not sign it because while he was offering eighty thousand rupees, Ashok was insisting on one lakh. And to think that only some years earlier he had been at a loss to know what to do with two hundred and fifty rupees!

...Ashok’s popularity grew each passing day. He seldom ventured out, but wherever he was spotted, he was mobbed. Traffic would come to a stop and often the police would have to use lathis to disperse his fans. He was not too generous with his admirers. In fact, he would get irritated because they wanted to get close to him. He would sometimes react as if someone had abused him. I would often say to him, “Dadamoni, your reaction is most ridiculous. Instead of being flattered by the attention you receive, you get upset. Can’t you understand that these people love you?” However, his brain appeared to me to be devoid of those cells which help you understand unquestioning admiration.

Till the time I left Bombay in 1948, he was totally unfamiliar with love. I am unaware of what changes occurred in him in later years. Hundreds of beautiful women came into his life but he treated them all with the greatest indifference. Temperamentally, he was a rustic. His living style and his food habits also had a touch of rusticity.

Devika Rani tried to have an affair with him but he rebuffed her rather curtly. Another actress once picked up her courage and invited him to her home. Once he was there she told him tenderly how much she loved him. Ashok reacted so brusquely that to save face she had to assure him she was just testing him and had only sisterly feelings towards him. The amusing thing was that Ashok liked her and would have loved to get her into bed. She always wore a washed and scrubbed look, which Ashok found irresistible. When she told him that he was like a brother to her, he felt rather let down.

Ashok was not a professional lover but he liked to watch women, as most men do. He was not even averse to staring at them, especially at those areas of their anatomy that men find attractive. Off and on, he would even discuss these things with his friends. Sometimes he would experience a strong urge to make love to a woman but he would never step forward. Instead he would say something like, “Yaar Manto . . . I just do not have the courage.” Courage he certainly lacked, which was a good thing for his marriage. I am sure his wife, Shobha, was happy about her husband’s timidity, praying that he would never lose it...

Ashok lived in a seafront house but it wasn’t very nice. The salt had eaten through the grill that guarded the windows and it was now badly rusted. The place did not smell very nice. However, none of these things had the least effect on Ashok. His refrigerator was parked on the veranda and his big Alsatian slept against it. His children would be creating a rumpus in the living room and Ashok, quite unmindful of them, would be in the loo, working out which horse would win the next big race. He would also rehearse his lines while sitting in the WC.

Ashok was well versed in astrology, which he had learnt from his father. He had read many books on the subject and when he had time he used to tell the fortunes of his friends. One day he asked me my birth date and after working out something on a paper asked if I was married. “You know that I am,” I replied. He was quiet for a while, then said, “I know, but Manto, tell me something. You have no children so far, have you?” “Why do you ask?” I wanted to know. He hesitated before saying, “Well, the first child of those with your combination of stars is a male, but he does not survive.” Ashok did not know that I had lost my son when he was a year old.

Ashok later told me that his first child, a son, was stillborn. He explained that his and my stars were in more or less the same configuration and it was not possible for such people to have their firstborn male child not die. Ashok was a complete believer in astrology as long as the calculations were accurate. “As you can never get the correct balance if even one paisa is wrongly added, similarly, if you do not work out the stars with absolute accuracy, you will get the most misleading results, which is why you should not rely on these things totally because it is possible that your basic data is wrong,” he once told me.

Ashok would place his racing bets on the basis of astrological calculations. He would spend hours working out the winning horses. However, he would never place more than a hundred rupees on any one horse. He would sometimes win ten rupees or come out even, but he never lost. He backed horses not so much to win as to divert himself. He would always be accompanied to the race course by his lovely wife, Shobha, mother of his three children. A few minutes before the start of the race he would give her money and ask her to place it. She would also be the one who would later queue up at the window to pick up the winnings...

Filmistan had just completed its war propaganda movie Shikari, and all the members of the company were enjoying a well-earned holiday with their families. One day, Savak Vacha dropped in to see me. “Saadat,” he said after some small talk, “write a story for Ganguli.” I could not understand what he meant. I was a Filmistan employee and it was my job to write stories. I did not need a recommendation from Savak to write for Ganguli. Any responsible Filmistan official could have asked me to write a story and I would have started doing so there and then. I later learnt that since Ashok himself was going to produce the movie, he wanted me to make a special effort to write a story that would be unique. We gathered at Savak’s nice, well-laid-out flat some days later. It was not clear what kind of a story Ashok wanted. “Manto, I don’t know... but it should be something sensational. Remember, it is my first film as a producer,” he said.

We sat there for hours, searching for an idea but couldn’t come up with any. At the time, a huge stage was being built at the Brabourne Stadium, very close to where Savak lived, in connection with the diamond jubilee celebrations of the Aga Khan’s birthday. I thought that might inspire me to think of something, but nothing came. A fine piece of sculpture in Savak’s flat also failed to get my creative juices flowing. I tried to get an idea from one of my earlier stories but still nothing clicked. In the evening, after a long and barren day, we placed our chairs on the terrace and began to drink brandy. Savak was a great aesthete when it came to drinks and he had produced an excellent brandy. One sip and you were in seventh heaven. We could see Churchgate station down below and the street was full of people. The sea lay beyond. Expensive cars, shimmering  under the street lights, moved about noiselessly. Suddenly from nowhere, one of those huge, ugly roadrollers appeared. It was an odd sight but it gave me an idea. I thought, if a young and beautiful girl standing in her balcony were to drop a piece of paper from above and vow to marry the man who picked it up, she could well find herself married to the driver of the roadroller rather than the owner of one of those sleek, expensive cars. Anything could happen.

When I told Ashok and Vacha, they seemed greatly amused. We poured ourselves some more brandy and began to speculate and throw up ideas and fictional situations in the air. When we parted, it was with the understanding that a story should be worked out on the idea I had come up with. I wrote a story but, of course, it was different. There was no girl in the balcony and no roadroller. I favoured a tragedy but Ashok wanted the story to have a happy ending with fast action. We all zeroed in on ‘the story’ now. Finally, it was done. Ashok liked it and we began to shoot. Every single frame was prepared under Ashok’s supervision. Few people knew that the entire direction of Eight Days, the movie we produced, was the work of Ashok Kumar though DN Pai’s name appeared as director in the credits. He had not directed even an inch of the movie. At Bombay Talkies the film director was not a prima donna as elsewhere. It was all team effort and when the film was ready for release one member of the team would be credited with its direction. We had adopted the same system at Filmistan. DN Pai was a film editor and a good one, so it was decided that he should be mentioned as the director of the film.

It was during the making of Eight Days that I realised that Ashok was as good a director as he was an actor. He would take great pains over even the smallest scene. A day before the scene was to be shot, he would go over the screenplay—which I had already gone through one final time—and spend hours in the loo ruminating over it. Oddly, Ashok could only concentrate when he was in the loo.

There were four new faces in the movie: Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, Upinder Nath Ashk, Mohsin Abdullah (husband of the actress Neena who was publicized as the ‘Mystery Woman’) and I. It had been decided to give a small role to Mukherjee as well but he copped out at the last moment because I had copped out of his film Chal Chal Re Naujawan as I was terrified of the camera. But that was only an excuse. The fact was that he was equally terrified of the camera.

Mukherjee was to have played a shell-shocked soldier. Everything was ready including the uniform, and when he said no Ashok was very upset. The shooting had to remain suspended for several days. Rai Bahadur Chunilal began to get worked up about it. One day Ashok burst into my room, where I was busy rewriting a number of scenes. He picked up my papers, put them aside and said, “Come, Manto.” I got up because I thought he wanted me to hear one of the new songs in the movie. However, when we ended up on the set, I asked him what was up. “You are playing the crazy,” he announced. I knew that Mukherjee had said no and Ashok had been unable to find a replacement, but I had never imagined he would pick me out, so I said to him, “You are out of your mind.” Ashok became serious. “No, Manto, you have got to do it.” Raja Mehdi Ali Khan and Upendranath Ashk felt the same way. Raja said to me, “Look, I have been asked to play the husband of Ashok’s sister, and I find it very embarrassing to be ‘married’ to my good friend’s sister, even if it is only in a movie. So what is odd about your playing a man who has lost his marbles?” In the end, I did play Flight Lieutenant Kirpa Ram, the shell-shocked officer, but only God and I know how terror-stricken I felt in front of the camera.

The film was released and it was a success. The public felt that it was a great comedy, which pleased Ashok and me greatly. We wanted to make another new type of film but fate had other things in mind. Savak Vacha had gone to London soon after we began to shoot Eight Days for the treatment of his mother. When he returned, the movie industry was in a crisis. Many companies had gone bankrupt and Bombay Talkies was in bad shape. A few years after the death of her husband, Himanshu Rai, Devika Rani had married a Russian émigré by the name of Svetoslav Roerich. She had also turned her back on movies. Many efforts had been made to put Bombay Talkies back on track but nothing had succeeded. Savak Vacha with the help of Ashok, now made a last-ditch effort to save the company.

Ashok left Filmistan. In the meanwhile, I had been cabled an offer from Lahore by Moti B Gidwani to work for him at a salary of one thousand rupees a month. I would have gone but I wanted to wait for Savak. When he returned and took Ashok with him to Bombay Talkies, I went with them. This happened on the eve of Partition. The British were now putting the final touches to the map of the Subcontinent so that when the whole thing went up in smoke, they would be able to watch it from a distance. Hindu–Muslim riots had begun, and as wickets fall in cricket matches, so were people dying. There were big fires everywhere.

Savak ran into a number of problems right away when he tried to reorganise Bombay Talkies. A lot of people, almost all of them Hindus, were given the sack as they were found to be redundant. This caused an uproar since their places were mostly filled by Muslims. Apart from me, there was Shahid Latif and his wife, Ismat Chughtai. Then there were Kamal Amrohi, the movie director, Hasrat Lukhnavi, Nazim Panipati and the music director Ghulam Haider. This created great resentment against Savak Vacha and Ashok Kumar among the company’s Hindu employees. When I mentioned it to Ashok, he laughed. “I will tell Vacha to sort those johnnies out,” he said.

This was done but it had the opposite effect. Vacha began to receive hate mail. He was told that if he did not get rid of the Muslims, the studio would be set on fire. He would get very angry when he read the letters. “These salas say I am in the wrong. Well, if I am in the wrong, then the hell with them! If they set fire to the studio, I will push them all into it.” Ashok was utterly devoid of any communal feelings. They were foreign to his nature. He could not even understand why those people were threatening to set fire to the studio. “Manto, this is madness... it will go away; it is only a matter of time.” However, it never went away, this madness. Instead, as time passed, it became more and more virulent. I felt somehow responsible for all that had happened. Ashok and Vacha were my friends and they would seek my advice because they trusted me and they knew I was sincere. However, my sincerity had begun to atrophy. I used to ask myself how I would face Vacha and Ashok if something bad were to happen to Bombay Talkies.

The religious killings were now at their height. One day Ashok and I were returning from Bombay Talkies. We stopped at his place, where I stayed for several hours, and then he offered to drop me home in the evening. He took a short cut through a Muslim neighbourhood. A wedding procession led by a band was approaching us from the other side of the street. I was horrified.

“Dadamoni, why have you come here?” “Don’t you worry,” he said. He knew what I was thinking. But it failed to calm my nerves. We were in an area that no Hindu would dare enter. And the whole world knew Ashok was a Hindu, a very prominent Hindu at that, whose murder would create shock waves. I could remember neither prayers in Arabic nor an appropriate verse from the Quran. But I was cursing myself and praying in broken words, ‘O God, don’t let me be dishonoured...let no Muslim kill Ashok because if that happens, I will carry that guilt to my grave. I am not the entire Muslim nation. I am only an individual but I do not want the Hindu nation to curse me for ever and ever if something happens to Ashok.’

When the procession reached the car, some people spotted Ashok and began to scream, “Ashok Kumar... Ashok Kumar.” I went cold. Ashok had his hands on the steering wheel and he was very quiet. I was about to scream to the crowd that I was a Muslim and Ashok was taking me home when two young men stepped forward and said, “Ashok bhai, this street will lead you nowhere. It is best to turn into this side lane.”

Ashok bhai? If Ashok was their brother, then who was I? I looked at my clothes which were homespun cotton... had they thought I was another Hindu? Or had they not even noticed me because of Ashok? When we got out of the area, I relaxed and thanked God. Ashok laughed. “You were nervous for nothing. These people never harm artists.”

A few days later, at a meeting held to discuss a story written by Nazir Ajmeri—which was later filmed as Majboor—I made some critical remarks, suggesting changes. Nazir turned to Ashok and Vacha and said, “You should not let Manto sit in on such meetings. Since he is a story writer himself, he is prejudiced.” It upset me and I felt that it was time I took a decision. I thought about it for several days but couldn’t make up my mind. Then I said to myself, “Manto bhai, this street will lead you nowhere. It is best to turn into this side lane.” So I took the side lane that brought me to Pakistan, where I was soon tried for obscenity for writing a story called Thanda Gosht.