Ashok Kumar turns 100.. But who’s counting!

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By Hindustan Times

He used to tell me that he was a day younger than me since he was born on October 13 and I came along 24 hours later. I believed him because Ashok Kumar was the ‘youngest’ man I’ve met. Even at 70 plus, wheezing asthmatically, he lived, loved and laughed like he was 17.

It took me a while to finish college, nail a job with a film magazine and fix an interview with the legend. Still a fresh-faced graduate, scared out of my wits by stories of eccentricities fed by my seniors, I tiptoed into his bungalow and stood in the middle of the living room, apprehensively eyeing the dusty antiques around me. A porcelain figurine of a shepherdess caught my eye. I was gazing at it, fascinated, when an amused voice enquired, “You want to take her home?”

With a start, I wheeled around, to come face-to-face with the man who’d dominated my movie-watching years. Violently I shook my head and he chuckled, “I’ve given a few antiques to strangers but guess you’re too polite. Okay, how about tea or coffee then?”

Again, I shook my head and he looked surprised, “You don’t drink tea or coffee?” I mumbled that I didn’t and he laughed, “Yeah, you’re too young for hard drinks. Let me get you some milk.” And overriding my embarrassed protests, ordered me a glass, making sure I drank up. From that day he became my Dadamoni and I joined his brood of grandchildren, set apart by the name he’d christened me with, Cobala. Dadamoni had a way of coining words. Flora Fountain became Fountain Pen and Colaba where I lived was Cobala. It became my password through the forbidden gates.

Last week, while returning from Vashi, I looked out and saw Chembur’s Union Park flash past. “See that lane,” I pointed out to my daughter Ranjika, “Dadamoni’s bungalow was down there.” “Who’s Dadamoni?” wondered my 11 year old, having grown up knowing her own grandfather, Dada. I smiled at her, “He was my Dada and if he were still around, he would have turned 100 next week.”

2011 is Ashok Kumar’s birth centenary. Kumudlal Kunjalal Ganguly was born on October 13, 1911, into a family of lawyers and expected to follow in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, grandfather, father and uncles. And he did go to Kolkata from Khandwa to study law but spent more time in theatres watching Bengali films. After seeing Chandidas and Puran Bhagat, he admitted to his college principal that he’d rather be a director than the sixth lawyer in the Ganguly family. The principal suggested he meet filmmaker Himashu Rai and after his brother-in-law Shashadhar Mukherji set up a meeting with the filmmaker, Kumudlal bought a ticket to Mumbai with the R 36 his father had sent to pay for the second year law exams, arriving here on January 28, 1934.

Rai told him he could train at his studio, Bombay Talkies, starting out as an actor because to be a director, one needed a sense of drama. He introduced him to his German director, Franz Osten, who asked him to sing a song. He sang his mother’s favourite ‘bhajan’, ‘Tum ho nath Jagtaram, paar karo naiya…’ Franz wasn’t impressed and suggested he go back to law. Rai offered him a job in his camera department on a salary of Rs 150.

From camera to editing to lab assistant, Kumudlal made fast progress. One day, while taking a cigarette break, he looked up to find the boss staring at him. He dashed back into the lab. Rai followed and curtly told him to walk across the room. Convinced he was getting the boot, he was amazed when told that he’d be replacing Najam-ul-Husain who’d disappeared in Jeevan Naiya. His protests fell on deaf ears.

The first day’s shoot was a disaster. Kumudlal had to slip a gold chain around his heroine’s neck. It tangled in her hair. He tugged, it snapped and Devika Rani’s coiffeur came tumbling down. She giggled, he blushed and Franz called for the villain. Kumud was told to jump Massey who wanted to molest his lady. He did, before the bad man had even started talking. Massey went down and couldn’t get up. He’d fractured his leg… Shooting was stalled for four months.

Jeevan Naiya finally opened in 1936. Kumudlal, re-christened Ashok Kumar, was gifted a new suit by Rai along with a premiere ticket and told to watch the film with the audience. After the show, he was invited to meet a couple sitting in the adjoining box. Ashok Kumar’s first fans turned out to be the Maharaja and Maharani of Gwalior.

Over the next six decades, the reluctant actor went on to do over 275 films and became Dadamoni to hundreds of youngsters like me. I remember him singing brother Kishore Kumar’s songs one afternoon, and cradling a Lifetime Achievement trophy one evening, quipping, tongue-firmly-in-cheek, “Tonight I’ll have a naked woman in my arms.”

Once, a century run would have been a challenge. But today, I don’t want to live to be a 100. Without Dadamoni, life’s no longer a joyride.