The Charismatic Ashok Kumar Upstaged Raj Kapoor At His Own Wedding
We pay a tribute to the legendary Ashok Kumar on his birth anniversary.
It will be all quiet on the Dadamoni front today. The unreservedly-adored Ashok Kumar’s death anniversary on December 10 will not be commemorated with its customary annual event – be it an art exhibition, music soiree, stage play or a screening of one of his milestone films.
Reason: The legendary actor’s eldest daughter has exhausted her stamina and funds to do it alone. In her 70s now, the recently-widowed Bharati Jaffrey has had to move house from a spacious high-rise in south Mumbai to a compact apartment in the suburbs.
On the phone, the occasional film, TV and stage actress still sounds spry and spunky, her voice dipping into low octaves, as she wonders,
Isn’t it strange that I should keep lobbying for my papa’s remembrance? While he was alive, the film industry kept buzzing around him, offering him roles even during his last years. Ever since he’s gone, no one seems to care.
But to me Dadamoni will always be special, on and off-screen.
The charismatic thespian would frequently invite me over for a fish curry lunch served by his faithful man Friday Khurshid, and hold forth on cinema, which once upon a time believed in the values of idealism and original storytelling.
So can I come over for a quick chat, I ask Bharati.
The Perfect Host
“Come over? Oh my god,” Bharati reacts instinctively. “My new house is in a mess, I haven’t even unpacked the cartons yet.” Never mind, I interject, I’ll be there anyway.
On Dadamoni’s first death anniversary, at an open-house event, Dilip Kumar had spoken eloquently about his peer, stating, “When we were in front of the camera, it was like a boxing match. We’d spar sportingly. It didn’t matter who won because we both did… but he did knock me out with a sucker punch in Deedar.”
At subsequent barsis, Usha Uthup rekindled the memory of Ashok Kumar with a medley of songs. Actor Javed Jaffrey staged a play as his shradhanjali.
A show of Bimal Roy’s Parineeta, featuring Dadamoni and Meena Kumari, commanded a house-full audience. Artist Jagannathan exhibited artworks under the aegis of the Ashok Kumar Foundation. The proceeds from these events were donated to various charities.
As soon as I enter Bharati’s neatly-appointed apartment in Versova, she inquires eagerly, “Do you think we could make a docu-drama on papa’s life some day? Hopefully, some sponsor will be interested in such a project. No?”
Hardly likely but I keep my two-penny’s worth of opinion to myself. Meanwhile, Bharati, like her father, is eager to be an exemplary host, ready with a tray full of egg sandwiches, coffee and the apology, “Sorry, still have to get all the chairs and sofas sorted. Hope you’re comfortable.”
Chided But Stamped
Bharati’s youngest sister, Preeti Ganguly, the popular livewire of several movies, passed away three years ago. Their sister Rupa, wife of the late actor Deven Varma, lives in Pune. And their brother, the youngest of the quartet, lives in Chembur. The Ashok Kumar bungalow there was sold to real-estate developers. In its place, an Ashok Kumar Towers has loomed up.
Efforts by the family to get the street named as Ashok Kumar Road have been ignored by the city’s civic authorities. “There’s no point in badgering them,” Bharati concedes. “Actually, it was only after much ado that the Post and Telegraphs department released an Ashok Kumar stamp in 2013 and that was to coincide with the 100 Years of Indian cinema.”
“To be honest,” she qualifies. “We were abit disappointed because it was one of the 50 stamps dedicated to eminent film personalities that were all released simultaneously. Papa didn’t get a solo stamp release. Moreover, no one from our family was called or informed about the stamp’s release at the hands of President Pranab Mukherjee in New Delhi. My grandson bought papa’s stamp from the General Post Office. Anyway, jaane do…it’s a nice stamp.”
Next, the conversation shifts to little-known facts about Dadamoni. “Papa,” it seems, “was way wackier than Kishoreda (Kishore Kumar) but didn’t have the guts to reveal that side of himself to the world. He’d convey the impression that he’s a man of gravitas instead.”
Painted His Wife Nude
The daughter continues, “He even painted a nude ink portrait of my mother when she wasn’t looking. I do have that painting but many have disappeared. Also did you know hundreds of women, particularly from royal families, would hit on him? But he was scared to get into flings and affairs. The only time he was tempted and might have had a thing going on was for his heroine Nalini Jaywant. We’d tease him about her and he’d blush beetroot red.”
Ashok Kumar’s secret homeopathic prescriptions, like most of his paintings, are untraceable. Dadamoni had shared quite a few of the prescriptions with a Mumbai doctor but that’s been the end of the story. With one of his homeopathy secrets, he had cured a teenaged girl suffering from gangrene. Within six months, he prevented her legs from being amputated.
Dadamoni’s award trophies and mementoes were lost forever from a godown during the Mumbai floods of 2005. As for the prints of the films produced by him – including Ziddi, Sangram and Mahal — they were sold off for a song when the actor had to pay off huge debts because his supposedly faithful secretary had resorted to outright embezzlement.
We had to go through a rough time. Papa went broke and had to sell of his cars and property,” Bharati narrates. “But he kept up a brave front, acted in as many films as he could, ensuring that none of us were affected as school kids who tend to get very upset on being deprived of basic necessities.”
Upstaged Raj Kapoor At His Own Wedding
Of the 300-plus films he acted in ever since his start with Jeevan Naiyaa, Janmabhoomi and Achhut Kanya (a hat-trick scored in 1936), Ashok Kumar’s favourites were Mahal, Sangram, Kismet, Chalti ka Naam Gaadi, Aashirwad, Kanoon, Jewel Thief (in which he was cast as the villain because he didn’t look like one), Savera, Meri Soorat Teri Aanken and Mili.
Once in a rare fit of anger when a chauffeur had dented his car in a minor accident, Ashok Kumar was about to smash a Belgian crystal vase. When the family screamed that it was extremely expensive, he said, “Okay, get me a cheap glass of water. I can break that at least.”
Bharati laughs out loud, fondly, rewinding to Raj Kapoor’s wedding ceremony. “Papa was there, of course,” she flashbacks. “And when he went up to congratulate the couple, the bride, Krishnaji, lifted up her ghunghat to gasp, ‘Oh it’s Ashok Kumar. I’m so happy!’ Raj Kapoor never forgave him for upstaging him at his own wedding.”
Right till his last years, Dadamoni’s joie de vivre was intact. The daughter’s eyes mist as she says, “When he was 88 years old, after a terrible asthma attack and he was placed on a respirator at Jaslok Hospital. That’s when he gave up. He wouldn’t talk, he wouldn’t give us a half a smile. Papa knew it was the end.”
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 10 December 2015 to mark Ashok Kumar’s death anniversary. It is now being republished to mark Dadamoni’s 108th birth anniversary.)
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