The Torrid B-Town Affair That Catapulted Ashok Kumar To Stardom
To trace the birth of Ashok Kumar, we have to go back in time, because all it took was a scorching affair to turn a lab assistant into a screen icon.
The story begins with Jawani Ki Hawa (1935), a film produced by Bombay Talkies starring Devika Rani and Najam-Ul-Hasan. A crime thriller on the lines of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express, directed by Franz Osten, Jawani ki Hawa was one of the earliest films to be set in a moving train. Devi soon fell for the charms of Hasan who was described by his contemporaries as strikingly handsome.
The pair was cast opposite each other once again in Jeevan Naiya (1936). This time, the madly-in-love couple eloped to Calcutta. There was however a minor roadblock: Rani was already married to Himanshu Rai, the co-founder of Bombay Talkies. Soon, rumours began to spread, and all was not well.
Sashadhar Mukherjee, Rai’s friend and co-worker searched all over and finally tracked the couple. Divorce was unthinkable at the time, and finally Mukherjee managed to convince Rani to return to her husband. Hasan was sacked unceremoniously by the jilted Rai. Ironically, it was Rai who had earlier persuaded Hasan to take up acting and become a hero.
Back in Bombay, the hunt for a new lead was on. Rai, who had already lost his wife once to a handsome man, wanted to make sure the same wouldn’t happen again. The solution: cast someone who was nowhere extraordinary, rather average. Mukherjee’s brother-in-law Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly was a lab assistant in Bombay Talkies, and his name suddenly popped up in a meeting. Soon, Ganguly was dragged out of his dreary lab environment. Osten was certain that the lowly lab assistant did not meet the standards of a Hindi film hero. But Rai was convinced he had found his leading ‘average’ man, and Ganguly’s long name was rechristened as Ashok Kumar, to suit popular taste.
Soon, Jeevan Naiya released, followed by Achhut Kannya (1936). The love story between a Brahmin boy and a Dalit girl caught the fancy of the nation, and it was declared a monster hit, both critically and commercially. And thereon, there was no looking back. The average everyman face played all shades of characters over many decades making an illustrious career, and became one of the most recognised faces and voices of Indian cinema.
An icon of India’s cinematic legacy, Ashok Kumar’s appeal lies in the story of the very origin of his screen legend. Though Rai cast him because of his common face, it worked greatly in his favour, because a common Indian could relate to his joys and sorrows better than a Greek God. He was one of us.
(The writer is a journalist, content developer and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. Follow him on Twitter: @RanjibMazumder)
(This story is from The Quint’s archive and was first published on December 10, 2015. It is now being republished to mark Ashok Kumar’s death anniversary.)
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