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The Torrid Affair That Turned a Lab Assistant Into Ashok Kumar

On Ashok Kumar’s birth anniversary, here’s the story about how an average looking lab assistant took to acting.

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(This story is from The Quint’s archive and was first published on December 10, 2015. It’s being republished for Ashok Kumar fans on the iconic actor’s birth anniversary.)

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.

On Ashok Kumar’s birth anniversary, here’s the story about how  an average looking lab assistant took to acting.
A still from Bombay Talkies’ first film Jawani Ki Hawa, that started a torrid love affair bewteen Devika Rani and Najam-Ul-Hasan

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.

On Ashok Kumar’s birth anniversary, here’s the story about how  an average looking lab assistant took to acting.
Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani in a still from Achhut Kannya (1936)

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.

On Ashok Kumar’s birth anniversary, here’s the story about how  an average looking lab assistant took to acting.
Ashok Kumar is remembered as an icon of India’s cinematic legacy (Photo: www.bollywoodirect.com

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 and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. Follow him on Twitter: @RanjibMazumder)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Bombay Talkies   Devika Rani   ashok kumar 

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