Kumudlal Ganguly was born in 1911 to a simple Bengali family in Bhagalpur in the Bengal Presidency of British India (now in Bihar). Kunjlal, his father, was a lawyer and wanted his eldest son to follow in his footsteps. However, destiny had far more glitzier plans for the young man!
Kumudlal’s younger sister, Sati Devi was the wife of Sashadar Mukherjee, who held a senior position in the technical department of Bombay Talkies. Thanks to him, Kumudlal was had become interested in the technical aspects of film-making.
However, owing to parental pressure, decided to appear for his law exams. After failing them, Kumudlal decided to live with his sister for a few months, to avoid conflict with his father.
This seemingly innocuous decision would prove to be a turning point in his life.
Kumudlal reached Mumbai, and once he was ensconced at his sister’s home, he requested his brother-in-law to find him a job in Bombay Talkies. Soon, Kumudlal, who was working as a laboratory assistant and enjoying his work. He even managed to convince his father to allow him to abandon his law studies.
In 1936, the shooting of the film, Jeevan Naiyya was under production when the lead lady, Devika Rani eloped with the male lead, Najmul Hassan. Devika Rani was already married to the studio head, Himanshu Rai. When she returned to her husband, Rai fired Hassan and decided to cast the lab assistant, Kumudlal in the lead role instead.
It was common for actors at that time to work under pseudonyms in the film industry, and this is how Kumudlal Ganguly became Ashok Kumar.
Although he was a reluctant actor, Kumar worked hard on his craft (even though this didn’t necessarily reflect on screen) and came to be widely regarded as the pioneer of ‘method’ or natural acting in the film industry. Jeevan Naiyya was followed by Acchut Kanya, in which he paired up with Devika Rani once again. The film went on to become one of the early blockbusters of Hindi cinema, and the duo became everyone’s new favourite on-screen couple.
Over the course of his career, Ashok Kumar worked in several hit films and even won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award—the highest honour presented to film personalities by the Government of India. In 1998, the veteran actor received the Padma Bhushan, given his contribution to the Indian film industry.
What was his contribution?
Besides being a legend himself, Ashok Kumar was responsible for introducing phenomenal talents like Madhubala, Kishore Kumar and Dev Anand, among others.
In 1948, writer Ismat Chughtai and her husband, Shaheed Latif were planning their movie, Ziddi, with Kumar in the lead role. But Kumar, who was also a producer with Bombay Talkies, insisted they replace him with Dev Anand—a one-film-old struggler at the time, who had trained at the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Kumar had spotted Anand hanging around the Bombay Talkies studio and believed he would be better suited for the lead role than him. Chughtai and Latif agreed, and as they say, a star was born.
The same film had the legendary actor, Pran, essaying the role of the antagonist. Pran’s name was also suggested to the producers by Kumar.
Kishore Kumar, who is regarded as one of the most versatile and brilliant playback singers in the Indian film industry, also started his career with Ziddi. ‘Marne Ki Duayen Kyon Mangu’ became Kishore’s debut song, that later took him places.
It is interesting to note here that Kishore Kumar was Ashok’s younger brother (Abhas Ganguly).
In 1949, India’s first reincarnation thriller—Mahal—directed by Kamal Amrohi, which also starred Ashok Kumar and was made under his watch at Bombay Talkies, launched the careers of two legendary artistes—actor Madhubala, and singer, Lata Mangeshkar.
Apart from this, Ashok Kumar was also instrumental in welcoming SD Burman to the industry, and was the first actor to become a part of the “1-crore club,” when his film Kismet grossed Rs 1 crore at the box office.
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In the 1980s, he anchored India’s first soap opera called Hum Log.
Be it stepping into the shoes of the male lead, reluctantly, or giving up a huge role when he became a seasoned actor, Ashok Kumar is a legend in his own right. An actor and mentor par excellence, a registered homoeopathy practitioner, and a talented painter, “Dadamoni” (jewel of an elder brother) spearheaded an incomparable legacy, and will forever be an inspiration to generations of actors.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)