I am super sick, so my brain head typing fingers aren’t really working. I can’t handle anything complicated, like my usual “reasons I love you style birthday posts”. But I think I am up to writing a little narrative of Ashok Kumar’s life. Even if I can’t handle all the many many news stories that are coming out and I should really be talking about (nothing huge, like Shahrukh getting a divorce or something, but I’d really like to talk about the Censor Board certificate for Ae Dil at some point in the distant future when I no longer feel like death).
Ashok Kumar! India’s first movie star! Before Ashok, there had been actors people knew (PC Barua, Himanshu Rai, etc. etc.). But it wasn’t a real “Oh my god oh my god I just love him and will see everything he is in” kind of thing.
And, as is appropriate for an Indian movie star, Ashok had a whole fate and destiny kind of launch. India really likes to build these almost magical origin stories for their heroes, including their movies stars. In Ashok’s case, he was a boy from Bengal who came to Bombay to work with his brother-in-law, a cameraman at Bombay Talkies.
Shortly after his arrival, the studio was shaken to its foundation when Devika Rani, co-founder and co-head of the studio with her husband Himanshu Rai and their female star, eloped with her co-star in her latest film. This was a disaster in all sorts of ways, for the private relationship between Devika and her husband of course. But also meant the studio had lost its top female star, costume designer, make-up artist, and line producer all in one. Work ground to a halt and no one knew what would happen next.
(Here’s Devika and Himanshu having India’s first onscreen kiss)
While Himanshu apparently just gave up, the studio workers took it upon themselves to save the studio and the marriage. Ashok’s brother-in-law, the cameraman, hunted through the city and managed to track down Devika and her lover at a hotel. He met with her and begged her to return, not because of the sanctity of marriage, but for the good of the studio and all the people who depend on her.
Devika returned, but her co-star/lover was cordially uninvited to ever set foot on Bombay Talkies’ grounds again. Which meant for filming on Jeevan Naiya to continue, they had to find a new star. At which point, Ashok Kumar’s brother-in-law says “Hey! How about my wife’s kid brother who’s helping out in the editing room right now? He’s good looking, I guess, might as well use him.” And a star is born!
Ashok went on to act in dozens of Bombay Talkies films over the years. And, as India’s first star, he also started the tradition of a movie star being more than just an actor. He came to know how the studio functioned inside and out and, years later after a widowed Devika Rani had been running the studio on her own for years and was now tired of it, he offered to buy it from her. Becoming India’s first movie star turned studio owner (versus studio owner turned star, like Devika herself or PC Barua or dozens of others who gave up on finding an actor who could live up to their vision and decided to just do it themselves).
Ashok was also the first movie star to found a film dynasty. He brought in his brothers Kishore and Anoop and made them both stars.
(here are all the brothers acting together)
And that cameraman brother-in-law was Sashadhar Mukherjee, who went on to found Filmilaya studios and the Mukherjee family dynasty, as in Rani, Kajol, and director Ayan Mukherjee.
Ashok also was the first movie star to deal with aging out of stardom. By the late 50s, he had decided to gracefully age himself out of the hero parts rather than trying to hold on to something that was slipping away. Instead, he become the mature villain, or hero’s mentor, or father. The same kind of character roles that every movie star since then has learned to age up to.
He continued acting well into his 80s, but also pursued other interests, painting and homeopathy (he became known for “miracle cures”). He finally died at age 90, outliving all his siblings.
(Self-portrait painted by Ashok)