Title: Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar
Author: Nabendu Ghosh
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Wordsmith Sarat and Tell-tale Ashok
The child Ashok Kumar was highly imaginative and could tell stories to his maternal grandfather, Raja Shib Chandra.
‘Come on boy, tell me a new story,’ the Raja would demand with a smile.
The five-year-old great grandson would gravely start, ‘You see great grandpa, yesterday I was walking through the jungle –‘
The Raja narrowed his eyes, ‘At what time?’ he interrupted.
The boy did not lose his nerve. ‘Yesterday, when you were having a nap after your lunch,’ he kept up the grave tone.
‘And where was the jungle?’ the Raja quipped.
The boy smiled, ‘On the bank of the Ganga.’
‘Carry on,’ said the Raja.
‘As I walked through the jungle,’ little Ashok went on, ‘there were birds chirping and peacocks dancing. I was feeling fine when suddenly I heard a tiger roar. I stopped. The birds stopped chirping, the peacocks flew fast and in panic. I turned around. And there it was standing, the tiger. It was a huge tiger, snarling at me and thrashing its tail on the ground…
‘Trembling in fear, I broke into a run. The tiger roared and sprang at me. I ran and ran hard. The tiger chased me. It almost reached me, it would soon fall upon me, grab me, swallow me. What shall I do? Oh, how shall I save myself? I prayed for wings and they sprang out of my two shoulders and I flew upward through the trees and escaped in the air. The tiger roared and roared and roared on…’
Little Ashok looked at the Raja for a due appreciation.
But the Raja looked at him with disbelief in his eyes and asked, ‘So you can grow wings out of your shoulders?’
The boy stared at him and nodded, ‘Yes, I can.’
‘Show me,’ the Raja demanded.
Undaunted, the boy said, ‘You become a tiger and I will show you my wings.’
The Raja roared with laughter. ‘Bravo my little one, bravo!’ he conceded.
Two servants peeped in at this moment on hearing the Raja’s laughter. The Raja beckoned one of them in.
‘Jagai, go to Upen Ganguly’s house and house and call that dark chap – you know –‘ Raja Shib Chandra ordered.
Soon a young man came there. He was dark but attractive, with handsome features and exceptionally bright, penetrating eyes.
The Raja welcomed him, ‘Come here, my lad. Do you know my great grandson, Ashok?’
‘No sir – but now I will know him,’ the dark young man smiled at little Ashok and added, ‘Ashok is the name of an Emperor.’
The little boy smiled back at the compliment.
Shib Chandra said to the young man, ‘Look here, my great grandson is no less than you — he can also tell stories. Tell him a story Ashok.’
Before starting to narrate a story Ashok looked at the young man and asked, ‘Have you ever eaten silver rice and fried silver parval?’
‘I will eat them when I find them.’
Many many years later when the cinema houses displayed a ‘House Full’ board everytime an Ashok Kumar film was released, New Theatres of Calcutta invited the actor to join the concern. It had earned the reputation of producing quality films — and to this day the name remains nonpareil in the history of Indian cinema.
Ashok Kumar agreed to meet them to discuss the matter. When he met Birendra Nath Sircar, the managing director, in his office there were some other directors and a dark man with silvery hair and sharp burning eyes.
Mr Sircar introduced the gentleman in dhoti-kurta by saying, ‘Mr Ganguly, he is our pride — Shri Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, the great novelist.’
Startled, Ashok Kumar turned towards the legend and bowed low.
Sarat Chandra smilingly asked, ‘Do you remember me?’
Ashok shook his head, ‘No sir — sorry.’
Sarat Chandra laughed and said, ‘Try and you will remember that you used to narrate stories to me — of silver made rice and fried silver parval.’
And the scene came back to Ashok Kumar. So, he used to narrate to this great magician — story writer Sarat Chandra!
Every one had a hearty laugh when Sarat Chandra narrated the story from the past. In his tum Ashok Kumar narrated how Sarat Chandra’s uncle, the writer Upen Ganguly, would regretfully say, ‘This chap, my nephew Sarat, does nothing! I am worried about him.’ This unleashed another round of laughter.
Ashok Kumar finally acted in only one film, Samar. He did not join New Theatres. It was Bombay Talkies that had groomed him and made him what he was. He would never leave Bombay Talkies.
(But, in 1953, after Bombay Talkies closed its shutter for good, he bought the rights to Parineeta. It was the first film of Ashok Kumar Productions.)
(Excerpted from Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar, Speaking Tiger Books 2022)
About the Book:
Ashok Kumar (1911–2001), fondly known as Dadamoni, is one of the great icons of Hindi cinema. This warm, intimate biography traces his remarkable journey, from reluctant actor to Bollywood’s first superstar and, in his later years, a much-loved presence on national television.
Born in Bhagalpur (then in the Bengal Presidency), Ashok Kumar was enthralled by the ‘bioscope’ as a child. In his twenties, he quit his law studies and came to Bombay to become a film director. But life—rather, Himanshu Rai, the founder of Bombay Talkies—had different plans for him. Despite the director’s reservations, he was cast in the lead role opposite Devika Rani in the 1936 film Jeevan Naiyya when the original hero went missing. The same year, Ashok Kumar was paired with Devika Rani again in Achhut Kanya, which was a blockbuster. The transformation of the accidental hero into a charismatic star-actor had begun. Over the next six decades, he proved himself to be a master of the craft, playing cop and thief; genial grandfather and sly matchmaker; villain and hero; heartbroken lover and suave rake with equal ease in numerous films, including Kismet, Mahal, Parineeta, Kanoon, Gumrah, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Aashirwad, Mamta, Jewel Thief, Khoobsurat and Khatta Meetha. But as Nabendu Ghosh writes, Ashok Kumar’s world was much larger—he was also a charming conversationalist, mentor, homeopath, astrologer, painter, linguist, limericist and, above all, loyal friend and devoted husband and father. This book is also a mini-history of the early decades of Bombay’s Hindustani cinema, and its pages are rich with little anecdotes featuring legends like—besides Devika Rani—Saadat Hasan Manto, Sashadhar Mukherjee, Leela Chitnis, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Meena Kumari and B.R. Chopra. Sarojini Naidu and Jawaharlal Nehru make brief appearances too, as does Morarji Desai.
For anyone interested in the Hindi cinema of yesteryears—in its cosmopolitanism, camaraderie and charm—this thoroughly engaging book is a must-read.
About the Author:
Nabendu Ghosh (1917–2007) was a dancer, novelist, short-story writer, film director, actor and screenwriter. His oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories, including That Bird Called Happiness: Stories and Mistress of Melodies, edited by Ratnottama Sengupta. As scriptwriter, he penned cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta, Majhli Didi and Abhimaan.
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