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Review

The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar by Nabendu Ghosh

Reviewed by Indrasish Banerjee

Title: Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar

Author: Nabendu Ghosh

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar by Nabendu Ghosh (1917-2007) is a reflection on the Hindi film industry as much as it’s a biography of the legendary actor.  An eminent scriptwriter in Bollywood and director, Ghosh was an award-winning Bengali writer whose oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories. As a script writer, he wrote the scripts in Hindi for iconic films like Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta and many more.

Ashok Kumar (1911-2001) was a part of both the small and the big screen in India while he lived. Was Ashok Kumar a star? What was his position in the Hindi film industry? When did he become a character actor? Was he a good actor? These questions are very easy to answer about others but when it comes to ‘Dadamoni’, as he was fondly called, the answers become nebulous.

Ashok Kumar started his career in the early 1930s which makes him senior to stars like Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand who made their debuts and attained stardom when Ashok Kumar was already a reigning star. Ghosh knew Ashok Kumar personally for many years. And the personal touch comes through in many places – through anecdotes and because of the regard that shines through the narrative. The jokes that Ashok Kumar cracked from time to time, the things the thespian told the author, all find place in the book. There is also a visible attempt to protect Dadamoni’s reputation against any allegation of vices generally attributed to stars. Ghosh, who had gone to Bombay as part of Bimal Roy’s team, constantly tries to establish Dadamoni as a gentle, thoughtful and educated person.

But this gentle, thoughtful and educated person didn’t have it easy in the world of films. Ashok Kumar had a shaky start. A shy and retiring person, he had gone to Bombay while studying to become a lawyer in Calcutta — to become a director. The ambition was idealistically driven – films, a new medium then, could be a means of educating people. But fate intervened. The person supposed to play the hero’s role in Achhut Kanya (Untouchable Maiden, 1936) had gone missing and the search for a replacement was on.

One day, Ashok Kumar, an employee of Bombay Talkies then, discovered the owner of the studio, Himanshu Rai, quizzically looking at him. Rai had found the replacement for the hero of Achhut Kanya. But for the hero, it was beyond belief that he could act in a movie. The most endearing part of the book is how this diffident hero finds his footing in the industry becoming its earliest and biggest star. And the most poignant part is the gradual decline and death of the studio system even as its product – Ashok Kumar – rose to new heights.

As the narrative draws to a close, one is left wondering what is Ashok Kumar’s position in the legion of Bollywood stars? This has been answered exhaustively in the ‘Afterword’ by Ratnottama Sengupta, eminent film critic and Ghosh’s daughter, who brings in not only personal lore but also her own experience. She tells us Ashok Kumar served “as a textbook for actors wanting to perfect characterisations, voice control, timing, gestures postures” and that he transformed “the acting style in Indian cinema from theatrical to naturalistic – which is still the cinema language worldwide.”

Naming him the “Elder brother of the industry”, Sengupta asserts, “I’d say he is the one personality who symbolises Indian cinema’s journey from Bombay Talkies to Bollywood.” She brings in his stories of interactions with film stars, his hits and directorial ventures, his launching of major actors and his deep links with them, including his acclaimed brother, Kishore Kumar, with more anecdotes from multiple eminent actors like Shammi Kapoor, Moushumi Chatterjee, David Lean and his associates and family ties that stretch to embrace actors from different religion and race. Bharti Jaffrey, Ashok Kumar’s daughter, who has written a heartfelt forward for this edition, is married to actor Saeed Jaffrey’s elder brother.

What makes this book unique is that Ghosh wrote this book in English himself and it has been republished posthumously[1] with the addition of a forward and an exhaustive afterword by the well-known daughters of the two film icons. It also has classic photographs of Ashok Kumar. Both the emotionally charged forward by award-winning actress Bharti Jaffrey, and the afterword by Sengupta, a national film award-winning journalist, explore further the enigma that was Ashok Kumar. By the end of the ‘Afterword’, one realises how deeply tied and organic are the Bollywood families and how much they do to try and create bridges and close gaps – the Ashok Kumar Foundation being one such effort. The whole package – the forward, the narrative, the photographs and the afterword — leaves one spellbound.  

CLICK HERE TO READ THE BOOK EXCERPT


[1] First published in 1995 by Harper Collins – mentioned in the ‘Preface’ written by Ghosh in 1995 and reproduced in this edition published by Speaking Tiger Books.

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Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Author Page

Ratnottama Sengupta

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC (Certified Board of Film Certification), served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

Conversations

‘He made History stand still on his Pages’

A conversation about an eminent screenwriter and author, Nabendu Ghosh. His daughter, senior journalist Ratnottama Sengupta, unfolds stories about her father. Click here to read.

Eminent film journalist, Ratnottama Senguptaconverses with legendary actress, Deepti Naval, on her literary aspirations at the Simla Literary festival, Unmesh, in June 2022. Click here to read.

Poetry

Poetry by Ratnottama Sengupta… Click here to read.

Prose

Freedom is another word for… Zohra Sehgal

Ratnottama Sengupta gives a glimpse of the life of Zohra Sehgal, based on the book Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon, and her own personal interactions with the aging Zohra Sehgal. Click hereto read.

In Memoriam: Star of the Stage Shines on Screen

Ratnottama Sengupta pays a tribute to famed actress, Swatilekha Sengupta (May 1950- June 2021). Click here to read.

A Special Tribute

In Jean Claude Carriere: A Writer for all DirectorsRatnottama Sengupta pays homage to Jean Claude Carriere (1931-2021), the legendary screenwriter of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. Click here to read.

When will we ever learn? Oh, will we ever learn? 

Ratnottama Sengupta, comments on the current situation in Ukraine while dwelling on her memorable meeting with folk legend Pete Seeger, a pacifist, who wrote ‘Where have all the Flowers gone’, based on a folk song from Ukraine. Click here to read.

Beg Your Pardon

Ratnottama Sengupta explores beggary in fact, films and fiction. Click here to read.

Dhaka Book Fair: A Mansion and a Movement

Ratnottama Sengupta writes of a time a palace called Bardhaman House became the centre of a unique tryst against cultural hegemony. The Language Movement of 1952 that started in Dhaka led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In 1999, UNESCO recognised February 21 as the Mother Language Day. Click here to read.

Requiem for the Melody Queen

Ratnottama Sengupta sings her own paean in which a chorus of voices across the world join her to pay a tribute to a legend called Lata Mangeshkar. Click here to read.

For the Want of a Cloth

Ratnottama Sengupta muses on an NGO who has won a Magsaysay Award for his work with cloth distribution in India contextualising it against the issues raised in Give Me a Rag, Please by Nabendu Ghosh. Click here to read.

Two Birds

Ratnottama Sengupta muses as she translates a Tagore’s song. Click here to read.

Joy Bangla: Memories of 1971

Ratnottama Sengupta recaptures a time when as a teenager she witnessed a war that was fought to retain a language and culture. Click here to read.

Dilip Kumar: Kohinoor-e-Hind

In a tribute to Bollywood legend Dileep Kumar,  Ratnottama Sengupta recollects the days the great actor sprinted about on the sets of Bombay’s studios …spiced up with fragments from the autobiography of Sengupta’s father, Nabendu Ghosh. Click here to read. 

Yesterday Once More?

Ratnottama Sengupta recalls her experiences of the Egyptian unrest while covering the 35th Cairo International Film Festival in 2012. Click here to read.

Gliding along the Silk Route

Ratnottama Sengupta recaps about the silk route. Click here to read and find out more.

When Needles Became Canons…

Ratnottama Sengupta gives us the role ‘kanthas’ (hand-embroidered mats, made of old rags) played in India’s freedom struggle. Click here to read.

How Green was our Valley

Ratnottama Sengupta goes back to her childhood Mumbai to the mid-twentieth century. Click here to read.

The Worshipper of Mother Earth: A Nostalgic journey

Ratnottama Sengupta journeys to show how past and present are interlinked in art and pays tribute to a polyglot, Maniklal Chatterjee. Click here to read.

Wisdom of the Wild

Ratnottama Sengupta muses on the wisdom of the wild in a storm. Click here to read.

In Praise of Translations

Ratnottama Sengupta discusses how translations impact the world of literature. Click here to read.

Translations

Down the stairs by Nabendu Ghosh, a gripping story exploring the greyer areas of ethical dilemmas, has been translated by Sarmishta Mukhopadhyay with editorial input from Ratnottama Sengupta. Click here to read.

Give Me A Rag, Please:A short story by Nabendu Ghosh, translated by Ratnottama Sengupta, set in the 1943 Bengal Famine, which reflects on man’s basic needs. Click here to read.

Ratnottama Sengupta translates Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Bijoya Doushami. Click here to read.

Colour the World: Rangiye Diye Jao, a song by Tagore, transcreated by Ratnottama Sengupta. Click here to read.

Satyajit Ray, Bibhuti Bhushan & Nabendu Ghosh and a Famous Triology: To mark the birth centenary of Satyajit Ray, Ratnottama Sengupta translates from Nabendu Ghosh’s autobiography experience of Pather PanchaliSong of the Road) — between covers and on screen. Click here to read.

Yet, Forget Me Not…: Short story by actress film-maker Aparajita Ghosh translated from Bengali by Ratnottama Sengupta. Click here to read.

Across Time: Ratnottama Sengupta transcreates three poems from Bengali. Click here to read.

An August Account of ‘Quit India’ Movement: Ratnottama Sengupta translates from Bengali the excerpts recorded by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), who witnessed an upsurge in the wake of the Quit India Movement, part of India’s struggle against colonial rule. Click here to read.

The Magic Spell of Scheherazade’s Nights: Translated by Ratnottama Sengupta, these are reflections by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016) on the magic of storytelling in Arabian Nights. Click here to read.

The Awaited Mother’s Day: Translated by Ratnottama Sengupta, a short story by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016). Click here to read.