Career Of Dada Muni (Part 1)

Karishma Mishra
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Career & Life

Early career (1936–42)

Kumudlal's father wanted him to become a lawyer and got him enrolled in a law college. However, Kumudlal failed his exams and, to escape acrimony at home, came to live with his sister in Mumbai for a few months, until the exams were held again. Kumudlal's sister Sati Devi had been married at a very young age to Sashadhar Mukherjee, who lived in Chembur in Mumbai and worked in a fairly senior position in the technical department of Bombay Talkies, a pioneering Indian film studio. Kumidlal wanted to earn some spending money for himself, and at his request, Sashadhar Mukherjee used his influence to get him a job as laboratory assistant at Bombay Talkies. This was in the early 1930s. The salary was quite decent; furthermore, Kumudlal was successful at his job and found the work interesting, which had not been the case with law college. He tried to convince his father that he would not become successful as a lawyer and that he would be able to earn a living as a technician or lab assistant. His father would not hear of this, and it required the intervention of Sashadhar Mukherjee before he finally reconciled himself to the situation and agreed to let Kumudlal abandon his law studies. Thus began the storied film career, not as an actor but as laboratory assistant, of the future Ashok Kumar.

Kumar in Naya Sansar (1941)

Kumudlal was happy working as a laboratory assistant and remained in that position for some five years. His acting career started purely by accident. Shooting was already underway on the Bombay Talkies production Jeevan Naiya in 1936, when the male lead, Najm-ul-Hassan, eloped with his co-star Devika Rani, who happened to be the wife of Himanshu Rai, millionaire owner of Bombay Talkies. Rani subsequently returned to her husband who, out of spite, dismissed Hassan and summarily ordered Kumudlal to replace him. This he did against the advice of director Franz Osten, who reckoned that the young man did not have the good looks needed for an actor. Kumudlal was given the screen name Ashok Kumar, in keeping with the general trend in an era when actors concealed their real identities behind screen names.

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With Devika Rani in Achhut Kanya (1936)

Ashok Kumar, as Kumudlal Ganguly was now known, started off his acting career reluctantly. His subsequent venture with Devika Rani in Achhut Kanya, the same year was one of the early blockbusters of Hindi cinema. Like several movies of that era, Achhut Kanya was a reformist piece featuring a Brahmin boy falling in love with a girl from the so-called untouchables in Indian society. The runaway success of Achhut Kanya cemented Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani as the most popular on-screen couple of that era.

The two did a string of films thereafter, including Janmabhoomi (1936), Izzat (1937), Savitri (1937), Vachan (1938) and Nirmala (1938). Their last on-screen venture was the 1941 movie Anjaan, whose failure at the box office brought an end to the legendary on-screen couple. Devika Rani was consistently the bigger star, with Ashok Kumar working in her shadow.

He started emerging from Devika Rani's shadow owing to pairing opposite Leela Chitnis, another actress who was senior to him in age as well as stature. Back-to-back successes with Kangan (1939), Bandhan (1940) and Azad (1940) saw Ashok Kumar emerge as a popular actor in his own right. The success of Jhoola (1941), in which he starred opposite Leela Chitnis, established him as one of the most bankable actors of the era.

Stardom (1943–50)Edit

Ashok Kumar in the 1943 film Kismet.

The Gyan Mukherjee directed 1943 movie Kismet, featuring Ashok Kumar as the first anti-hero in Indian Cinema smashed all existing box office records, becoming the first Hindi movie to gross 1 crore at the box office. The success of Kismet made Ashok Kumar the first superstar of Indian cinema. Such was his popularity at the time that, in the words of Manto, "Ashok's popularity grew each passing day. He seldom ventured out, but wherever he was spotted, he was mobbed. Traffic would come to a stop and often the police would have to use lathis to disperse his fans."

Karishma Mishra
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