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How Ashok Kumar helped many find their footing in Hindi cinema

As an actor and pioneer of early Hindi cinema, Ashok Kumar inspired and mentored many personalities along the way. On his 105th birth anniversary today (13 October), a look at a few lives and careers that he changed.

Sonal Pandya

Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly’s father wanted him to become a lawyer, rising, he hoped, to become chief justice of India some day. But Ganguly came to Bombay instead, where his brother-in-law, Sashadhar Mukherjee, was working at the Bombay Talkies studios in Malad and started out as lab assistant. He was then handpicked by studio founder Himanshu Rai to star in Jeevan Naiya (1936) opposite his wife, Devika Rani.

Rai rechristened Ganguly as Ashok Kumar and the pair of Devi Rani and Ashok Kumar clicked. Many other hits followed and Ashok Kumar was well on his way to becoming a star. And just as Rai helped Ashok Kumar find his bearings, so did Ashok Kumar help others out early on in their careers.

Though he wasn’t a natural actor, Ashok Kumar worked hard at his craft, watching his Hollywood counterparts and trying to improve himself with every film. Other upcoming actors watched him for guidance, including a young man named Dilip Kumar.

Dilip Kumar started out at Bombay Talkies as well, beginning with Amiya Chakravarthy’s Jwar Bhata (1944). He was chosen by the other founder of Bombay Talkies, Devika Rani, to star in the studio’s film.

Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar in a still from Deedar (1951)

Dilip Kumar would often go to Ashok Kumar for advice on how to enact his scenes with his heroines. Ashok Kumar later got him a three-picture deal at Filmistan, the studio he set up with Sashadhar Mukherjee when they split from Bombay Talkies. The two even acted together in Nitin Bose’s Deedar (1951) in a love triangle with Nargis. But by then, Dilip Kumar was much more comfortable in his skin as an actor.

Besides Dilip Kumar, Ashok Kumar gave another young actor an opportunity to star in an upcoming Bombay Talkies film. Directed by Shaheed Latif and written by his wife Ismat Chughtai, Ziddi (1948) was envisaged as a project for the leading star of the studio, Ashok Kumar, opposite Kamini Kaushal. But Ashok Kumar insisted on casting a young actor with potential, Dev Anand, instead of himself after a chance encounter in the garden at Bombay Talkies.

Ziddi was Dev Anand’s breakthrough and even gave Ashok Kumar's younger brother Kishore an opportunity to sing for the actor under music composer Khemchand Prakash with the song ‘Marne Ki Duaen Kyon Mangu’. Kishore Kumar got so many opportunities to sing for Dev Anand thereafter that his voice became synonymous with the actor.

It wasn’t just actors and the new star system that Ashok Kumar helped to introduce to Hindi cinema. He also gave new directors a chance to prove themselves by acting in their first films. In 1949, he gave Kamal Amrohi a shot to direct Mahal after witnessing a ghostly encounter himself at Jeejeehoy House. He worked on the story idea with Amrohi and cast the former child artiste Madhubala in the lead role. The film, buoyed by Lata Mangeshkar’s rendition of ‘Aayega Aanewala’ became a grand success.

Two years later, a young film journalist by the name of BR Chopra directed Ashok Kumar in his first film, Afsana (1951). The film starred Ashok Kumar in a double role as twins who get separated in a fair. When the two grow up, one is accused of murder while the other is a saintly judge. Afsana, written by IS Johar, was a hit and set Chopra’s career rolling.

Ashok Kumar was also instrumental in persuading composer SD Burman to remain in Bombay and give the film industry a go instead of packing up and moving back to Calcutta. Burman had composed the music for two Filmistan movies, Shikari (1946) and Eight Days (1946). Ashok also directed the latter, though it was the esteemed editor Dattaram Pai who wound up getting credit for the film.

Burman wasn't feeling satisfied and decided to give up the music business in Bombay. During the making of Mashaal (1950), Ashok Kumar begged him to compose the score. At Ashok's insistence, Burman stayed on, much to Hindi cinema’s good fortune.

It was with good reason that the Hindi film industry called Ashok 'Dadamoni' because, like an elder brother, he had a guiding hand in the careers of so many in the industry.