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Kismet (1943): India's first blockbuster


The film, which celebrates its 74th anniversary today (9 January), changed the fortunes of both its studio, Bombay Talkies, and leading man Ashok Kumar.

Sonal Pandya

Born Kumudlal Kanjilal Ganguly, Ashok Kumar enjoyed a long and storied career in which he received every accolade as an actor culminating with a Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1989. A man of many talents, Ashok Kumar came to Bombay with aspirations to direct and started working at Bombay Talkies, the first Indian studio with international sensibilities, in the camera department and, later, as a lab assistant.

Kumar shared a special relationship with the studio founded by Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani. When the male lead of Jeevan Naiya (1936), Najmul Hasan, was dropped (he eloped with Rai's wife and his leading lady Devika Rani to Calcutta), Kumar became a leading man at 22 against the protestations of the director, German Franz Osten, but with the recommendation of brother-in-law S Mukerjee and the blessings of Rai. Kumar and Rani made a winning pair and acted in several hits like Achhut Kanya (1936) and Vachan (1938).

Devika Rani with Ashok Kumar

With Kismet (1943), Bombay Talkies delivered one of the early blockbusters of Indian cinema. A film far ahead of its time, it became the leading money-maker of the 1940s and ran for three straight years at Calcutta's Roxy theatre. In today's terms, it grossed the equivalent of around Rs60 crore at the box-office and held this record until 1949 when it was beaten by Raj Kapoor's Barsaat. It also held the title for India's longest-running film for 32 years until it was finally broken by Sholay in 1975.

Kismet also turned Kumar into India's first star with the biggest hit of his career. He played the infamous thief Shekhar who has been imprisoned thrice as the film opens. He makes the acquaintance of a crippled singer Rani (played by Mumtaz Shanti), falls in love with her, and tries to right the wrongs in her life the way he knows best — through burglary.

Shekhar was Hindi cinema's first anti-hero and the film really sold the idea of a hero with negative shades to the audience. Kumar's Shekhar had a fondness for gambling, a bit of daredevilry (he jumps in and out of moving cars with ease) and was almost always seen with a cigarette. Historian Ravi S Vasudevan wrote that Kumar's character "seemed to appeal more to a new generation of audience. He was not a freedom fighter but the one who broke the law and fooled the police. And they [the viewers] loved him even as a thief.”

The critics strongly objected to the film's morality as Kismet, in addition to an 'immoral' hero, featured an unmarried and pregnant young girl, Rani's younger sister. The review of the film in Filmindia stated, “With all his triumph that Producer S Mukherjee has achieved in producing a series of money-makers he has not been accepted as an intellectual whose work as a motion picture producer has ever benefited society in general.”

Ashok Kumar with Mumtaz Shanti

An appealing anti-hero wasn't the only trump card the film had. Director Gyan Mukerjee, producer S Mukerjee and Kumar were heavily influenced by Frances Marion's novel How to Write and Sell Film Stories and altered the script of Kismet to have a strong story and a tight screenplay. In an interview with Filmfare, Kumar recollected, “The book opened our eyes to a far more complex world of film-making. It vividly explained how to write a scene, how to establish the characters. Kismet was full of Frances Marion's influence."

Indeed, the action in Kismet moves along briskly even though the film dealt with several different themes at once. The oft-used long-lost family member plot point which is so prevalent in Hindi cinema was first introduced in Kismet. Countless other films like Waqt (1965) and Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) drew from the lost-and-found formula Kismet popularised. Even minor plot details like a treasured locket and a tattoo on the forearm found their way into later Hindi films.

Kumar contributed to the film's musical success with the popular duet, 'Dheere Dheere Aa Re Badal', with Amirbai Karnataki. Kumar was one of those few actors who could sing his own songs. Kismet's score by Anil Biswas, especially the nationalistic 'Door Hato O Duniyawalon', raised in the audience a patriotic fervour and caused the British censors to take a second look at the lyrics. The movie came on the heels of the Quit India movement of 1942 and the audience didn't shy away from the film's topical and darker subject matter, but instead came back for repeat viewings.

Unfortunately, the success of the film also put an end to Kumar's affiliation with Bombay Talkies. He and S Mukerjee left the studio after it was divided into two camps after the sudden death of Himanshu Rai. They went on to establish Filmistan Studio the same year. Kumar later returned to Bombay Talkies when it was floundering to help produce several hits, including Dev Anand's Ziddi (1948) and Mahal (1949). None of them ever got close, however, to the success Kismet had enjoyed in its run.