Ashok Kumar also known as Dadamoni, was born on 13 October 1911 as Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly in Bhagalpur (now in Bihar). He spent his childhood in Khandwa (now in Madhya Pradesh) where his father was a renowned lawyer. After studying law in Calcutta, he joined Bombay Talkies as a laboratory assistant in a film processing unit and became a disciple of his future brother-in-law Shashdhar Mukerji. He made his screen debut in 1936 with Jeevan Naiya, directed by Franz Osten, opposite Devika Rani. It is said that on the first day of the shooting of the film, the actor was supposed to play the hero did not turn up and Devika Rani asked a shy Ashok to put on the make-up and face the camera.
In the coming years, Ashok Kumar’s films with Devika Rani became vehicles for delineating the ideas and thought processes for modernizing society vis-a-vis the prevailing structure. The narrative would intermingle the issues of social morality, traditional beliefs as well as caste- and class ridden tensions.
Acchut Kanya (1936), directed by Franz Osten, presented Ashok Kumar as a rich Brahmin youth desperately in love with a Harijan girl (Devika Rani). but their affair triggers a massive upheaval, leading to a large-scale mob violence and suffering for the lovers. The same director’s ”Kangan” (1939) cast him as the son of the village landlord, a budding writer falls in love with village belle(Leela Chitnis). When the hero moves over to the city and becomes a famous novelist, his father persecutes the girl, forcing her to leave the village in search of her lover.
With the superhit ”Kismet” (1943) directed by Gyan Mukherjee, Ashok Kumar went in for an image changeover and established the evergreen anti-hero persona in Hindi cinema. The smooth talking, chain-smoking conman of Kismet, who was assertive and ruthless, sought to conduct his affairs on his own terms (this image was taken up later by Raaj Kumar in B.R. Chopra’s 1965 blockbuster ”Waqt).
Throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s, he acted in a number of remarkable movies, including ”Chal Chal Re Naujawan” (1944), Eight Days (1946), Mahal (1949), Mashaal (1950), Samadhi (1950), Bhai Bhai (1956), Sitaron Se Aage (1958), Bandini (1963), Mamta (1966), among others.
He also featured in a string of movies with Pradeep Kumar and Meena Kumari such as Phani Majumdar’s ”Aarti” (1962), Kidar Sharma’s Chitralekha (1964), Kalidas’s Bheegi Raat (1965) and M. Sadiq’s Bahu Begum (1967).
In his later career, mostly as a father figure, his screen persona was so enduring that he would often become the common denominator to a narrative connecting various characters caught up in their individual fantasies and conflicts. The movies in this category are numerous and would need a separate book! One superlative performance of Ashok Kumar was in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1968 film ”Aashirwad”, for which he won the Filmfare best actor award. In the 1980s, he also played the title role in a TV serial based on the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar. This legendary actor died on 10 December 2001 at the ripe old age of 90.