Ashok Kumar

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Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly (Ashok Kumar), actor: born Bhagalpur, India 13 October 1911; married (one son, two daughters); died Bombay 10 December 2001.

An accidental film role starring opposite Devika Rani, India's leading heroine of the 1930s, after the actor due to play the hero went missing, launched Ashok Kumar on an acting career that spanned nearly seven decades and included more than 250 movies.

His diverse oeuvre included roles as lover, comedian, anti-hero and frightening villain, and led an entire generation to emulate his every move, trying to copy his hairstyle, the way he talked, smiled and even smoked. His performances set the benchmark for "Bollywood", India's film capital city, Bombay, and his versatility was such that he could play a sensitive suitor, detective, business tycoon, bandit and neighbourhood thug with the same effortless ease as he could a comic.

Kumar was not the prototype muscle-bound, swashbuckling Bollywood hero, despite his obvious good looks. He looked middle-aged, somewhat avuncular, from the beginning and since most of his memorable roles were in films that suited his appearance and personality, they ended up being hits. But he managed, remarkably, to look the same almost till his last screen appearance five years ago when he was in his mid-eighties.

The gangly Kumar made his début in 1934 with a minor role in Jawani ki Hawa ("The Breeze of Youth") produced by Bombay Talkies – one of India's first and best-known movie studios – that starred the exquisitely beautiful Bengali actress Devika Rani. But one of Kumar's directors told him that his prominent jaw would gravely handicap his acting future, news he received with indifference. He dreamt not of stardom, but of becoming a film technician. Kumar's first film, expectedly, sank into oblivion.

But, for unknown reasons, the hero billed to star opposite Rani in Jeevan Naiyya ("New Life", 1936) backed out, and the desperate director implored Kumar to replace him. He was terrified. "I knew little about acting and frankly I didn't want to know," he reminisced years later. "The thought that I was to play the hero opposite Devika Rani sent a chill down my spine. She had charisma, she spoke English and interacted with the directors of Bombay Talkies. She virtually controlled the affairs of the company." Rani was also married to the studio owner Himanshu Rai.

At an early stage in the film's shooting, an edgy Kumar was supposed to jump on the villain at the count of 10. Highly nervous, he jumped before the count ended, landed on the villain's back and broke his leg. The shooting was stalled for several weeks and the film eventually made no ripples. But it was enough to have Kumar cast alongside Rani once again. Achyut Kanya (Untouchable Girl), released later the same year, became a runaway box office success, and Kumar's stardom was assured. The budding cinematographer and unwilling actor had emerged a star.

Kumar was born Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly – the eldest of the three talented Ganguly brothers, each of whom became a Bollywood legend in his own right – into a middle-class Bengali Brahmin household in 1911 in Bhagalpur, eastern Bihar state. He was schooled locally before graduating in science from Robertson college in Jabalpur, Central India, a small town close to where his father had been transferred as magistrate.

At college Kumar developed an obsession for cinematography, but his father, like most parents of his generation, had a strong antipathy to the entertainment world and sent his son to study Law at Calcutta, then capital of the British colonial administration in eastern India. At Calcutta, Kumar spent less time on studying than on patronising the popular New Theatre cinema where his yen for films became an obsession. Unable to sustain an interest in the law, Kumar spent the 35 rupees meant for his examination fee to travel to Bombay. He had hoped to persuade the owner of Bombay Talkies to give him a letter of introduction to a cinematographic institute in Germany.

A few years later he was India's hottest male star. His repertoire was vast. It ranged from fast-paced thrillers like Howrah Bridge (1958) to Meharbani ("Thankful", 1950), a family saga, and to deeply moving love stories. He exhibited his natural flair for comedy in the hilarious Victoria No 203 (1972), where Kumar plays the droll owner of a hackney carriage in Bombay.

Portraying a petty thief, Kumar was also Bollywood's first star to play the anti-hero, in Kismet (1943). A sinister and merciless international gangster in Jewel Thief (1967), and a rapist in Jawaab ("Reply"), were amongst his stellar roles as a baddie. His talents as a singer helped him play the role of an ugly vocalist in Meri Soorat Teri Aankhen ("My Looks, Your Eyes", 1962) that produced a number of hit songs.

In Oonche Log ("High Class People", 1965) and Kanoon ("Justice", 1960), Kumar branched out into character roles. His best in this genre was Aashirwad (Blessing) in 1971, a heart-rending story of a generous and dilettante aristocrat fond of music, children and poetry. One of his best-known films, however, was Chalti Ka Nam Gadi (That Which Runs is a Car, 1958), a rip-roaring comedy in which he starred with his siblings Anoop and Kishore. The three brothers displayed an uncanny rapport and sense of timing, reminiscent of the Marx Brothers' comedies.

In the 1980s Kumar had a brief stint in television in India's first and hugely popular television soap opera, Hum Log ("We People"). Soon afterwards, despite ill-health he took the title role in Bahadur Shah Zafar, about India's last Mogul ruler, before retiring in the early 1990s.

A crossword fanatic and amateur homeopath whose cures worked miraculously on film crew colleagues and fellow actors, Kumar was awarded the Padmashree, one of the highest civilian awards, in 1966. In 1989, he accepted the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the Indian equivalent of an Oscar, besides receiving scores of lesser Bollywood honours during the course of his career.

Kuldip Singh