Ashok Kumar’s biography has been much written. By Divine Grace the actor lived long and in full alertness of the mind and in good health and spoke freely to those who sought him out for interviews and a longer engagement. He has been an institution unto himself and has been almost intrinsically associated with Bombay Talkies. Yet, to understand Ashok Kumar, we pin him down to the song he sung both on screen as well as the playback in his first film, Jhoola, Ek Chatur Naar, the very same one that was remixed for the film Padosan releasing more than twenty years later and sung by Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar.
The song is interesting for here is a young man, who cleverly dresses himself up and cultivates seductive body language to attract women towards him. The young man is posing in front of the mirror, trying to anticipate which of his smiles, the bending of the neck and the arching of eyebrows and the flirtatious laughter in the eyes will get a girl in his snare is central to the image of Ashok Kumar and to the star of the Hindi film. We must understand that here is a medium that is prospecting the idea of the new individual, the individual having just been discovered through modernity, revved up with a set of human rights and charged with the modern institutions that guarantee her freedom against the archaic traditions. Such an individual is also the romantic in a Western sense, the notion of romantic love sits tight on some semblance of equality between the sexes. Hence, for the image of the romantic hero, masculinity must be compromised and this, the image of Ashok Kumar is trying to convey, eager to appease a woman, eager to seem attractive to the feminine gender and a lot of effeminising, therefore.
We now move back to Ashok Kumar’s social background and we find here a combination of many forces. His paternal side descends from the infamous Raghu Dakaat, his mother is a descendant of Raja Shibchandra Banerjee of Bhagalpur and he married a direct descendant of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. The story goes that once Raghu Dakaat, in order to evade his arrest disguised as a Brahmin priest of a temple and the British police did not touch the elderly holy man. Thereafter Raghu Dakaat, who was a Robinhood like character, robbing the rich to protect the poor left his profession and became a priest in real life. Though one does not know the background of this brigand, one may safely assume that he may have been a low caste, who on account of his money and good will becomes a Brahmin through upward social mobility and their caste is known as the Amathe Brahmins. Anyway, Ashok Kumar’s father moves into Bhagalpur and marries his mother, the granddaughter of Raja Shibchandra Banerjee. We learn that Shibchandra and Bankim Chandra both jointly held the first position in Calcutta University law examination and both were offered jobs of the Deputy Magistrates by the British. While Bankim Chandra took up the employment, Shibchandra set up his private practice and earned a whopping sum of Rs 40 lakhs in 12 years and with this sum of money he laid out public parks and gardens and buildings and earned for himself the title of Raja. He entertained British guests lavishly and was seized with the strong desire to convert to Christianity, which somehow, he could not bring himself to do. In his advanced years, he developed senility and soon died. Ashok Kumar marries the granddaughter of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. Ashok Kumar’s education was almost wholly overseen by his erudite mother, Gouridebi, who taught him Chaucer and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Among the three, Ashok Kumar’s father’s family was economically the most modest and it was thus important that he, being the oldest of the three brothers and a sister settle down as the next earning member of the family. Therefore, when he joined the films, it was indeed a risk. But in this he was encouraged by Sasadhar Mukherjee, his sister’s husband who was in employment of Bombay Talkies. Bombay Talkies was founded by Himanshu Rai in which Sasadhar Mukherjee was a partner. Himangshu Rai belonged to an aristocratic Bengali family, who studied in Santiniketan and then read law at Kolkata and established his practice in London. Here, he used his money to produce Indian films like Light of Asia and others. He met, love and married Devika Rani, grand niece of Rabindranath Tagore, who was a textile designer with her own assignments in London and together they moved to Bombay and set up the Bombay Talkies. Here, he met Sasadhar Mukherjee and Gyan Mukherjee, both of who were brilliant physicists in the making and studied under Meghnad Saha. Their acumen in physics helped develop the craft of cinematography. Himangshu had brought with him, his friend, Niranjan Pal, the son of Bipin Chandra Pal from London into Bombay to be a partner for his venture in the film studio. We see an interesting sociological profile of the Bombay Talkies; it is set up by Bengalis living away from Bengal, or better called as pravasis. We have Niranjan Pal with high political connections, Himangshu Rai with a moneyed background but also a professional, middle class scientist in Sasadhar and Gyan Mukherjee, partly middle-class background of Ashok Kumar and partly an enormously upwardly mobile maternal family of Shibchandra Banerjee. It is interesting that while an entirely Bengali enterprise, the studio did not have any Bengali from Bengal, except later by way of Amiya Chakravarty and Nitin Bose. The class ensemble of the film industry was thus a mixture of the aristocratic and the professional. But these being Bengali, combined the intellectual riches of the Bengali culture and the cosmopolitanism of the wider country and fused into products that constituted a class apart.
Ashok Kumar’s family settled in Bhopal was furiously anti communal and in their public life, they strove for communal harmony. Much of Ashok Kumar’s portrayal of masculinity was one of a comely man, eager to please women and with soft sentiments and misty emotions, a complete contradiction to the murderous masculinity of the communal being. But besides ideology, the other thing at work was to learn the art and the craft of the new medium, the cinema and to fully gain handle on its new and emergent technology. In other words, the pursuit of ideology and technology went hand in hand, complementarily to each other. Bombay Talkies had a galaxy of film makers from Europe, the most famous of them being perhaps Frantz Osten, from Germany.
Ashok Kumar is very sensitive to Gandhian ideology of communal harmony than he is towards Freedom. For the star, patriotism meant communal harmony and Freedom would be a by-product. Sadat Manto, Mehboob Khan, Dilip Kumar and Kidar Sharma are the young brigade for whom a free India is a land of liberal and secular institutions protecting individual rights and freedom. What does not worry him are international affairs of fascism, socialism or even the War or the Bengal Famine and strangely, not even the Partition of the country. Intrigued by a total absence of any mention of the Partition especially as K A Abbas and Sadat Manto both of who write such ferocious critique of the cruel consummation of communal politics in their essays are surprisingly silent about the matter on screen.
I have wondered why this should be the case? I agree that a few studios may not agree to depict the pains of the Partition, but one wonders why overall, an entire film industry refused to touch the subject even with a barge pole? The answer may perhaps lie that the cinema by and large has oriented itself towards the discovery of a fulfilled individual and communal politics which is about the alienated and anomie individual may not find a place in the scheme of things.