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Sentimental journey

Sentimental journey

by Khalid Mohamed May 21 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 15 mins, 35 secs

Khalid Mohamed shares an insightful conversation with the legendary Ashok Kumar aka Dadamoni, the ever-lovable actor who would have been 110 years old this year.

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He was devoid of any put-on superstardom aura. Ashok Kumar (1911-2001), born Kumudlal Ganguly, commanded adoration, intimacy, and was so grounded, that decades may have elapsed since his parting, but he has lived snugly in every viewer’s heart and mind. On looking back, I feel as if I was a small part of the thespian’s sentimental journey, spanning so many differing decades. If he were alive today, I wonder how he would have reacted to the pandemic - probably with a volley of chuckles - and an assurance that this too shall pass. Perhaps he’d resume painting on Sundays, perhaps he’d read, or talk about his secret homeopathy recipes.

Everyone but everyone loved to love him. If variety show mimics, aped his distinctive dialogue delivery and body language, he would quote Oscar Wilde, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness”, qualifying that with, “But they’ve got it wrong. Whoever told them that I’m great?”

On Sundays, his ‘phone calls would be regular. He’d chuckle over a film review of mine in The Times of India and point out a particular word he liked. He’d agree or disagree with an assessment. He’d squelch me occasionally but make me feel ten-tall frequently, lowering his voice conspiratorially to ask, “Baba re, film industry people can’t take criticism. How do you get away with it?”

Ashok Kumar, Dadamoni, would once in a while shoots off a letter to me, jesting about a certain performance or a film. “Lekin aaj kal koi heroine nahin achhi lagti,” he’d twinkle. “Hanh Rekha zabardast thi... aur ab sirf Madhuri Dixit mein ab kuchh baat hai!”

I’ve stored the letters of course, they’re mementoes of a time when the film greats would be embarrassed to be perched on a pedestal. And they’d be courtesy personified. If ill health prevented Dadamoni from attending the Filmfare Awards show one year, he’d compose a letter of apology, which read like poesy. And when he assented to the Lifetime Achievement Award, his only demand was, “I want Yusuf (Dilip Kumar) to present it to me. If you want I’ll ring him right now and order him to.”

He didn’t have to. Dilip Kumar had beamed, “Dadamoni bhai ke liye kuchh bhi karega,” he said in a snap of a finger.

As time flies by, his daughter Bharati Jaffrey has sought to rekindle the memory of Dadamoni every year on his birth anniversary with a memorial event, which necessarily have had to be put on hold now.

Whenever I have passed by Chembur, there’s a flash cut to Dadamoni, sitting on a white upholstered chair, his rooms’ balcony overlooking the golf course. Surrounded by books (Charles Dickens, Somerset Maugham, Daphne Du Maurier were his favorites), he would chain-smoke defiant of a rasping cough. And he’d talk of his pet subject, acting, adding that he did not take it “seriously.” Actually, he did.

I’d interviewed him time and again, the longest session being for a brochure published for the International Film Festival of India conducted under the supervision of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Not all the questions and answers could be included, for lack of space. Over, then, to a clutch of excerpts with Dadamoni:

Have you ever thought of acting in theoretical terms? Do you have a definition for acting?

No, no, no. I’ve never believed in theories, never felt the need for a definition. I’ve never thought of the acting process. I leave that job to the ‘intellectuals’. If I’ve followed any technique, it’s that of taking the scene home. I’d rehearse the lines of dialogue, plan out my body movement and repeat all this the next day on the sets.

When I was doing Gumrah (1963) B. R. Chopra told me there would be a scene with me sitting between my wife (Mala Sinha) and her lover (Sunil Dutt). They would be silent while I’d go on talking non-stop, telling her to hurry up with the tea and so on. For three days, I improvised on the scene at home with my wife. I drove her crazy; I kept on telling her to hurry up with the tea till she was ready to hit me with the kettle. I jotted down the lines we exchanged, gave them to B R Chopra.

When my wife (Shobha Devi) saw the film, she said, “Why do you have to make our private life public?” I told her, “Look, you’re paying me a compliment.” I’ve always acted naturally, behaving the way I would at home.

But what if you didn’t get a scene beforehand?

I insist on being informed about what I have to do, at least a day in advance - unless it’s a small line of dialogue, which is altered on the sets on the spur of the moment. I have to be prepared. I work like a baby. I’m very accommodating but I have to be fed at the right time.

I can’t work around chaos. I just can’t adjust to that. I guess like a baby I’m still toddling. Every walk, every role can be done in so many different ways. One has to discover the way the audience will relate to it best. Dilip Kumar has specialized in this, he always keeps the audience in mind - how they will respond to every gesture, glance, pause and inflection in the voice - and that’s why he is Dilip Kumar.

Do you also keep the audience in mind?

That’s not an obsession with me. I act without thinking of the thousands and millions who will react to my performance. I don’t want to be conscious of the fact that we’re all players performing before the public. Instead, I play from the heart, I talk-walk-think before the camera the way I would beyond its range. Sometimes the audience likes this style, sometimes they don’t.

When have they disliked you?

Sometimes critics have been tough on me. I was heavily criticized at the early stage of my career. Perhaps the invectives helped me in the long run. Even when a script is downright awful, I have searched for a silver lining. There is always a redeeming feature, an elusive meaning between the lines, when you’re not contemptuous it’s easier to deliver a decent performance.

I was roundly attacked for Achhut Kanya (1936). I had done my best in the circumstances. I had no idea about acting; neither did I want to act. I was forced to because they wanted to drop the leading man for personal reasons. (Producer) Himanshu Rai was an actor as well; he’d make the task simpler for me. Once I faced the camera, I knew I was stuck for life. To know more about the craft, I bought a lot of American and European books on filmmaking. I’d take them to the seaside, when no one was watching I’d practice the various exercises.

Did you pick up tips from American cinema?

Not overtly. But yes, when it was detected in the ‘rushes’ that I was ‘acting’, not ‘reacting’ to the situations and to my co-stars, I was advised to see the foreign films showing in town like A Tale of Two Cities. I admire the casualness of Ronald Colman and the consummate artistry of Charles Laughton.

I even met Charles Laughton in London. When I asked him if he could give me any advice, he said, “You should know the language you’re speaking better than you know your mother. Then the rest will fall into place.” That’s when I appointed an Urdu instructor: he cleaned up my speech, my diction.

I have never understood what method acting is - the sort that Marlon Brando used to do. It’s no point looking within, getting churned up and indulging in self-therapy. I play it straight; if I can give that extra something to embellish a performance, that’s a bonus. Like I remember the chuddar falling off my shoulder accidentally during a very intense moment with Nutan in Bandini (1963) - it looked natural, we kept it that way, it gave the scene an extra touch of drama.

You’ve often used ‘props’ – like a cigarette has been your constant companion. The way in which you smoked on screen became a part of your persona, as it did for Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart! My God don’t mention my name in the same breath, he was flawless. I wasn’t a chain-smoker but became one, it added to what some people called the Ashok Kumar-style.

I wouldn’t pause while lighting a cigarette, I’d continue rattling off my dialogue. So a cigarette wasn’t really a prop, it became part of my normal technique. If the director wanted me to brandish a gun, I’d say fine, give it to me and let’s see how I can use it coolly. I’m not the argumentative sort; if a director tells me to do something I do it except if he tells me to jump off a cliff!

What if the director wasn’t exactly clued in?

I’ve worked with many crazy directors in my time. Like there was this director who wanted me to recite an entire thesis on the phone to invite the heroine for a picnic. I told him to just let me say, “Let’s go on a picnic.” But he felt there was no dialogue-baazi in this. He wanted me to say, “We will go on a picnic… a picnic near a bubbling brook, tall trees and a hundred peacocks and rabbits.” This sounded horribly artificial. Thoroughly exasperated, I took off my chappals, not - as he thought - to hit him but to hit myself on the head!

Eventually, I gave up the habit of trying to make the director see logic. The director’s supposed to be the leader. If an actor gives his two paise’s worth of advice, it’s misconstrued as interference. Thank the lord; some directors did agree with me that economy of dialogue is so much more effective. I’ve calculated that, despite the crazies, in my 260-plus films, I must not have uttered more than 700 lines of dialogue.

Besides the little known Eight Days (1946), why didn’t you attempt direction?

Ha, do you know the print of Eight Days doesn’t even exist anymore? It was destroyed in a fire. It was about an army man refusing to get entangled in an arranged marriage. The film was just about passable. I didn’t attempt direction again because acting and production consumed all my time and stamina. I think I matured as an actor with Naya Sansar (1941). By then, the acting bug bit me. I couldn’t give it up.

What was special about Naya Sansar?

By the time of Naya Sansar, I had mastered dialogue delivery. There was no dubbing then, the microphone on the sets used to be extremely sensitive, so the voice had to be modulated. If I was to be angry in a scene, I had to deliver it in a low, bass voice so that I would not come off as melodramatic or hysterical.

Were there any peer actors you admired at this point?

Motilal was on the scene but when he portrayed a poor man, he was shaky. He was deft mainly in the lighter scenes. He has been rated as a great actor - I agree but with the reservation that his range was limited.

You have often said that you learnt several acting tricks from Leela Chitnis.

I’d rather call them ‘acting techniques’ than ‘tricks’. Leela Chitnis ‘talked’ through her eyes. Dialogue wasn’t essential, her eyes would light up when joy had to be conveyed or they’d darken to express sorrow.

Devika Rani taught me quite a few techniques too, like one should not shake one’s head too much, because it disturbs the viewer. But Sashadhar Mukherji really trained me. “Tackle every scene from your point of view,” he used to say, “Personalize it.” Today’s directors don’t direct actors, they merely say, “Kuchh achha kar diijiye.” At such times, I feel like hitting them – and myself – with chappals on the head.

Kismet (1943) is the prototype for the ‘lost and found’ films. Also as a pickpocket, the ‘hero’ had a certain grey tint. Would you agree that Kismet is replicated to this day and age?

Of course, it is, it was a trendsetter. But then so was my Mahal (1949), a ghost story. And Parineeta (1953), a low-key romance which came at a time when action was in vogue. Even more than in Kismet, my character in Sangram (1950) had vicious shades. But women liked this kind of hero.

Your fans have been mostly, women. Right?

Alas, no more. Today, it’s the six and eight-year-olds that like their Dadamoni.

Did the entries of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand affect your market?

It was good they came. They were fresh, lovable; each one of them had distinct personalities. I remember Dev hanging around the studios in search of work. Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar were terrific together in Andaz (1949). Both Mehboob Khan had offered their roles to me, but I was far too busy as a producer then. There was no question about my market going up and down as it does for vegetables and oil. There was place for all of us, especially because the film production rate was rising with every year.

After India’s independence, did you detect any changes in the concerns of Hindi cinema?

They became escapist; the serious edge became blunt. The accent was on making big money. Producers became concerned less with quality and more with buying Cadillacs and diamonds for their wives.

In this atmosphere, how did a director like Bimal Roy fit in?

He was a good director, yes. I had sent for him from Calcutta since New Theatres had closed down. I asked S. D. Burman to come to Bombay too. Bimal Roy directed Parineeta for me but while it was being shot, he wanted to start his own production company. I felt a bit bad about this since he was supposed to finish my picture first. But he didn’t pay much heed to that, he completed and released Do Bigha Zameen (1953). So there was a fall-out between us.

Years later, after a patch-up I acted in his Bandini (1963). There was a problem again. The distributors wanted the heroine (Nutan) to go with Dharmendra in the end. I felt that was so wrong, the story wouldn’t make sense. I really had to convince Bimal Roy to retain the original ending. Ha, whenever they have forced the girl to go with the other man, and not me, the film has flopped. Like Bahu Begum (1960), in which they sent Meena Kumari away with Pradeep Kumar.

From your track record, it would seem that you shared a special rapport with B. R. Chopra.

Yes absolutely. He had made a third-class picture called Karwat (1949), and then he came to me. I was told that he was a Partition-time refugee and he needed help. The result was Afsana (1951), a detective story.

One day on the sets, I felt B.R. was being cheeky to impress the distributors. He kept telling me I wasn’t doing a shot correctly. The next day when I saw the rushes, I had to admit he was right. I liked acting in his Kanoon (1960), in which I modeled my acting on Justice M.C. Chagla. Gumrah didn’t have a great story - about a man suspecting his wife’s fidelity - but it clicked with the audience. I was supposed to do B. R.’s Naya Daur (1957) but I recommended Dilip Kumar because he was more suitable for the role.

Why did you give up on film production in the 1960s?

Production can be intoxicating and it can be a pain in the neck. My company made Kalpana (1960) and Meri Soorat Teri Aankhen (1963), then we closed down. I was very weak in business. I was cheated. My secretary got me to sign on a sheet of paper and I was ruined. The secretary left - he became very fat and died of overweight! Poetic justice, I guess. I couldn’t return to the center field of acting immediately. I had fallen ill. I had to undergo surgery. For a year-and-a-half I had to quit working. Then I returned, acted in a few pictures like Mere Mehboob (1963), Bheegi Raat (1965) and Mamta (1966).

Have you ever minded being tagged as a character actor?

Surprisingly not; actors are supposed to be vain, somehow I didn’t have any delusions of grandeur. I never liked love scenes, though; they make no sense because you can never really crush a girl in yours arms. See, there were rumors linking me with Nalini Jaywant - but believe me I was too scared to stray from my wife. In romantic scenes, I wasn’t at my best. Love on the screen is very formal and boring.

As a character actor - that’s what they call anyone who isn’t the lover boy here - I got some of my finest roles, as in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Aashirwad (1968) and Brij’s Do Bhai (1969). On TV, I was appreciated for Hum Log (1984-’85). Ha, so no one gives me lousy reviews anymore, not even you.

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