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Has Ashok Kumar been forgotten?

With many prints of his films missing, the Ashok Kumar legacy is in imminent danger. Khalid Mohamed on where Dadamoni's virasat has gone.

entertainment Updated: Mar 28, 2008 19:17 IST
Khalid Mohamed

Just last week, Madhubala's beauty radiated from an Indian postage stamp. At its release function, word even went around that more showbiz personalities would soon feature on stamps, a distinctive, posthumous honour.

Sad to say, though, India's best-loved superstar of his times has been forgotten. The postal authorities haven't even returned the rare photos borrowed from his surviving family.

More heart wrenchingly, with many prints of his films and personal belongings either missing or destroyed, the Ashok Kumar legacy is in imminent danger of being erased.

Khalid Mohamed on where Dadamoni's virasat has gone...

There's no anniversary, death or birth for me to peg this piece on. It's just that when the Howrah Bridge style laughing face of Madhubala was released on a stamp last week, thoughts flashed – but what have the government (read postal) authorities done about Ashok Kumar?

Seven years ago, when he passed away at the age of 90 on December 7, much had been promised in tribute to his memory .

His books, paintings, movies, award trophies.. all gone with the wind a natural-born actor, that in calibre, over the decades, he has been matched only by Dilip Kumar. And from the yarns Dadamoni would spin, it was clear that the two often tried to top each other's per- formance.

<b1>"Yusuf had to put in that extra effort, I didn't," Dadamoni would chuckle, in his white-pillowed chair in the verandah of his Chembur bungalow - overlooking the green stretch of a golf course.

Nothing has happened.. but for some persistent efforts by his family to remind us that Ashok Kumar was the biggest boss ever, a Titan-like presence in over 300 movies. He was such, Alright, so the postal department has not returned 20 Ashok Kumar photographs culled from his family albums and movie stills. Neither has the civic corporation thought of naming the winding gully at Chembur's Union Park, leading to his villa, after him.

It's futile to moan that lesser film personalities have streets named after them. The commodious, typically 1950s-style bungalow, has been pulled down to make way for a seven-apartment block.

No luck
One of the apartments is occupied by Dadamoni's low-profile son Arup Ganguly, who strived to become an actor but couldn't after one attempt. His sister Preeti, fondly remembered as an accomplished comédienne, occupies a smaller apartment in the same block.

<b2>Two other sisters, Bharati Jaffrey and Rupa Varma, live in Mumbai's Cuffe Parade and Pune respectively. Today Dadamoni could count six grandchildren and eight great-grandkids.

Ashok Kumar is remembered, certainly, but hasn't been deified. Indeed, the current Gen-Next is likely to know more about Rajpal Yadav than about Ashok Kumar, Rehman or Balraj Sahni.

Missing link
Incredibly enough, all the prints of the films made by Ashok Kumar Productions are missing. The lost titles include Ziddi which established Dev Anand as a star, Sangram, Majboor, Mashaal, Ragini and Kalpana.

Bharati Jaffrey, the daughter who has been trying to cling on to slivers of the Ashok Kumar legacy, tries to be stoic about the lost movies, but her voice rises several octaves as she tells me, "We have no idea who has the copyright to papa's films. Or who has the authority to issue the remake rights. We don't know whether most of the films have survived or not. Who has their negatives?"

Caught unawares


She elaborates that she could borrow a print of

Parineeta

from the National Film Archive of Pune for a single screening, but laments that most of the other movies are unreachable.



"Forget the remake of

Parineeta

," the daughter laughs ironically "Even papa's

Sangram

was remade into

Shakti

.. but did anyone acknowledge that?"

Incidentally, Sangram was banned after it had run several weeks, because it showed a father killing his own son.

"No one can be charged of embezzlement," Jaffrey continues, "because most of the guilty parties are dead. Papa's righthand man Ganeshan, accountants and secretaries all took advantage of his gullible nature. But you know what? Papa would say, ‘Anyone who steals from me never lives to enjoy it."

Dadamoni's only loyal aidecum-confidant, Khurshid Miyan, who served him for 43 years, has been looked after and settled in a Chembur apartment.

The thespian's extensive library, with leather-bound first editions, was destroyed two years ago in the 27th July floods. The books had been stored in a godown. Dadamoni would love to quote passages from memory especially from the classics of French authors Voltaire, Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant.

<b3>Bengali literary passages, from Tagore would be instantly accompanied by English translations. And he would often rile me, "Baba, for your reviews sometimes I have to take out my fattest dictionary ."

Ashok Kumar's popular homeopathy nuskas have survived to an extent; they are still used by a doctor at Khar. A remedy for a sore throat is believed to be particularly effective.

Hard luck
Back in 1966, Dadamoni was grievously ill with a gall bladder infection. That's when his finances went in a financial tailspin.

He had to sell his vast house on Rampart Row, an entire building bang in front of the Max Mueller Bhavan today. The shift to Chembur suited him, even if the only woman he admitted to having had an affair with, lived just down the lane.

Nalini Jaywant still lives down that lane, but has become Chembur's answer to Greta Garbo.

"Of course, mum must have been upset," Jaffrey recollects, "but then no one could be upset with papa for too long. He would always joke about women flirting with him.. he was tickled pink, especially when the maharanis fluttered their eyelashes at him"

Almost every day, Dadamoni would paint from seven to 10 in the morning, before setting off to the studio. The family only has an armful of his paintings today. There is a striking portrait of a woman in the nude at which Jaffrey smiles, "He would say that's mum at different stages of her life." Preeti owns a painting showing her mother at a time when she was pregnant with her.

In his typical saucy style, Dadamoni had also painted a portrait of Mona Lisa - in the nude! That portrait is untraceable today .

There is an Ashok Kumar Foundation which periodically organises scriptwriting workshops, runs a homeopathy clinic and stages plays and concerts for charity. Jaffrey says that these initiatives are not enough.

"Papa," she keeps repeating, "did so much." Even all the awards - trophies and statuettes - he won over six decades, have been lost. But does anyone care?

Stamped Film personalities commemorated by the postal department
Madhubala (2008),SD Burman (2007), Ritwik Ghatak (2007), Mehboob Khan (2007) ¦ Bimal Roy (2007) ¦ Guru Dutt (2004) ¦ K L Saigal (2004) ¦ Hemant Kumar (2003) ¦ Mukesh (2003) ¦ Mohammed Rafi (2003) ¦ Kishore Kumar (2003) ¦ V Shantaram (2001) ¦ Prithviraj Kapoor (1995) ¦ Satyajit Ray (1994) ¦ Nargis Dutt (1993) ¦ Dinanath Mangeshkar (1993) ¦ Dadasaheb Phalke (1971)