indian cinema heritage foundation

Speaking of Portraits and People

10 Dec, 2021 | Archival Reproductions by Cinemaazi
The broad smile on handsome Ashok Kumar's face bespeaks a man at peace with himself and the world. Image courtesy: Filmfare Magazine

Let me make it clear at the outset that this article has little to do with the three pictures of me on this page. One is a photograph of the cameraman’s vision. The second is a self-portrait. The third is an artists’ impression- a modernistic painting.

I point this out because they are examples of how different people form different impressions of the same person. This is also true of our daily associations. But if one could come to know the thoughts of other people and the impressions they have formed of one, there would be endless amusing as well as embarrassing consequences. New friendships would be formed. Old, valued associations would be abruptly ended. 
A self-potrait by Ashok Kumar. Image courtesy: Filmfare Magazine

Some years ago I read a novel in which the hero was temporarily endowed with the doubtful gift of knowing everything that went on in people's minds. It was a hilarious tale. If I had that gift, I might find that those whom I thought disliked me really had a sneaking regard and respect for me, or, conversely, those whom for years I had taken for granted as friends actually entertained nothing but malice towards me! I think one is better off without such a gift. 

In my rare idle moments I amuse myself recollecting the impressions of different people and the events connected with them. After a while, I wonder at the mosaic those memories form. I even begin to laugh. "Is this the impression they have of me?" I exclaim. 

There was the occasion when I had my first brush with the law. Several years ago (during World War II) I accompanied a friend in my car one night to Crawford Market to buy tobacco. As there was no parking place, we stopped the car by the pavement. We took some time in the shop and when we came out a constable was standing there, ready to chide us.
Instead of allowing the constable to say his piece and go his way, my friend lost his temper. At this, the policeman flared up, too. 

"Come," he said, jumping into the car. "Ashok Kumar or no Ashok Kumar, we will go to the police-station!" 

I pleaded with him, but to no avail. So I started the car, and drove at breakneck speed.

"You are trying to kill me!" said the police-man, frightened. Taking out his whistle, he blew shrilly on it. I brought the car quickly to a halt as a number of policemen came on the scene. We were already at the police-station. 

The police inspector heard the constable's complaint. Then he snapped: "Deposit twenty rupees now and appear in court tomorrow morning." 

"I haven't got the money," I said. 
"Oh! Is that so?" he said. Then, turning to a constable, he ordered, "Lock him up!" 
I produced the money immediately! 

Next morning, I appeared in the Honorary Presidency Magistrate's Court. Several minor offences were promptly dealt with. My turn came last. I stood up. 

"Your name?" asked the magistrate, looking hard at me. 
"A. K. Ganguly," I replied. 
"Your name, I said!" he repeated. 
"A. K. Ganguly," I said again. 
"Yes, yes!" he said irritated. "What does A. K. stand for?" 
"Ashok Kumar," I said.

"Ah, I thought so," he beamed. "All right. 

Pay twenty rupees to the War Fund, then come upstairs and have a cup of tea with me."

He was a very human magistrate, and his was a fortunate reaction! 

If people react in unexpected ways to well-known personalities, it is because they are not sure what to think of them. Take, for example, this experience I had of the public—or rather, the public had of me! 

I was driving home one evening some years ago from the studio along a crowded thorough-fare when one of the tires of my car got punctured. But I managed to take the car to the pavement. In a trice a crowd gathered. Fortunately, I had parked in front of a tyre-repair shop. Fleeing inside, I asked them to change the punctured tyre. Every minute the crowd became bigger. The owner of the shop locked the door, but people started pounding on it. 

When the new tyre had been fitted, I elbowed my way through the crowd, back to my car. In that short time, I heard a number of remarks about me each different from the others.

People were all round me. I started the car and drove slowly, at not more than five or seven miles an hour. The crowd formed into a procession and followed the car, cheering and shouting! 

It must have been the strangest procession ever seen on that road. The traffic was blocked. A couple of policemen hurried up and, sticking their heads into the car-window, asked: "Why don't you drive faster?" 

"Why don't you tell them to go away and not bother me?" I asked in turn, waving at the procession. "It's they who are blocking the traffic."

This puts me in mind of the time I was like any fan in assessing the great.

Bombay Talkies was holding the premiere of an important picture. At that time, I did not know very much of the ways of great showmanship or of great men. It was a glittering occasion and some very important political personages were among the distinguished guests. 

Mr. Himansu Rai, Devika Rani and the political leaders were in one row. I, too, was with them. The picture began and soon I was absorbed in it. I did not even dream then that I would one day cease to be impressed at seeing myself on the screen. 
Jeevan Naiya (1936) - Ashok Kumar's first film poster. Image courtesy: Cinemaazi Archive

From the auditorium below arose the full-throated cheer of many voices: "- - - ki jai!" I was startled. I stole a glance at the leader whom the people had just cheered. From his expression he seemed quite used to public ovations. 

After a while the same full-throated cheer filled the auditorium. Then a third time, just when I was beginning to like my efforts in a love scene which had come on the screen. This time I was annoyed. Leaning forward, I muttered, "What's all this cheering for?" 

"That," the great man whispered unmoved, "is publicity!" 

This wasn't the only shock I got during the show. I heard someone snoring. Turning, I saw that it was one of the great ladies she was fast as eep. I took such indifference towards the picture as a personal insult and wondered whether Devika Rani felt that way, too. I refrained from nudging the snoring lady, but someone else did. She woke up and exclaimed: "Who's singing?" Just then, nobody was singing!

Which only goes to show that even the great -rather, the great ones particularly -have very human ways and weaknesses. As for myself, I delight, I must confess, in practical jokes.
After the day's shooting one evening, a few of us, including Mr. Himansu Rai and Devika Rani, were having a quiet cup of tea on the lawns of the studio, when a cousin of Devika's who was in the Navy came there un-expectedly. He was offered a cup of tea, but he said, "May I have a pink 'un?" 

I wondered what the "pink 'un" was, and in a few moments found out. He was referring to his favourite cocktail, a heady mixture of gin and bitters, for which he had acquired a taste during his travels abroad. The cocktail was served to him in a tall, frosted glass. He drank it and asked for another. And while we watched with increasing amusement, he consumed six "pink 'uns" as fast as they came! 
Ashok Kumar in one of his early films. Image courtesy: Cinemaazi Archive

As soon as he had drained the sixth glass the young man stretched himself peacefully on the lawn and passed out. Everyone was alarmed, and it was only after several hours and numerous telephone calls that Devika Rani was able to get in touch with his quarters. Someone there was asked to come over and take the young man back. We were delayed at the studio well into the night before the young man was safely dispatched. 

Next evening, Mr. Himansu Rai and Devika Rani were going to the pictures and then to a party. Before they left the studio, Mr. Rai received a telephone-call. "I enjoyed your pink 'uns immensely yesterday," said the young man of the previous evening to Mr. Rai. "I'm coming around for more today!" 

They were very upset. They didn't want to entertain the young man and they fled. As soon as they reached home, there was another call: "I'm at the studio. Why did you go away in such a hurry? Don't leave the house, now. I'm coming there!" 

To give the young man the slip they came to my house, thinking anything would be better than a repetition of the previous day's experience. 

I took Mr. Rai aside and whispered, "I think I'd better tell you. The young man didn't ring you at all. It was I" 

I thought the joke had gone far enough and wanted to end it, but I was nervous as to what Mr. Rai would say. 

"What!" he exclaimed, patting me, an expression of immense relief suffusing his face, "Thank God. Even a practical joke is prefer-able to the real thing. Besides, I wasn't very keen on going to the party."

Looking over what I have written, I think there is a spirit of levity throughout. People may ask: "Is Ashok Kumar really frivolous? Is he the practical joker he makes himself out to be?" My answer is: "Yes." But I offer no explanation. And since they say that many a truth is spoken in jest. I would like to conclude with one. 

The other day my eldest daughter, Bharati, had some of her friends and teachers over to tea. They were discussing a variety entertainment they were going to hold. When I walked in, they all clamoured that I should do an item in the programme.

"No!" I said laughing. "Didn't Bharati tell you that I am a `bogus' person? In a profession filled with 'bogus' people, I'm the biggest of them all!" 

This article was first published in the 13th January 1958 publication of the Filmfare Magazine as stated by Ashok Kumar.
The images used in this archival reproduction are from the original artcile and Cinemaazi Archive.

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