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December 10, 2001
'He never let the child in him die'
Vivek Fernandes in Mumbai
The heady scent of incense sticks permeate the air. Plastic chairs dot a tiled pathway. In the verandah of House 47, Union Park, Chembur, Mumbai, lay the body of veteran Ashok Kumar.
A bevy of reporters, close relatives, neighbours and friends circled the immediate family to pay their last respects to one of the pioneers of Indian cinema.
Astonishingly, only a handful of the Hindi film fraternity actually visited the actor's home to bid farewell.
Astonishing because this was a man who had devoted 63 of the 90 years of his life to Indian cinema and was responsible for creating some of the biggest screen icons the industry ever produced.
Astonishing because it was the same fraternity who had conferred on him its most recognised, prized trophies.
Astonishing because it does validate the fact that out of sight is out of mind in fickle-minded Bollywood.
"A chapter in Indian cinema has ended with Dadamoni's demise," said veteran filmstar and Congressman Sunil Dutt, one of the very few film personalities who came to pay his respects.
"There was not much that eluded Ashok," Dutt continued, "He had it all -- fame, box office success, a great family life and the respect and admiration of his colleagues. What saddens me most is that he didn't live on to complete a century.
Ashok Kumar recently turned 90 on October 13. His well-known siblings -- singer-actor Kishore (who was 19 years his junior) and actor Anoop passed away earlier. His wife Shobha expired in 1989. Ashok Kumar is survived by three daughters: Bharati Jaffrey, Rupa Verma and Priti Ganguly (who now manages the Ashok Kumar Acting Academy); a son Arup Kumar Ganguly; grandsons, granddaughters and great grandchildren.
Born Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly, Ashok Kumar made waves with his version of anti-hero in Kismet, a blockbuster which went on to break records in his hometown Kolkata. He ran away from the city on January 28, 1934, to come to Khar, a Mumbai suburb, with Rs 35 (which were incidentally his law examination fees), to pursue a film career. He began as a cameraman's assistant, moved on to laboratory assistant, an actor and finally turned producer.
Nephew Amit Kumar, Kishore Kumar's son, said, "He was a pioneer, a force to reckon with. We would have loved it had he lived on to celebrate his 100th birthday. I regret not having seen him before he passed away. I invited him to perform in Kolkata a while ago for a show I did with my brother Sumeet. Dadamoni came, sang and danced with us. The entire stadium erupted when he came on; they were there only to see him," he reminisced.
Music director Bhappi Lahiri was also present. His trademark thick gold chains notwithstanding, Lahiri's demeanour and white kurta reflect his sombre mood: "I will never forget the time he called to congratulate me when I completed my song Kabhi alvida naa kehna for my first film, the 1976 Kishore Kumar-hit Chalte Chalte. He said the song would become a hit. It did and remained his all-time favourite. His was always so generous to us newcomers."
Sunil Dutt fondly recalled time spent with Ashokji. "I remember he was a stickler for perfection. He would redo a scene till he got it absolutely right. He always used certain props to enhance his scenes a cigarette, a lighter, an ashtray. We would kid around and change their placement. So when he reached out for his lighter, he would end up picking up the ashtray. He took our pranks lightly, he was full of humour."
"He was always full of wit. Even when he was ailing, he never let the child in him die," said television star Kanwaljeet, Ashok Kumar's grandson-in-law.
"His health kept oscillating. But he seemed to be in prime condition the last few days," Khurshid, the actor's personal aide, intoned. He never had any age-related ailments -- no diabetes, no cholestrol, no high blood pressure. He did have an asthma problem. But the cardiac arrest was sudden. We tried to pump his chest and called the doctor. But it was too late." Khurshid has been the actor's confidante for most of the latter's life.
Rose petals are strewn over a white sheet, garlands placed on the actor's chest. His daughter is reserved, silent in her grief. Her eyes mirror her pain. In keeping with Bengali tradition, the soles of the actor's feet are printed on paper (the actor's letterhead) using alta. The customary thick, dark-rimmed spectacles retain their position on the actor's nose. "He would want it that way," an immediate family member said.
The procession bearing the body led by the male members wound its way to the Chembur crematorium. It is the end of an era.
Photographs: Jewella C Miranda
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