Yes, no matter how imperfect, Ashok Kumar attained stardom with Achhut Kanya. But most of the praises for the film was showered upon his leading lady, Devika Rani, who had given a truly magnificent performance. As regards Ashok Kumar, the papers praised his pleasant personality, his infectious smile, but dubbed him a ‘chocolate-hero’. And whenever people met him, they would praise him and say, ‘Achha hai, achha hai, magar aur zyada dil kholkar kaam karo (Well done, well done, but work with greater zest).’

‘Dil kholkar? What does that mean?’ Ashok felt that whatever these people were saying corroborated what he felt about himself. Something was wrong somewhere.

Himanshu Rai said, ‘Don’t be depressed. I must say that you are improving and will do better still. But you must start to know about things like characterisation, voice control, action, gestures and postures. To begin with, start seeing foreign films. Watch their heroes, and I’m certain you will improve. Start off today. Go and see Ronald Colman in A Tale of Two Cities – I’ll send someone to get you the tickets.’

Don’t shake your head too much’

One day Devika Rani said to Ashok, ‘Don’t shake your head too much while acting Ashok, because it disturbs.’ Ashok took note of all such observations and remembered all that was said. He now decided that if he was into film-acting, he must make a good job of it.

One day he went on a tour of Bombay’s bookshops and picked up some American and European books on acting styles and technique. One of the books was titled Rehearsal. After going through them he found they were all about stage-acting, there was nothing about acting for the screen. Even so, he learnt how to throw his voice and control it for better effect. He noted the instruction that one should practise the gestures and postures in front of a mirror, to correct them and make them more effective.

Thereafter he started going down to the beach close to Bombay Talkies with the dialogues of the film. To improve his delivery he would speak the lines repeatedly when no one was watching. Back home, he would speak them before a mirror and decide upon the actions and reactions bearing in mind how he looked at every step. He also made it a point to see foreign films starring the ruling deities of the time like Ronald Colman, Spencer Tracy, Leslie Howard and Charles Laughton. He would study their actions and expressions and then compare himself with them. As a result his sense of timing and naturalness showed remarkable progress.

Sashadhar used to help Ashok when he watched his own films. He himself was not an actor, but he was an excellent coach – he knew precisely what was right and what wasn’t. He would tell Ashok, ‘Look at your scene and your dialogue from your point of view, personalise it.’ Gyan Mukherjee, the director of Kismet and Sangram, was another intelligent person who helped Ashok with frank, constructive criticism.

Recollecting those days, Ashok compliments his unique brother-in-law, Sashadhar Mukherjee, in these words: ‘The one who really trained me was Sashadhar Mukherjee. He was a superb person and, to tell the truth, if there was any intelligent man in films, it’s him. If there is any award higher than the Dadasaheb Phalke award, he should get it.’

The end of Bombay Talkies

In 1936, Ashok starred in three films: Jeevan Naiya, Achhut Kanya and Janma Bhoomi. All three featured Devika Rani against him. The next year he starred in Izzat with Devika Rani, Prem Kahani – shot in only eighteen days – with Maya Devi and Madhurika, and lastly in Savitri with – once again – Devika Rani.

In 1938 only two films were made, Nirmala and Vachan: both starred Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani. All these films were enjoyable but none was outstanding. Nevertheless, the popularity of Bombay Talkies as well as Ashok Kumar soared. Even the press had started to take note of his performance though it guarded itself against going overboard with superlatives. And the actor himself felt that in spite of improvement and progress his acting still lacked something vital.

A change crept in with Kangan in 1939. It was based on a short story, Rajanigandha, written by the Akademi award-winning Bengali writer Gajendra Kumar Mitra. The film’s rights was purchased for Rs 250 only!

Kangan was the last of Franz Osten’s directions and Ashok was paired with a new actress, Leela Chitnis. On the first day of shooting Ashok Kumar met Leela Chitnis for the first time. ‘We are to work together,’ he greeted her. ‘I hope you enjoy working with me,’ he added with a laugh.

While shooting, Ashok was impressed by Leela’s performance. Watching her closely, he realised that she ‘spoke’ through her eyes. Dialogues were often not essential because her eyes would light up when she had to convey joy or they would go melancholic to express sorrow. This he learnt from Leela Chitnis, this art of how to speak with his eyes.

All of a sudden, changes started to overwhelm the world. The Second World War affected Bombay Talkies. Franz Osten and other German technicians were deported from India. Since 1939 Himanshu Rai was relying more on the versatile Sashadhar Mukherjee and shifting his responsibilities to him. On his part, Sashadhar had been tackling everything very efficiently.

But in 1940, when everything seemed fine, catastrophe struck. Himanshu Rai had launched a new film, Narayani, when he suddenly had a nervous breakdown and died.

The breakthrough

The creator of Bombay Talkies was gone and Devika Rani took over the leadership. Narayani’s shooting stopped. A new film, Azad, was launched with the same cast, Ashok Kumar and Leela Chitnis, under the direction of NR Acharya. This was followed by Bandhan, produced by S Mukherjee and directed again by NR Acharya, and once again starring Ashok Kumar and Leela Chitnis. This film was another silver-jubilee hit.

In 1941 came Anjaan with Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar in the leads. This launched a new director whom Devika Rani had recruited – Amiya Chakravarty. The film did not do well at the box office and was the last to pair Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani. Then came Jhoola, teaming Ashok Kumar with Leela Chitnis under the direction of Gyan Mukherjee. Once again a hit, another silver jubilee.

This film, along with Kangan and Bandhan, turned Ashok Kumar into a matinee idol. The racy plots, the brooding camerawork and haunting music besides the performances fired the popularity of this trilogy. These, it must be added, were the precursors of the formula film as it exists till the present times.

Newspapers and magazines, that had remained appreciative of Ashok Kumar, sang his praises when Naya Sansar was released. It had cast Ashok with a new heroine, Renuka Devi. Once again the director was NR Acharya and the powerful story about a courageous and crusading newspaper reporter was by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas.

Now, in the flush of success and reading the rave reviews, the generally diffident Ashok Kumar felt convinced about his maturity as an actor. A far cry from the fumbling newcomer of six years ago. At one time people used to tell Ashok Kumar: ‘Dil kholkar kaam karo.’ He had done so. At last he had opened up his heart through his eyes.

Excerpted with permission from Dadamoni – The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar, Nabendu Ghosh, Speaking Tiger.