Ashok Kumar – Leading Ladies I’ve Loved and Why
Galloping along memory road, across a privation-strewn trail into the past, a score of familiar faces arise before me to confront the present. The images become clearer, the memories more distinct, and each resolves itself into the portrait of an excitingly beautiful woman to whom I have made love on the screen.
The flower of a woman’s beauty can never be properly captured on the screen. Real beauty transcends the physical limitations of the screen’s fixed dimensions yet is ever present in the way a woman talks and walks on the sets, the way she inspires better performances from her co-artistes, the way she leaves the mark of her individuality on every film, every studio, every artiste. A star’s beauty, on or off the screen, is the sum total of her personality. No cameraman can ever capture it in its entirety in celluloid. It remains for co-artistes like me who have faced the camera with her, shared her joys and sorrows, understood in some measure her problems and desires, to convey to you some individual impressions of the real self of these queens of the celluloid world.
My first leading lady was Devika Rani who didn’t grow beautiful by looking into the mirror. She was born beautiful. And she was born a lady. Graceful, alert, Devika Rani knew high society as well as she understood the difficulties of a poor, struggling middle-class youth named Ashok Kumar who came to her for help and advice. Devika Rani was a woman who did big things in a quiet way. She was an able organizer and made a substantial contribution to building Bombay Talkies into one of the foremost cinematic institutions in this country. She was a constant source of inspiration and strength to me in my early days in films.
Way back in those days the two directors with whom I worked most often were S. Mukerjee and Gyan Mukerjee. Two more exacting men I have yet to meet. Between “takes”, they would stand me before them and in everyone’s hearing tear my performance to pieces. Their criticism often brought me to the verge of tears and in those moments I frequently hovered on the edge of a decision to return to my former job as a laboratory assistant.
Then out would come Devika Rani like a fairy from behind the flowers. With infinite patience and in an ever-kindly voice she would correct my faults. After a rehearsal or two, I would face the camera confidently to put over a performance for which not only the Press and the public but also my strongest critics, the two Mukerjees, would congratulate me. Devika Rani was not only my leading lady but also my teacher. ‘Follow Ronald Coleman,” she advised me. Today I owe whatever success has come my way to her kindly guidance.
Then Leela Chitnis stalked into my filmic life. I had always wanted to work with Leela and Naseem, so much so that Devika Rani often ragged me about it. About Leela it can he said that her beauty is something wonderful and strange. It seemed to originate in the fathomless depths of her soul. It marched with her into her work. She was one of the most conscientious and painstaking artistes I ever had the good fortune to work with, one prepared to rehearse a scene, even a single shot, a hundred times to achieve the effects that made her so famous in those days. I cannot remember her facing the camera until she thought she was word and gesture perfect.
Leela Chitnis, in my opinion, was one of a very few actresses who could—and can—speak with their eyes. She had the ability to hold a particular expression long after a shot was over. She could act with her eyebrows, her eyelashes, even her pupils. Whatever I have learnt about how to use and discipline my eyes to add to the structure of a film portrayal I have learnt from this great artiste.
The more colorful artistes have often been the most boisterous, the most vital, the most alive. And the one among them all whom I remember most is Renuka Devi, my leading lady in “Naya Sansar”. She would think nothing of drawing me into a boxing bout right on the sets. Her high spirits were irresistible and she would by her sallies and good humor transform a hard day’s work into a picnic. She relieved the deadly monotony of studio routine and did much to stimulate flagging interest in routine that was important as it was inescapable.
To co-star with Naseem in “Chal Chal Re Naujawan” was the realization of one of the dreams of my youth. Naseem (The Morning Breeze) remains till today, in my opinion, the most beautiful woman to have graced the Indian screen, the most graceful bombshell that ever exploded on celluloid. ‘Tis said that the delicacies taste all the more delicious if cooked by a beautiful woman. I can quite believe that, after having eaten the delicious food Naseem had prepared at home and brought on the set. Naseem was seldom conscious of her position—she would quite often offer to surrender her chair to technicians and artistes.
To be an artiste is an achievement, but to be an artiste and not get a swelled head is an even greater accomplishment. Madhubala, my leading lady in “Mahal”, was one of the most promising of the younger generation at the time—a promise she amply fulfilled in “Mahal”. But on the sets of the film I treated her like a kid for I had known her as one from the days of “Basant”. It was nice of her to allow me to do so, for most grown-up girls like to be treated as grown-ups and most stars like to be thought of as constellations and not as kids !
Indeed, this quality of always trying to please others won Madhubala many friends. I found her a contrast from Devika Rani. Devika Rani was always ready to teach, Madhubala was always quick to learn. In those days I was in charge of that production and we were paying a very small fee to Madhubala.
An Outspoken Star
Then there was Kanan Devi with whom I starred in Debaki Bose’s “Chandrasekhar”. She epitomises all the virtues I have come to expect in an honest woman. She is one of the most outspoken women in the film industry and she doesn’t care who hears her. If she feels like telling you something to your face, or driving home a bitter truth, she’ll do it regardless of the consequences. Moreover, while fighting for her own rights, she ungrudgingly concedes the rights of others. When I was first on the sets along with her, she was already a front-ranker. But she never tried to badger or bully the cameraman to keep her always in the field. Most others in her position would have been lamentably anxious to do so and steal the show.
And as memories crowd upon each other, more and more familiar faces come to my mind’s eye, women who were beautiful, women who had brains, women who had art at their finger-tips. In all this medley of faces and figures, one artiste stands forth. It’s Veena, my leading lady in “Najma”. There have been more beautiful heroines than Veena. Others more talented than her. But never a more majestic artiste. I was often awed and uncomfortable in her presence. She was statuesque, and generally aloof and reserved. Yet she was co-operative. The impressions I carry of Veena are curious. Even today I cannot forget the look of tragedy she carried in her eyes. I cannot say whether it was personal or just business. I’m inclined to take the latter view—that Nature had fashioned Veena for deeply tragic roles. Didn’t she give us a superb performance in “Dastaan'”?
If Veena was fashioned for tragic roles, Geeta Bali is the opposite. She is the most uninhibited and easy-to-get-on-with leading lady with whom I ever co-starred. If I were ever to do a statue or painting of irrepressibility, I am sure I would come out with something closely resembling Geeta Bali. There is never a dull moment with her on the sets. One can have too much of gaiety but not when it comes in the form of Geeta Bali. She is very fond of taking a peep at the future. Whatever my merits be as an artiste I enjoy a reputation in film circles as an astrologer and palmist. Geeta Bali has often spread her palm before me. And I can never resist the temptation of teasing her. Taking out a pen, ostensibly for my calculations, I generally draw a grotesque female figure on her palm, proffering the opinion that she resembles that figure. But Geeta Bali doesn’t mind. Instead, she calls for the canteen boy and orders two glasses of lassi! Can you beat that?
Last, but not the least, on my list is Nargis. No superlatives can do justice to her personality. But common words will do. Nargis is simple. Nargis is intelligent. If to this day she has been a “baby” to everyone in films, she has been a little baby to me. She was only 13 when she and I worked in “Humayun”. It may sound like one of those well-behaved things to say it was a privilege to work with her. Yet it is a fact, even though I am the thousandth person to say so. Nargis can grasp quickly and surely, and appreciate the finer points of a character part. In “Deedar” the theme revolved around Dilip Kumar and Nimmi. Both Nargis and I were considerably astonished when we came in for our share of the praise after the fabulous success of the film. Probably the mutual understanding between Nargis and myself lent finesse to the scenes in which we held the floor.
I have shared stellar honors with many others lately—child-like Nalini Jaywant, sentimental Sumitra, self-conscious Suraiya, youthful Bina Rai and, of course, Bhanumati from the South. The endless mime goes on . New faces come, new leading ladies appear with me on the screen, new dialogues, new words of love, are spoken by us before the mike. The days have changed, so have artistes. In a lifelong association with film stars, it is more difficult for me to pick my favorite leading lady than to find the proverbial needle in the haystack (This interview was conducted in 1952).