Ashok Kumar was born Kumudlal Ganguly to a Bengali family in Bhagalpur, then in the Bengal Presidency of British India and now in the Bihar state of India. His father, Kunjlal Ganguly, was a lawyer while his mother, Gouri Devi, was a home-maker. Kumudlal (as he was then known) was the eldest of four children. His only sister, Sati Devi, a few years younger to him, was married at a very young age to Sashadhar Mukherjee and became the matriarch of a large "film family". Next was his brother, Kalyan, more than 14 years younger (b.1926), who later took the screen name Anoop Kumar, and youngest of all was Abhas (b.1929), whose screen name was Kishore Kumar, who became a phenomenally successful playback singer of Hindi films. Although the eldest by several years, Ashok Kumar outlived all his siblings. In fact, he stopped celebrating his birthday after his youngest brother, Kishore, died on that very day, Ashok's birthday, in 1987.
While still a teenager, and well before he had even given thought to a career in films, the young Kumudlal was married to Shobha in a match arranged by their parents in the usual Indian style. Their lifelong marriage was a harmonious and conventional one, and despite his film career, the couple retained a very middle-class outlook and value system, bringing up their children with traditional values in a remarkably simple home. They were the parents of one son named Aroop Ganguly and three daughters named Bharati Patel, Rupa Verma and Preeti Ganguly. Their son, Aroop Kumar Ganguly, was featured as the hero of exactly one film, Bezubaan (1962), which flopped at the box office. He then made a career in the corporate world. Ashok's eldest daughter, Bharati Patel, is the mother of the actress Anuradha Patel, who is married to the actor Kanwaljeet Singh. Ashok's second daughter, Rupa Verma, is the wife of the actor and comedian Deven Verma. Ashok's youngest daughter, Preeti Ganguly, was the only one of his daughters to enter the film industry. She acted as a comedian in several Hindi films during the 1970s and 1980s, and died unmarried in 2012.
Ashok Kumar's daughter Bharati was married two times, and both times for love. Her first marriage was to a Mr. Patel, and by this marriage she had one daughter, the actress Anuradha Patel, who is married to the actor Kanwaljeet Singh. Later, and much against the wishes of her parents, Bharati had a second marriage with Hameed Jaffrey, brother of the actor Saeed Jaffrey, a Muslim by birth. By this second marriage, Bharati had another daughter, Shaheen Jaffrey, whose principal claim to fame is that she may have been the first love of actor Salman Khan. By this second marriage, Bharati also acquired a step-daughter, Geneviève, who was Hameed's daughter by his first wife Valarie Salway, a woman of mixed Scottish, Irish, Portuguese and Spanish heritage. Geneviève married a Sindhi businessman named Jagdeep Advani. Their daughter is the upcoming model and actress Kiara Advani. Thus, Ashok Kumar has no blood relationship with Kiara Advani and she is not his great-granddaughter, as is sometimes rumoured.
Reverently called Dadamoni (affectionate term for elder brother), Kumudlal Ganguly was born in Bhagalpur and educated at Presidency College of the University of Calcutta, Kolkata, where he studied to become a lawyer. However, his heart was not in his law studies. Ganguly was more interested in cinema, in which he dreamt of working as a technician.
It was the lure of cinema and the presence of his brother-in-law Sashadhar Mukherjee in a fairly senior position in Bombay Talkies which prompted Kumudlal Ganguly to move to Chembur, Bombay (Mumbai) in the mid 1930s, where he started off as a laboratory assistant in Bombay Talkies, one of the biggest film studios of that era.
Kumudlal Ganguly was happy working as a laboratory assistant, when his acting career started purely by accident. Shooting was already underway on the Bombay Talkies production Jeevan Naiya in 1936, when the male lead Najmul Hassan eloped with his co-star Devika Rani, who also happened to be the wife of studio head Himanshu Rai. Rani subsequently returned to her husband who, out of spite, dismissed Hassan and called upon Kumudlal Ganguly to replace him (against the advice of director Franz Osten, who reckoned that the young man did not have the looks needed for an actor). Ganguly was given the screen name Ashok Kumar, in keeping with the general trend in an era when actors concealed their real identities behind screen names.
Ashok Kumar, as Kumudlal Ganguly was now known, started off his acting career reluctantly. His subsequent venture with Devika Rani in Achhut Kanya, the same year was one of the early blockbusters of Hindi cinema. Like several movies of that era, Achhut Kanya was a reformist piece featuring a Brahmin boy falling in love with a girl from the so-called untouchables in Indian society. The runaway success of Achhut Kanya cemented Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani as the most popular on-screen couple of that era.
The two did a string of films thereafter, including Janmabhoomi (1936), Izzat (1937), Savitri (1937), Vachan (1938) and Nirmala (1938). Their last on-screen venture was the 1941 movie Anjaan, whose failure at the box office brought an end to the legendary on-screen couple. Devika Rani was consistently the bigger star, with Ashok Kumar working in her shadow.
He started emerging from Devika Rani's considerable shadow owing to pairing opposite Leela Chitnis, another actress who was senior to him in age as well as stature. Back-to-back successes with Kangan (1939), Bandhan (1940) and Azad (1940) saw Ashok Kumar emerge as a popular actor in his own right. The success of Jhoola (1941), in which he starred opposite Leela Chitnis, established him as one of the most bankable actors of the era.
The Gyan Mukherjee directed 1943 movie Kismet, featuring Ashok Kumar as the first anti-hero in Indian Cinema smashed all existing box office records, becoming the first Hindi movie to gross 1 crore at the box office. The success of Kismet made Ashok Kumar the first superstar of Indian cinema. Such was his popularity at the time that, in the words of Manto, "Ashok’s popularity grew each passing day. He seldom ventured out, but wherever he was spotted, he was mobbed. Traffic would come to a stop and often the police would have to use lathis to disperse his fans."
After Kismet, Ashok Kumar became the most bankable star of the era, delivering a succession of box office successes with movies like Chal Chal Re Naujawan (1944), Shikari (1946), Sajan (1947), Mahal (1949), Sangram (1950) and Samadhi (1950).
He produced several films for Bombay Talkies during the final years of the company including Ziddi (1948), which established the careers of Dev Anand and Pran, Neelkamal (1947), which marked the debut of Raj Kapoor, and the famous Mahal in 1949 in which he co-starred with Madhubala.
With the advent of the 1950s, Ashok Kumar switched over to more mature roles, with the exception of the 1958 classic Howrah Bridge. Despite the arrival of a younger crop of stars like Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, Ashok Kumar remained one of the stars of the era with hits like Afsana (1951), Nau Bahar (1952), Parineeta (1953), Bandish (1955) and EK Hi Raasta (1956). His most successful film of that era was Deedar (1951), in which he played second lead to Dilip Kumar.
Ashok Kumar appeared in several movies opposite Meena Kumari and Nalini Jaywant (with whom he was rumoured to have had an affair), in the 1950s. He played the suave cigarette-smoking criminal or police officer in several films in the mid to late 1950s, in what was the Indian film-noir movement.
By the 1960s, Ashok Kumar switched over to character roles, variously playing the parent, uncle or grandparent, being careful never to be typecast. From a judge in Kanoon (1960), an aging freedom fighter in Bandini (1963), an aging priest in Chitralekha (1964), a vicious zamindar in Jawaab (1970) and a criminal in Victoria 203 (1971), he played a wide variety of roles.
Ashok Kumar played important roles in several landmark movies in the 1960s and 1970s, including Jewel Thief (1967), Aashirwad (1968) (for which he won a Filmfare Award as well as National Award in 1969), Purab aur Pashchim (1970), Pakeezah (1972), Mili (1975), Chhoti Si Baat (1975) and Khoobsurat (1980).
He acted in fewer films in the 1980s and 1990s, and occasionally appeared on television, most famously anchoring the first Indian soap opera Hum Log and appearing as the title character in the unforgettable Bahadur Shah Zafar. He is today largely remembered for his television appearances in the 1980s.
Ashok Kumar's last film role was in the 1997 movie Aankhon Mein Tum Ho. Besides acting, he was an avid painter and a practitioner of homeopathy. A qualified homoeopath, Ashok Kumar earned a reputation for conjuring up miracle cures. Altogether, he starred in over 275 films. He has done more than 30 Bengali dramas in Dhakuria.
Ashok Kumar died at the age of 90 in Mumbai on 10 December 2001 of heart failure at his residence in Chembur. The then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee described him as "an inspiration... for many generations of aspiring actors."
Ashok Kumar is widely regarded as a pioneering actor who introduced natural acting to Hindi cinema. He was the first superstar of Hindi cinema as well as the first lead actor to play an anti-hero. He also became the first star to reinvent himself, enjoying a long and hugely successful career as a character actor.
Ashok Kumar is also credited with mentoring several personalities who went on to make significant contributions to Indian cinema. As producer with Bombay Talkies, Ashok Kumar gave Dev Anand his first break in Ziddi (1948), which also established Pran (then a struggling actor who had just fled to India during partition), as one of the leading villains of the era. The 1949 film Mahal, starring Ashok Kumar and made under his watch at Bombay Talkies launched the career of Madhubala, one of the leading actresses of the 1950s. The legendary song "aayega aanewala" from Mahal was the turning point in the career of a hitherto little known young singer called Lata Mangeshkar.
Off the screen, Ashok Kumar gave B.R. Chopra, then a film critic and unsuccessful filmmaker, his first break as director with the 1951 film Afsana. The success of Afsana established Chopra as a respected filmmaker. Ashok Kumar also played mentor to his assistant at Bombay Talkies, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who went on to become one of the great directors of Hindi cinema. He was the lucky mascot for a promising young director called Shakti Samanta in the late 1950s, delivering a series of hits with Inspector (1956), Howrah Bridge (1958) and Detective (1958) which helped the young man establish himself as a successful director. Shakti Samanta would go on to deliver several movies in the 1960s and 1970s which are regarded today as classics.
Ashok Kumar also paved the way for his younger brothers Kalyan (Anup) and Kishore Kumar. While Anup is best remembered for his role in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958), Kishore went on to become a legendary singer. Arguably, Kishore is today the most popular of the brothers.
The distinctive style and mannerisms that Ashok Kumar adopted in his late career still remain extremely popular among mimicry artists.1959 – Sangeet Natak Akademi Award
1962 – Filmfare Best Actor Award, Rakhi
1963 – Bengal Film Journalists' Association – Best Actor Award (Hindi), Gumrah
1966 – Filmfare Best Supporting Actor Award, Afsana
1969 – Filmfare Best Actor Award, Aashirwaad
1969 – National Film Awards for Best Actor, Aashirwaad
1969 – Bengal Film Journalists' Association – Best Actor Award (Hindi), Aashirwaad
1988 – Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India's highest award for cinematic excellence
1994 – Star Screen Lifetime Achievement Award
1995 – Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award
1999 – Padma Bhushan
2001 – Awadh Samman by the Government of Uttar Pradesh
2007 - "Special Award" by Star Screen Awards
Some of Kumar's most popular films include: