Ashok Kumar (13 October 1911–10 December 2001), born Kumudlal Ganguly, and also fondly called Dadamoni, was an Indian film actor who attained iconic status in Indian cinema. He was honoured in 1988 with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest national award for cinema artists, by the Government of India and also received the Padma Bhushan in 1999 for his contributions to Indian cinema. He is considered to be one of India’s finest actors ever, playing leading, negative and character roles with equal panache.
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.