AUTHORISED biographies of celebrities, especially in this country, tend to be dreadfully drab, liberally deodorised, kiss-but-don't-tell narratives which punctiliously steer clear of unfavourable revelations and uncomfortable facts. Not so Kishore Valicha's wide-angle view of the life of Ashok Kumar, one of India's most admired film actors. Relying largely on information volunteered by the 85-year-old actor and without resorting to the slightest semblance of sensationalism, Dadamoni: The Authorised Biography of Ashok Kumar provides an extreme close-up of the star's life and times, the warts firmly in frame.
The story of the evergreen star's eventful life and career, told with great skill and unprecedented candour, makes for marvellous reading as much for what it has to offer in terms of real-life drama and insights into the work of a great actor as for the light it sheds on the growth of the Mumbai film industry. Valicha's book, even as it narrates a personal saga that began in the small Madhya Pradesh town of Khandwa, wound its way to the city of dreams and culminated in much wealth and fame, is a lively, useful record of the external and internal circumstances that determined the shape of filmmaking in the country's movie capital—the freedom struggle, the stringent censorship of Indian films by the British, the economic crisis created by World War II, the infiltration of black money into the industry, the death of the studios, the birth of the star system.
There's been no filmstar in India quite as durable as Ashok Kumar. He's seen it all from the days the industry took its first tentative steps into the sound era. Today, the aged actor, having been in the thick of the action through every significant development that has affected filmmaking in Mumbai, can look back with pride and authority. Ashok Kumar's evolution from a shy, reticent, reluctant actor goaded to go the entire distance by Himanshu Rai of Bombay Talkies to a versatile screen performer whose formidable body of work—over 300 films—has survived the ravages of time. And the emotional upheavals that a high-profile lifestyle inevitably triggered.
The Ashok Kumar saga, as told by Valicha, is, however, not just the story of the making of a thespian whose filmogra-phy includes some of the biggest hits of all time. It is also a lively, highly readable, rivetingly dramatic tale of a man who has had to constantly grapple with ups and downs, joy and agony, success and failure but has rarely let the strain show, either in real life or on the screen.
Despite his squeaky clean on-screen persona, Ashok Kumar's life has never been devoid of colour. Valicha's account captures it all in a broad sweep that is as impressive as it is exhaustive. Besides enumerating Ashok Kumar's professional conquests, both as actor and producer, the book probes deep into little-known, unhappy aspects of the actor's life—his extra-marital entanglements, his wife's alcoholism and the strain that it put on the marriage, his uneasy relationship with his children, his perpetual but largely ineffectual struggle to live down the ill-effects of stardom.
Just the right ingredients for a dare-all, bare-all bestselling exercise. But no, Valicha is not interested in sleaze. He is forthright in sharing the secrets that he has culled out from his conversations with Ashok Kumar about the actor's younger days, but he stops well short of sensationalising the material at his disposal. Yet, no book on a filmstar, least of all one that has the subject's consent, has ever revealed as much as Valicha's does. "Ashok Kumar's wife in particular had lost touch with the man as she battled with the myth," he writes about Ashok Kumar's marital problems. "He saw his life at home go to pieces." The roles that created and sustained the myth intruded into his life and tore it asunder. Valicha describes the predicament with eloquence: "Ashok Kumar was one of the earliest superstars to hit the Indian screen. And he was probably the first to pay the price for the glory a screen career can bring. The price he paid was a home torn between the reality that he was as a person and the powerful myth that his many roles on the screen had begotten." But, mercifully, the highs that Ashok Kumar scaled as an actor more than made up for the crises that he faced as a man.
Jeevan Naiyya, Achhut Kanya, Mahal, Kismet, Pakeezah, Ashirwad, Kanoon...a list of his films is dotted with achievements that few performers in the history of the Mumbai film industry have notched up.
Talking of achievements, Valicha's previous book, The Moving Image, a critical study of films which fetched him a national award in 1989, was perhaps more significant in purely critical terms. But Dadamoni, given its sweep and scope, could well turn out to be a path-breaking contribution to a genre that does need refurbishing.