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Witty, Dramatic, He Was
Hindi Films' Only Comic Hero


Source: The Asian Age, 13 June 1996, Calcutta
(By Dinesh Raheja and Jitendra Kothari)

When dust particles dance in the ray of light that bisects the darkened theatre and the screen lights up, a special communication is established between the moviegoer and the flickering images onscreen. And when the viewer becomes entranced with the shifting dynamics of the world before him, luminaries are born.

It was on a wet day in July 1896, in a much smaller Mumbai with a population of barely 10 lakh people, that the screening of the first ever cinema show in India was held at Watson's Hotel. British officials and their memsahibs came to see this 'marvel of the century' brought here by the Lumiere brothers barely six months after they had first exhibited their exciting invention in Paris. When the lights came on, even the pricey Re 1 seaters cheered and welcomed this new mass medium of entertainment. A 100 years later, in 1996, Mumbai is home to the largest film industry, in one of the biggest film producing nations in world.

So what are the criteria that make a film personality a luminary? It is not necessarily talent or intelligence. It is not regional chauvinism - film people from all corners of the country efface their ethnic identity for the melting pot of films. It is a non-formulaic mix.

But a trait that all these remarkable artistes share, like creative people everywhere, is a hypersensitivity to life. And the ability to interpret it for the rest of us. The legacies left by the lives of the older luminaries hold lessons for today's generation of stars. Many to the luminaries have had unfortunate ends to their rich lives bringing to mind Kipling's immortal lines:

  This season's Daffodil,
She never hears What change,
what chance, what chill
Cut down last year's;
But with bold countinuance,
And knowledge small, Esteems her seven day continuance
To be perpetual

No doubt the luminaries success has a life span like all things mortal. But what The Hundred Luminaries of Hindi Cinema seeks to immortalize are those moments on screen that are embedded in the audience's psyche-the moments in which they remain perennially alive. We are indebted to the luminaries because through their work, they have created a vicariously thrilling fantasy world and brought happiness to millions of Indians for whom even the ripped theatre seat is a pew from which they practice their religion of cinema.

The Wizard of Odd marched to the tune of a different drummer. A multi-talented actor-singer, Kishore Kumar was notoriously eccentric in the manner of many a genius. At the height of the Emergency, he had the courage to defy the Indian government. Asked to perform free, he refused, and was consequently banned from national radio and television.

Kishore had always been familiar with the vicissitudes of fate. While laughter was his leitmotif, it had to tide him over a lifetime that encompassed great highs and abysmal lows.

At 18, Kishore started out as a singer despite not knowing even the rudiments of music. Abhas Kumar Ganguly changed his name to Kishore Kumar, left his native Khandwa and came to join Bombay Talkies where his elder brother (by 19 years), Ashok Kumar, held sway. But Kishore found few opportunities coming his way. He sang his first song, Marne ki duayen kyon mangu for Dev Anand in Ziddi (1948), did bit roles in several films and acted as the main lead in the eminently forgetable Andolan.

After his marriage to Ruma Devi resulted in a split with his family, Kishore approached music director S.D. Burman for help and resulted in his singing Qusoor aapka in Bahaar. The song was a hit. From being a playback singer in Vyjanthimala's film, he became her hero in Ladki (1953). It was Kishore's uninhibited comic antics and spontaneous jocundity that, to a large extent, made Ladki a success.

Kishore's amusingly askew view of life found favour with the audiences and he now had a flourishing acting career. The comic electricity he exuded simply lit up the screen as he sang, danced and acted in hits like New Delhi and Asha (Eena Meena Deeka). Also, he could now yodel better than the original yodeller, Danny Kaye.

From King Lear's fool to Indian cinema's cretinous caricatures, the traditional concept of comedian has always been one of lowly stature, that of a sidekick. Kishore successfully challenged this image and mixing wit with drama and romance, became Hindi cinema's only major hero whose popularity relied mainly on comedy.

Even a revered actress like Nargis was moved to name Kishore as her favourtie actress. This power-house of talent became so busy that he had no time to sing his own songs and Mohammed Rafi was called upon to playback for Kishore Kumar in the Ajab hai dastaan teri song form Shararat.

After Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (1958), where Kishore and Madhubala made great foils for each other's foibles, Kishore's marriage to Ruma Devi disintegrated and he married the beautiful but doomed Madhubala.

Taking Madhubala as his heroine, Kishore produced, directed, acted in, composed the music and wrote the lyrics for Jhumroo. The film, however, did poorly. His next film, Door Gagan Ki Chaon Mein, an uncharacteristically serious subject on the relationship between father and his dumb son, was acclaimed for its sensitivity. It led many to wonder if Kishore's talent would have survived even without regular infusions of laughter. Commercially, however, the Sixties saw a precipitous fall from grace for Kishore. Beset by tax problems, he was reduced to doing B grade films opposite starlet Kum Kum. Having earlier given up playback singing, he had to now accept the odd singing assignment in Dev Anand's Guide or Jewel Thief. Kishore's creative resuscitation came about with the incredible success of his songs in Aradhana. As the permanent of voice superstar Rajesh Khanna, Kishore nudged aside all competition. Thereafter, whether it was the flippant Rafta rafta or the grave Zindagi Ke safar mein, Kishore's range made him the uncrowned king of playback singers.

As his fame grew, so did stories of his eccentricities. He put up a board outside his house saying, `This is a lunatic asylum'. He started having long conversations with the trees in his backyard, addressing each by a special name. He surprised everyone by making a songless film, Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin. He zipped through a short-lived marriage with Yogita Bali and then raised eyebrows by tying the knot for the fourth time with film star Leena Chandravarkar - who was only two years older than his son, Amit Kumar. Incidentally, he called all his four wives bandariyas (monkeys) since they all happened to be living in Bandra when they married him. Till the mid-eighties, Kishore retained his position at the top. His voice still pulsed with verve and exuberance at his many stage shows. But just when he was thinking of of retirement, he suffered setbacks in health and in 1987, he succumbed to major heart attack. Reportedly, his last words were "Kishore Kumar can die only in Khandwa. Long live Kishore Kumar." It was typical of Kishore to be unconventional, to the last.

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