Dadamoni, yesterday today and tomorrow

I ribbed him about his heap of B-grade films over the decades. He replied, “I’d done so many films that I thought, let me cash in on my reputation.”

Next month — on October 13 — it will be his 100th birth anniversary. His family, particularly his daughter Bharati, is planning to organise screenings of his films, an exhibition perhaps, and a documentary on dear Dadamoni.
Of all the actors I’ve ever interviewed in my life, Ashok Kumar was the most spontaneous of them all. He never spoke with premeditation or calculated introspection. So, here’s rewinding to an afternoon chat with Dadamoni, shortly before he passed away in December 10, a decade ago.

I ribbed him about his heap of B-grade films over the decades. Couldn’t he have been more selective? Unruffled, he had replied, “I’d done so many excellent films that I thought, now let me cash in on my reputation. I won’t be a hypocrite about this. Strangely enough, some of the B-graders became big hits. Like Mr X, which was inspired by The Invisible Man. I shot for it only for five days. Whenever the invisible hero wore a bandage on his face, it was Mehmood inside there, not me!”
Dadamoni seemed to be black-and-white cinema born. Did he feel intimidated by the arrival of the coloured, breezy, “holiday” movies of the 1960s? And the rising popularity of fair-skinned, drop-dead good-looking heroes? “What do you mean? That I’m not good-looking?” he had chortled heartily. “Make-up took care of everything though I hated pancake on my face.
Also, I think I did have a screen presence which the audience had become accustomed to.” Touche.
Lighting up his umpteenth cigarette despite a rasping cough, he had continued, “Most of my movies are in black and white. Colour had to come, naturally. For years, Hollywood had been making colour spectaculars. I think to this day and age, our filmmakers have not exploited the potential of colour. They shoot a colour film with the same lighting and style as they would shoot in black and white. Have you ever seen a movie from which you can remember the colour of blood, a rose or a sunset? With colour, producers just rushed to Kashmir and expected nature to do the rest of the job for them. Now wait, let’s have lunch…”
That meant mustard fish curry, raw carrots and chocolates for dessert. Dadamoni relished playing host as much he relished a teasing question. I wondered if he wasn’t ever fed up with portraying the archetypal rich daddy, the respectable lawyer or the suffering, tragic father endlessly. “Ha! I wasn’t ever fed up. Even if I was just used as a decoration piece, that was alright, because the roles were easy to perform, no problems,” he had reasoned, “If I was asked to die, I would just hold my breath for a minute. That’s movie-making, it isn’t life. Plus there was a change once in a while, like I could do comedy with Victoria No. 203, complete with slapstick, songs and tomfoolery.”
Yet, it was only once in a bluish moon that Dadamoni participated in the ha-ha stuff. When he did, he was absolutely adorable. “Thank you, thank you,” he had grinned like a schoolboy praised for excelling in studies, adding, “I was in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi but my role was serious. I enjoyed doing Basu Chatterjee’s Khatta Meetha and Shaukeen. Actually my father was quite a comedian. Kishore inherited the flair for the funny stuff from him. Kishore would sit on our father’s shoulders and play the tabla on his head. Perhaps if I’d consciously tried to do more comedy, I would have developed a gift for it. But I was mainly asked to be serious and dramatic.
Yet, somewhere I felt that Dadamoni never received his due recognition. He seemed to take himself for granted. Also towards his autumn years, he appeared to be lonely in his apartment facing the Chembur golf course.
He wouldn’t let me go, wanted to talk more, bribed me with yet another chocolate bar. I still have his tape-recorded voice, exulting at the end of our chat, “It’s been a good life. I’ve got more love and respect than money from the film industry. That’s the way it should be. I don’t want to act any more but they won’t let me retire in peace. Some filmmaker or the other turns up. They forget that I’m old, I have to make an effort to get up from my chair. But that’s show business, I suppose... but some day I’ll be forgotten.”
To that I can only say, Dadamoni, no way, never ever.

The writer is a journalist, film critic and film director

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