Sanjay Ashok Kumar (October 13, 1911 – December 10, 2001) was an Indian Bollywood actor. Born as Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly in Bhagalpur, Bengal Presidency he attained iconic status in Indian cinema. He broke from the theatrical style then common in Indian film towards a more naturalistic method.
Reverently called Dadamuni (affectionate term for elder brother), he was born in Bhagalpur and educated at Presidency College, Calcutta. He started his career in Bombay (Mumbai), albeit accidentally, with the Bombay Talkies production Jeevan Naiya in 1936. The male lead, Najam-ul-Hussain, suddenly fell ill, and the company had to find a new hero. The director and studio head, Himanshu Rai, called upon his laboratory assistant Ashok Kumar to take the part and thus began a six-decade-long acting career. However, it was his subsequent venture with Devika Rani in Achhut Kanya in the same year that set him up for the big league. The movie itself stands out as one of the heralding social dramas of pre-independence Indian film. It was the story of a Brahmin boy falling in love with a girl from the so called untouchables in Indian society. It was a big hit and started the trend of socially committed films.
Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar did a string of films after this including Izzat 1937, Savitri 1937 and Nirmala 1938. But she was the bigger star and Ashok Kumar was definitely in her shadow. He came into his own with three films opposite Leela Chitnis: Kangan in 1939, Bandhan in 1940, Jhoola in 1941, singing his own songs as was the custom then. He acquitted himself creditably and came away with several hits including most famously Main Ban ka Panchhi.
Ashok Kumar challenged the prevailing more traditional theatrical acting style and developed his own more natural style. He was also not afraid to take risks and was one of the first anti-heroes of Indian Cinema with his role in Kismet in 1943. This movie went on to create a record for the highest grossing film in India at the time of its release.
He produced several films for Bombay Talkies during the final years of the company including the famous Mahal in 1949 in which he co-starred with Madhubala. In the 1950s, he played the suave cigarette-smoking criminal or police officer in several films of what was the Indian film-noir movement. In the late 1960s he switched to character roles playing the parent, grandparent, dirty old man and suave criminal, being careful never to be typecast. He paired up 20 times with the queen of tragedy, and one of the best actresses ever seen in Bollywood, Meena Kumari, in films such as Parineeta, Bahu Begum, Pakeezah, Ek hi Raasta, Bandish, Aarti and many more.
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. His last film role was in Aankhon Mein Tum Ho in 1997.
Besides acting, he was an avid painter and a practitioner of homeopathy.
He died at the age of 90 in Mumbai. Altogether, he starred in over 275 films.
His brothers Kishore Kumar and Anoop Kumar also acted in films. The three brothers worked together in the comedy Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi. Ashok, though the eldest of the three by quite a margin, survived them both. In fact, he stopped celebrating his birthday after the youngest brother, Kishore, died on that day in 1987. His sister, Sati Devi, was married to Sashadhar Mukherjee of the Mukherjee-Samarth family.