Die-For Duo

30 Jun
Die-For Duo

All pretenders kindly cease and desist. My favorite mystery couple will always be Madhubala and Ashok Kumar. Unlike other claimants like the baby-faced duo of Sadhana and Manoj Kumar, for example, who often exuded a slightly off-putting matched-set vibe, Ashok Kumar and Madhubala complemented each other.

He was rugged, gravelly voiced, tough, and alternated between a stern-faced authoritarian and a dashing man about town with a sense of humor. She was beautiful, full-figured, charming, and channeled  a mischievous sprite.  Together they were perfection.

Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (1958)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my month of retina-scarring television, it’s that India loves its men strong and angry. Manly Men Be Aaaaangrryyyy! Rawr.

Much as I love to be contrary, that’s precisely why I love Ashok Kumar in this movie. Although he doesn’t star opposite Madhubala and younger brother Kishore walks around picking pieces of scenery from between his teeth when he’s not singing some of the most deliriously fun (and “inspired”) songs ever recorded for a Hindi film, Ashok is a big reason why I watch this movie over and over and over again.

The stern exterior hiding the battered heart, the marshmallow center of a hard candy – AIEEEEEE! If you’re lucky enough to find a clear(ish) print of this movie, you can gaze at his un-pretty but oh-so-charismatic visage and sigh that you’ll never find a man today who can bark out orders and forbid his brothers from associating with an entire gender the way he does.

What I seriously appreciate about his performance though is that he plays it straight. A lesser actor would have played the role for laughs and descended into caricature – something that happens distressingly often in a Hindi comedy where everyone is self consciously aware that they’re being !FuNnY! AK, on the other hand, let his brothers’ supreme hamming talents ricochet off his performance instead of trying to match them step for step. It’s a trick he would do in other movies, this metaphorical stepping back so that other more fiery stars could let the rockets fire out their bum while he quietly carried the scene in peace, but it’s never as perfect than in Chalti ka Naam Gaadi where all three of the Kumar brothers are so in tune.

In fact, given my druthers, I’d embed the whole movie here in lieu of a paltry clip or two. Although, I can’t imagine the madness that must have been the Ganguly household growing up.

Howrah Bridge (1958)

I have no idea why this movie gets so little love while Shakti Samanta’s other weepfests like Amanush and Amar Prem are still obsessed over. From the mid-60s on, Samanta was looking towards Europe but in his early days he had a bit of an Oriental fetish which you can see in movies like Howrah Bridge, Singapore and (the proto-Don) China Town.

Following the trajectory of Samanta’s less celebrated works, Howrah Bridge is a murder mystery featuring a stolen heirloom, shot in the noir style that (I assume) was then all the rage. It features Madhubala as a thoroughly believable femme-fatale-who-really-isn’t, Helen as the famous Ms. Chin Chin Choo, Madan Puri with slanted eye make-up, K.N. Singh as a sinister evildoer you can’t take your eyes off, and Ashok Kumar as the dashing out-of-towner with a game of his own to play.

This movie also brings up the question: was Ashok Kumar the last Indian actor who could wear a dinner jacket like he meant it? Some men can just wear it, you know? While most men look silly. And lordy, lordy, could AK wear it!

In conclusion: Look at them flirt! Well? What more do you need, cretin?

Mahal (1949)

I can’t remember the first time I saw Mahal, but I do remember that it scared the crap out of me. I was very young and the cable-wallah threw himself a little Scare Fest by showing us Bees Saal Baad (the one with Waheeda Rehman; he saved the Mithun Chakraborty one, which was scary for entirely different reasons, for a later date), the Rebecca-remake Kohraa, and Mahal.

I’ve never seen a quality print of this movie but, as you can imagine, any movie that saw the debut of Kamal Amrohi as director, gave Madhubala her first lead as an adult, and played a significant role in turning Lata Mangeshkar into a household name, is sufficiently awesome enough to battle crappy preservation and still shine through.

Although the camera faithfully follows AK’s extremely effective performance as a man faced with Very Weird Things that are totally destroying his mind, Madhubala left the greater impression on me. Not only because she was so amazingly lovely in this movie or because she managed to imbue a deep suspicion of all swings in me for a time, but because the big reveal was so incredible.

It was the first time I’d seen a true blue sociopath as a Hindi film heroine and they’re still pretty rare on the ground. And don’t tell me she wasn’t – girl be nuttier than a squirrel’s winter stash.

Ek Saal (1957)

The cutest ever. Seriously. This is a movie you watch curled up on your couch with the lights off, a big box of chocolates and a bottle of wine. The romance, the pretty, the Madhubala who is a light source on her own, the innocence of and the doomed struggle against true love, the heartbreak, the mocking AK who sings to the stricken AK as he realizes the value of what he’s lost, the penitence – I know it’s not technically a mystery but it’s all so satisfying!

Look at that poor sap on his flower-patterned couch. He actually thinks he has a chance! Ha! Ha, I say!

(And OMG, my mother totally has that necklace!)


Posted by on June 30, 2010 in Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video


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15 responses to “Die-For Duo

  1. carla

    June 30, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    “What I seriously appreciate about [Ashok Kumar’s] performance [in CKNG] though is that he plays it straight.”

    Oh my, yes! I have never thought of it precisely this way despite having spent hours and hours pondering this most delightful movie (quite possibly my most favorite of all the Hindi movies I’ve seen thus far). Spot-on analysis.

    Thank you very much for this post. Apart from CKNG, Howrah Bridge was already in my collection waiting to be watched, but the others were not familiar to me and I’m delighted to add them to my list.

  2. bollyviewer

    June 30, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    I’ve always loved Ashok Kumar, but did not realise exactly why – now I know. He isn’t pretty, but he can wear a dinner jacket, and how! And he NEVER lets CKNG’s slapstick get out of hand, because he never descends into physical comedy, or any comedy at all. Like Carla, I did not realise why CKNG is the only Kishore comedy that I can watch with pleasure. You’ve put your finger on the reason – Dada Mani. 😀 And Ek Saal? Sigh! Romance never gets better than that…

  3. April

    June 30, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    I never saw Chalti ka Naam… or rather caught bits and pieces.Never thought of Ashok Kumar in it,it’s always been the lovely Madhubala in ‘ek ladki bheegi bahagi si..’

    About Mahal,that’s officially my first scary movie ever.It happened during summer vacation at my Nani’s place as a part of late night all time classics movie fest held by Doordarshan(does anyone remember that?) from 11pm onwards.The lights were off,the doors were closed and we kids aged 8 to 13 decided to watch it hiding under the blankie and screaming everytime we spotted a squeaky swing.It was scary,it was gripping,it’s nothing we’ve seen before (or after).The only mystery that comes close to Mahal is Madhumati.

    Thanks Amrita for bringing back the childhood movie experiences 🙂

  4. Banno

    July 1, 2010 at 12:02 am

    And what smiles both of them have! 1000-watts. 🙂

  5. harini calamur

    July 1, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Dinner Jackets – Raj Kapoor came close ; tho’ i am not sure whether he was before or after Ashok Kumar.
    the rest looked terrible – especially AB with those frilled shirts inside the DJ

    nice piece – took me down memory lane of DD days and waiting for these films on TV 🙂

  6. sachita

    July 2, 2010 at 3:01 am

    i thot it was always kk and Madhubala and AK an oldman smoking pipe.

    “Madhubala who is a light source on her own” – True true.
    ps: how the hell can one not enjoy chalti kaam gaadi – for it to flop. Every single piece of info on Kishore kumar seems to be funny.

  7. Spry and Wry

    July 2, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    Your para 2 is what’s to die for. Madhubala..aah! She’s so adorable. AK…I’ve always loved the twinkle in his eye. And LOL @ Kishore as Popeye, in next para!

    To segue, Suguna Sundaram says (in link above) that “Kishore Kumar apparently made Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi hoping it would flop. He wanted to show losses in his income and avoid paying a huge income tax to the authorities… [but it] went on to be a raging success. Kishore was so disgusted…” WTF? LOL!! Now look who “profited” from this particular strategy? M. Night Shyamalan of course! (Clearly, no ‘plan gone awry’ in *his* case. The guy must be in tax-evasion heaven, as of today.) 😀

    I’ve seen none of the above movies by the way, shame on me!! Heard most of the songs on radio though, thankfully.

  8. Amrita

    July 3, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    @ Carla – yay! more converts! Mahal is a little problematic because the prints are so seriously terrible but it still packs a punch. But all of them are amazing imo.

    @ BV – he’s a MAN, you know? And thank you for introducing me to Ek Saal. Worth every minute I spent watching it and rewatching it.

    @ April – you’re welcome! You know, we all used to make fun of DD (and still do) but it really gave us some good memories, didn’t it?

    @ Banno – I die 😀

    @ Harini – he made his debut slightly later but he was a contemporary for a while. The Kapoor bros did do a good job of it, you’re right 🙂 but AK still wore it best! 😛

    @ Sachita – As far as I’m concerned, Madhubala got together with the wrong bro. She and AK are PURRFECT together imo. 😀

    @ S&W – omigod, there isn’t a single one of those movies that I wouldn’t recommend! You have to see CKNG at least! I don’t know why KK was convinced it was his Springtime for Hitler but it rocks.

  9. memsaab

    July 3, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    Why don’t people think Ashok Kumar was handsome, why? This continues to confuse me.

    Ek Saal—to die for indeed!!!! I LOVE that film 😀 Howrah Bridge too, so very very noir.

    • Amrita

      July 4, 2010 at 2:32 pm

      Personally it’s because he looks a bit too much like my dad (They both have the same square cut face with the tufty hair and the stocky build) for me to both look at his looks and still maintain my crush. Therefore, I kind of block out his looks. Maybe he IS handsome!

  10. radhika

    July 5, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Totally agree about Ashok Kumar – he was one suave, sophisticated gent. The other one I always had a soft spot for was Rehman. And oh, Iftikar! Also loved AK in Bandini (could totally get why Nutan would turn murderess for him) and even in Gumraah – where he was epitome of suave husband.

    Dinner jackets – yeah! Ashok Kumar also made cigarette smoking really cool. I think the only movie I didn’t like him was the one in which he openly leches after Meena Kumari (I forget the name). Achcha, how does one get Ek Saal – is it a Moser Baer DVD?

    • Amrita

      July 6, 2010 at 2:53 pm

      Add Balraj Sahni and you’ve got my all time manly man list! 😀

      Oh and to all those who want to get their hands on Ek Saal –

  11. radhika

    July 5, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    Just realized that AK was 46 when Ek Saal was made – 22 years older than Madhubala who was just 24 – he looked very fresh, didn’t he? The “Man” comment is so true – why is it that all our heroes now look like paploo peterpan types, refusing to age well?

  12. Sue

    July 12, 2010 at 5:26 am


    I look at her photographs and forget whatever it is that I wanted to say. She was just so very beautiful.

  13. sophy

    July 12, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    I learnt a lot from reading this well written post.
    About the mad Ganguly household–it was serial parenting not concomittant, Ashok being some 20 years older than the crazy one.
    As for dinner jackets, it doesn’t get better than the white jacketed one in the song “Zindagi Ittefaq hai” (Aadmi aur Insaan). Yes Dharam garam at his suave GQ best. But for general smooth-suave sure there’s Ashok Kumar and Dev Anand.

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