On the occasion of the 109th birth anniversary of one of Indian cinema’s greatest, most versatile, and pioneering star actors Dadamoni Ashok Kumar, I would like to throw spotlight on one of his most complex roles in an illustrious career that spanned six decades. If you haven’t guessed it already, I am talking about his turn in Vijay Anand’s 1967 suspense thriller film Jewel Thief. While the film stars Dev Anand and Vyjayantimala in the lead roles, it is the legendary Ashok Kumar who steals the limelight in almost every scene that he is a part of. It all starts in a party when Ashok Kumar’s character Arjun Singh confronts Dev Anand’s character Vinay and tells everyone present that Vinay’s real name is Amar and that he is engaged to his sister Shalini (Vyjayantimala). When Vinay refuses to acknowledge it, both Arjun Singh and his sister Shalini question Vinay’s true intentions.
As things heat up both Vinay and Arjun Singh try to physically attack each other but they are pulled apart by the people present at the party. At that point Arjun Singh reveals in front of everyone that Amar’s right foot has an extra digit. Vinay is now under tremendous pressure to reveal his truth. As everyone watches in anticipation Amar slowly takes off his shoes and socks. To everyone’s great shock, he doesn’t have the extra digit. Both Arjun Singh and Shalini apologize to Vinay but things are far from being settled. What ensues is a cat and mouse game. For, this is actually not the first or the last time that someone has mistaken Vinay for Amar. But who is Amar? Is he the titular jewel thief? And why is he trying to fool Arjun Singh and his sister Shalini? What does he want from Vinay?
SPOILER ALERT (for those who haven’t watched Vijay Anand’s masterpiece yet)
Now, so much has already been said and written about Dev Anand’s charming performance, Vijay Anand’s riveting storytelling, and Vyjayantimala’s spellbinding dance moves in Jewel Thief, but since today is Dadamoni’s 109th birth anniversary I only want to talk about his character Arjun Singh and his performance in the film. During his long acting career, Ashok Kumar played an entire gamut of complex characters: be it the dandy Prem Kumar in Howrah Bridge, the spy Shekhar torn between love and motherland in Samadhi, the freedom fighter Bikash in Bandini, the broadminded and forgiving husband Ashok in Gumrah, or the deformed musician Pyare abandoned as a child by his father in Meri Surat Teri Ankhen. But none comes close to matching the complexity of Arjun Singh. Here is a man who dearly loves his sister. He is a well known name in Gangtok, Sikkim who isn’t very comfortable in big cities. When he visits his friend in Bombay (now Mumbai), he chooses to live in a place far away from the city’s hustle and bustle. And yet when it comes to exposing the man who is married to his sister he doesn’t back down from creating a huge scene in the party. He is also a very friendly person who doesn’t back down from extending a helping hand to a friend. He even remains very friendly with Vinay despite the encounter at the party.
But that’s not all. For, Arjun Singh also shares an intimate relationship with Amar. The fact of the matter is that Amar doesn’t exist for real. It’s actually a figment of Arjun Singh’s creation. Singh is also not Shalini’s real brother. In fact, he has kidnapped her younger brother in order to force her trick Vinay into believing that Amar actually exists. Amar, as Hitchcock would have said it, is the perfect MacGuffin. But why is Arjun Singh doing all this. Because he is the real jewel thief who wants to frame Vinay and forever want to live a life away from the threat of getting caught for his crimes. Towards the end of the film, he also administers Vinay electric shocks so that Vinay forgets about his true identity and can be presented as Amar to the whole world. Ashok Kumar is at his menacing best in some of these scenes. It’s probably the most negative character that he played during his career. And, Dev Anand, who was also the film’s producer, was greatly concerned that he might offend his idol by making him essay such a negative character.
Watch Ashok Kumar’s heartbreaking performance on a song from the film ‘Meri Surat Teri Aankhen’
It is important to understand here that Dev Anand had great respect for Ashok Kumar. After all, it was Dadamoni who had inspired him to become an actor. And it was Dadamoni who gave him the biggest break of his career at the start of his career. Although, he dearly wanted the veteran actor to play the part of Arjun Singh he was a little apprehensive that the overly negative nature of the character might end up offending Dadamoni. So, he kept on asking Dadamoni throughout if he was comfortable playing such a fiendish character. But Dadamoni being the consummate performer he was enjoyed every bit of the challenge. And the rest, as they say, is history. Till date most of the people who haven’t seen Jewel Thief in its entirety think that the titular jewel thief is actually Dev Anand. That’s how deceptively brilliant Ashok Kumar is in the movie. You really have to watch the movie to truly appreciate the menacing brilliance of Ashok Kumar in a rare negative role.