CalcuttaTube presents a tribute to the Mahanayak Uttam Kumar on his 84th Birthday. The exclusive feature article is prepared by Shoma A Chatterji. Join CalcuttaTube in paying respect to Uttam Kumar – Milestone in Bengali Cinema. Buy UTTAM KUMAR FILMS online.
Tribute to Uttam Kumar
In a rare tribute to Bengali cinema’s greatest matinee idol, Uttam Kumar, Department of Posts, India, released a postage stamp on his 84th birthday in Kolkata on September 3, 2009. Hon. Governor Sri Gopal Krishna Gandhi, who released the first day cover and the stamp, paid rich tributes to one of the greatest actors India has ever produced. Every year, in the month of September, when Uttam Kumar was born in Ahiritola in the northern parts of Kolkata, and also in July, when he passed away, people across West Bengal go wild with celebrations in tribute to Uttam Kumar though he passed away in 1980, nearly three decades ago. Every Bengali television channel from Doordarshan to the fast-mushrooming entertainment channels, are flush with films starring Uttam Kumar right through July and then September. Uttam fans have set up the Uttam Mancha, an auditorium for staging plays at South Calcutta. Some others have instituted the Uttam Kumar Film Awards in memory of this great actor. As a tribute to this actor, a life-size statue was installed in Tollygunje where Uttam Kumar spent a major slice of his working day. The Tollygunge Metro station was recently christened Uttam Kumar Sarani.
Few today know that his name was Arun Kumar Chatterjee but was changed to ‘Uttam’, meaning ‘the best’ when he stepped into films. His first film Dhristidaan was released in 1948. Some say he made his debut as an ‘extra’ in Mayadore in 1947. Initially, people labeled him ‘Flop Master General’. Every single film he played hero in flopped. It took a long, hard struggle, shedding of silent tears, rising above deep frustration and a determination to succeed that took him to the peak. Many had given him up as a ‘lost case.’ Uttam Kumar had his share of sharp, acidic criticism. When he was riding the crest of success with films opposite Suchitra Sen, setting the screen on fire with their electric chemistry, many intellectuals attacked this good-looking actor with the label of ‘theatrical actor full of mannerisms.’ “He does not know the ABC of acting” said some. But he silenced them with his sterling performance in Bosu Paribar (1952) directed by Nirmal De. This was his first hit. He became a star with Agni Pareeksha directed by Agradoot.
His last film, Ogo Bodhu Sundari hit the screens in 1980. He suffered a massive stroke on the studio floors and passed away on July 24. Over three decades, he acted in around 159 Bengali films, investing his characters with a unique charm, whether he played an old faithful servant in Khokababur Pratyabartan based on a short story by Rabindranath Tagore, or whether it was the role of an amnesiac industrialist opposite Suchitra Sen in Harano Sur. As he mellowed into character roles, his performance matured and his screen persona took on a new look. He continued to dominate the screen in mature roles such as the committed doctor in Agnisnaan or the strange villain in Ayananta or Chunilal in Dilip Roy’s Devdas.
With Suchitra Sen, Uttam Kumar heralded the golden era of Bengali cinema. Their first film was Saare Chuattar, a rip-roaring comedy that became a box office hit. They did 30 films spanning two decades. They created a genre of romance that has never known anything before and after. Their last film Priyo Bandhabi (1975), was a flop. As we watch the young and beautiful Suchitra Sen emote a love scene with Uttam Kumar in Chaoa-Paoa, Pathey Holo Deri, Alo Amar Alo, Saare Chuattar, Kamallata, the electrically charged feelings come across so forcefully and tangibly that we can almost stretch our hands to feel and touch them. Their films were famous for soft-focus close ups, lavishly mounted scenes of romance against windswept expanses, richly decorated interiors with fluttering curtains and such mnemonic objects such as bunches of tuberoses etc. The most popular films include Shap Mochan (1955), Sagarika (1956), Harano Sur (1957), Saptapadi (1961), Bipasha (1962) and Grihadah (1967). There was instant audience identification with the Suchitra-Uttam pairing and that is why it was such a hit. Yet, not once did they kiss.
Pathey Holo Deri re-released in late 1982, two decades after its first release, celebrated a silver jubilee run! Suchitra was almost always draped in a sari with a sleeved blouse. She did not need to show skin, flash a thigh or reveal a cleavage to exude sex appeal. “It was all there in her beautiful face,” said Uttam Kumar once. “She is so beautiful that thousands come to the theatres just to look at her face. Where can you get a photogenic face like that? Roma is the most beautiful, the most glamorous among all my leading ladies,” he said in an interview, adding, “I have been lucky to have been cast as the man she fell in love with,” typically placing the credit at the door of his heroine. Every film starring the pair ended with the two going into a tight clinch and for the audience, it was “happily ever after.” They had excellent rapport on the sets though they were never known to have fallen in love, despite what the gossip rags would insist. The pairing fell apart when they was doing Saptapadi, produced by Uttam Kumar. Sen had problems and they did act later under other banners but somehow, the magic was lost.
He would arrive on the sets much before time, repair to his make-up room, put on his make-up and costume and would sit in absolute silence, dwelling on the scenes to be shot that day. The director would summon him when the shot was ready and he would face the camera, living his screen character. “His commitment to acting– the sequence, the chronology of shots, the light arrangements, the make-up and costume, the character he was portraying – was total”, says Tapan Sinha who directed Uttam Kumar in Upahaar, Bicharak, Hansuli Baanker Upakatha, Jhinder Bondi and Jotugriha. This director-actor bonding cracked completely when Sinha dropped Uttam Kumar to pick theatre personality Manoj Mitra for Banchharaamer Bagan. Supriya Devi insists that it was this shock that brought about the heart attack that finally ended his life. “He heard it from others, not from Tapan-da. He was so totally involved in the role after long discussions with Tapan-da that all he could talk about at home was this film. So when he heard he was dropped, he could not cope,” she says sadly.
Uttam Kumar did not like Satyajit Ray presenting him in Nayak without make-up. He had never done this before. In mid-1965, when shooting for Nayak began, Uttam Kumar had just recovered from a bout of chicken pox. Ray asked him to touch up his face only in the flashback scenes as a younger man. When shooting was over, Uttam Kumar said, “I have discovered a new side to myself. Unhindered by make-up, I felt freer while expressing my emotions.”
Uttam Kumar played detective Byomkesh Bakshi in Ray’s Chiriakhana the following year. His performances in Antony Firingee and Chiriakhana fetched him the National Award for Best Actor (then called the Bharat Puraskar) the very year the award was instituted. Talking about his experience of having worked with Uttam Kumar, Satyajit Ray said, “It turned out to be the most pleasant experience of my career. I found that he belonged to the breed of instinctive actors. I hardly recall any discussion with Uttam on any serious, analytical level on the character he was playing. He surprised and delighted me with unexpected little details of action and behaviour, which came from him and not from me, always in character and always enhancing a scene. They were so spontaneous that it seemed he produced them out of his sleeve. If there was any cognition involved, he never spoke about it.” It looked like an autobiographical performance of a struggling actor who rises to the top, gets the National Award, but finds himself completely alone, distanced from his friends and peers, misunderstood by everyone.
In his authorized autobiography Amaar Ami (1980) written by Gouranga Prasad Ghosh, the reader gets a glimpse of the image of a middle-class urban Bengali who invested tremendously in hard work, perseverance, diligence and grit. It speaks lucidly about a man’s single-minded determination to work his way up the ladder to reach the top, who never takes his success for granted, who is ever ready to learn everything his roles demand him to. Apart from dancing, horse-riding and tennis, he also learnt wrestling at an akhara near Indira cinema, unknown to many. He was a very good singer and tabla player but refused to playback for himself. Before testing the waters of Hindi films, he tried to master Hindi and Urdu too. The book also refers to his commitment to better the working conditions of junior artistes and to improve the status of the film industry in his home state.
Uttam Kumar was brilliant in negative roles too. He played the villain obsessed with his love for a young woman in Ayananta. When he discovers that the woman is in love with his naïve and innocent friend, he kills her. In Baghbondi Khela, Uttam Kumar as the middle-aged hero plays a debauch whose way of life makes his wife leave him. Though he is a wealthy man, he traffics young girls from poor families. The mature Uttam Kumar put in an unforgettable performance in the film. In Stree, Uttam Kumar as the villainous landlord is shocked to discover on the day of his son’s wedding that he is not the father. He rides on horseback to the home of the family photographer, the real father and shoots down the already dead man. He rides back and shoots himself. In Lal Pathar, Uttam evolves from a cold-blooded, cruel and oppressive zamindar into a mentally deranged, doddering old man, a ghost of his former self, cared for by the woman he had kidnapped and kept in his home, but had never married.
Uttam Kumar’s five by five feet make-up room at New Theatres Studio is kept locked till this day. A studio boy, now an old man, opens the door everyday and burns incense sticks in memory of his famous master. It is a simple, non-descript room with a small divan, a wall mirror, a dressing table, a chair, a clothes shelf and a pair of wooden sandals the actor wore as he waited for his shot. A portrait of the star stands on the tabletop. He would slip into the character after make-up till he was called to the floors. No one had the guts to disturb him.
In the ‘60s, Prasad, a popular film monthly edited by late Rabi Basu, decided to bring out a special issue on Uttam Kumar. But the star put his foot down. “Special issues are planned when someone dies. Do you consider me a dead man, or a man about to retire?” Basu’s persistence paid off. Uttam agreed on condition that any accusation of publicity hunting would be borne by Basu. As if Uttam Kumar needed publicity! When the issue hit the stands, it sold out within a couple of days and had to be printed again.
“He would recite the Chandipaath loudly everyday during his morning Pooja. He would read the newspaper loudly to gain command over his diction. He did not have a morsel of food the day he was to shoot the nightmare scene in Nayak where he is shown slowly sucked into a quicksand-like hillock of currency notes. He later said how he really lost his balance and felt smothered under those notes,” says Supriya Devi, his live-in partner for 20 years till his death and his leading lady in 33 films.
“I pattern and redefine my romantic scenes according to the star I am cast against,” said Uttam Kumar once when questioned about how he manages to bring out a hit with other female stars also. “With Suchitra, there is a kind of healthy competition; we are trying to compete with each other without really trying to take away the other’s scene. When Arundhati Mukherjee was my leading lady, I tried to bring an intellectual flavour in my performance. I exercised restraint in the love scenes because Arundhati was controlled. With Sabitri, I was always on guard. She could beat me hollow in a scene without my knowing it. She kept her antenna completely alive and alert in every shot.”
That heart-wrenching smile, those mesmerizing eyes still make hearts of women in their 50s and 60s miss a beat. “He is the universal romantic hero of all time, the best Indian cinema has produced since no other star anywhere else in the country has been able to keep his memory alive in the minds of the masses like Uttam Kumar has,” said the late Rabi Basu, a renowned film critic. Up there, Uttam Kumar, looking at that square, corrugated picture of himself archived in a postage stamp, is probably having the last laugh at critics who dubbed him ‘a theatrical actor full of mannerisms,’ or, ‘a chocolate-boy hero who does not know the ABC of acting.’
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