Oddly, nothing in the form of a biography has been written before about Bengal’s most memorable actor, Uttam Kumar, in English.
Veteran film critic Swapan Mullick’s Mahanayak Revisited goes behind the professional life and public face of Bengal’s most idolised actor to reveal little-known details of the star’s unconscious power in the film industry for more than thirty years, the dazzling achievements dampened by dud disappointments, the aberrations attendant on a life constantly in the floodlights as well as the human face that was masked by his towering image in front of the camera-all of which have resulted in, for cine-lovers, an attachment that survives more than thirty years after his death.
Mullick researches the reason for our undying worship of, and emotional links with, Bengal’s most enduring screen hero, emerging with a gripping portrait of a true master of his art.
Swapan Mulick is a National Award-Winning film critic and journalist. He has been a lecturer and juror at national and international film festivals and was Director, Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata from 2006-2009.
I don’t recall my first meeting with Uttam Kumar, but I did run into his presence on a couple of occasions as a media representative who was curious about the man behind the larger-than--life personalities he depicted on screen, The people he represented had a core of truth inevitably inextricable from the magnetism that flowed from his presence. With his romantic energy, the actor swept the hearts of the masses but couldn’t, in the real sense, exude the harsh realism of their everyday experience. He established his credentials as the perfect, self-taught professional who could transform himself into characters ranging from the simple servant in Khokababur Pratyabartan to the hard-drinking, womanising zamindar in Stree, but in all cases keeping his stardom intact.
In the shabby scenario of Tollygunge, that also boasted respectable and long-lasting production houses, he was worshipped because of the popularity that extended well beyond the heights scaled by his predecessors (among them PC. Barua and Durgadas Banerjee) and the windfall he fetched for his producers. The experience of popular cinema was gripping because the alternative was the commercial theatre that coveted a sprinkling of screen stars but which had limited accommodation and was more expensive than an Uttam blockbuster which could be devoured for anything between sixty paise and rs. 3 around the early ‘60s.
I had begun going to school when Uttam emerged with his first hit, Agni Pariksha, in 1954. The cinema was then considered a polluting influence and, with none of the diverting attractions of television or the seductive images on the city’s skyline, school-going children had no means of grasping the magic of stardom. I was even less capable of critically assessing the man who could work wonders on screen to the point of transforming potential disasters into wholesome dividends. But as I grew older, it was impossible to be insulated from the passions—however restrained and conservative they were in tone and treatment—that Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen expressed with such powerful conviction. I hadn’t seen all their films but had heard elders discussing them, and it was only a matter of time, after I had passed out of school, that I would become an Uttam observer like the majority of confirmed Calcuttans who wallowed in two obsessions—films and football.
How many Bengalis, even those with public school and English-medium backgrounds, could escape the romantic aura that spread from theatres to homes, from flickering images on the screen to college and university campuses? No one was capable of regulating the impact on the young. The old-fashioned romance of the ‘50s and ‘60s permeated middle-class consciousness—not just that of the young but society in general—silently but surely. This was the context in which I first went down to the now defunct Movietone studio one afternoon in the early ‘70s, to extract information on Uttam’s self-imposed exile in Bombay.
A note sent to the set where he was shooting for a film based on a Saratchandra Chatterjee story brought word that I should meet him the following day at his house in Moira Street. It was to be my first close encounter with the superstar. But I must confess that, although he treated me with all the respect due to a media person (though I was just out of my teens), I was terribly disappointed by the brief exchange. It was clouded with clichés and did not live up to the expectations of the sensational exposure I was pursuing. To begin with, he denied that his stay in Bombay had anything to do with the turmoil and tensions in Calcutta during the ‘70s that were reported to have compelled him to leave. One had heard that he had been receiving threats from the vicinity of the studios that were said to be swarming with extremist elements. He was clearly in no mood to open old wounds and decided instead to make an escapist declaration that the flight to Bombay was merely a much-needed break.
It brought the conversation to an abrupt halt and confirmed that, unlike Utpal Dutt, who could cope as masterfully with real-life storms as the screen comedies he thrived on, Uttam, the boy from Bhowanipore, preferred the glorified and escapist image he continued to project on screen for thirty-two years. He was the idol who considered it prudent to be admired on screen rather than on the streets.
Be that as it may, I had been visiting the studios regularly and had witnessed the uncertainty that had set in with reports that he was packing his bags for a long absence. He had done his best to help the industry that had put him on an exclusive pedestal even in an environment alive with giants like Chhabi Biswas, Pahari Sanyal and Bikash Roy. But there was a point beyond which he couldn’t help a sinking fraternity. Came the ‘70s and he himself hovered in the uncertain realms of non- romantic stardom and the results were mixed. Money- spinners like Stree and Sanyasi Raja only just about redeemed unmitigated disasters such as Nabarag.
As time went by, and I continued writing on films, it seemed that Uttam was perhaps the only actor in Bengal who invited a rush of contradictory emotions. His films were wide-ranging, his personality was a curious mixture of personal weaknesses and natural brilliance, and he projected a cultural identity that extended well beyond the films he acted in. The milieu that he was born into, and lived within, was magically revived by a continuing hysteria that no hero had known in Bengal since the arrival of the talkies.
Yet, even through that success story, there was evidence of an ebb and flow that seemed to have kept him on tenterhooks. The disasters of the ‘40s were followed by stunning hits in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Then came the crippling disaster of the first Hindi film, Chhoti Si Mulaqat, and the fallout that it had in shabby projects he accepted after that, perhaps out of compulsion. A brief re-engagement with success in the early ‘70s, through Dhanni Meye and Amaanush, was again overshadowed by B-grade assignments he should never have accepted. Ogo Bodhu Sundari rescued him from despair—only to grant him a truncated appearance.
I was one of two journalists present on the sets on his last working day in the studio. Later reports suggested that he had faced an embarrassment that day when he found a co-star occupying his make-up room and promptly drove to the next studio to get ready. I never found any trace of bitterness in his voice as he spoke to the actress during breaks in the shooting. Instead, he seemed quite normal as he offered tips to the director, Saul Datta, on how to exploit the comic potential of the scene. He had been speaking of the plans that he had for his organisation, Shilpi Samsad, which had produced Dui Prithivi, released the previous week.
I had come away without the slightest hint that he was feeling unwell. If he indeed was not in the best of health, it didn’t show in either his movements or his conversation. I was thus mildly surprised to learn the next morning that he had been admitted to a nursing home. I had done my work for the day, during which I had to write the obituary of Peter Sellers who had died that day, 24 July. Thursdays were usually heavy with film reviews coming on top of normal editorial duties. To that had been added the Sellers obituary. It was close to nine when I got home that night. I couldn’t have been more shocked when, half an hour later, someone rang to inform me that Uttam Kumar was dead and that I had to get back to the office.
It was early morning when, instead of going home, I went to Girish Mukherjee Road where Tarun Kumar allowed me to sit near the flower-bedecked body, and get a ringside view of the stream of celebrity mourners. It was not something I had wanted but it was a first-hand experience of the hysteria that the star had generated both in life and in death. It was difficult to be objective in that climate, and the magazines that came out with special issues simply fed the hysteria and hero-worship. But as time passed, it was clear that Uttam meant more than the films that he acted in. He represented a social climate and a culture with mass connections in a way no actor had done before him.
Thirty-two years after his death, the story of his mass appeal has survived. No one has come along to change it.
Yet, at this point, and seen from a critical distance, it is perhaps easier now than ever before to put his life and work in perspective.
That is what has prompted this book, although I must confess that it may never have materialised had it not been for the persistence of Prim Maitra, my old colleague in The Statesman. She had first mooted the idea when I was Director, Satyajit Ray film and Television Institute. The burden of administrative responsibilities had drawn me away from writing for a while. But it is entirely to Prim’s credit that she kept track of my commitments and revived the idea after I had completed my tenure at the SRFTI.
This book is an attempt to examine the stunning heights scaled by a superstar that were, to an extent, clouded by pitfalls and practical realities. I don’t expect readers to agree with all that I have said. But I do hope that the actor’s countless admirers, both in Bengal and other parts of the film-Loving world, will read not just the text but the broad hints, to get a closer understanding of the maestro, the man and the myth.
The story of bengali films has largely followed the laws of nature. One system is required to collapse before another can take its place. Each system has a character and identity that must recognise the inevitability of growth, just as one generation must sink its essential facets in the changing perspectives of external influences and internal compulsions of the generation that follows.
This, inevitably, has something to do with the march of time and with social changes to which both established and aspiring exponents of cinematic ideas cannot remain immune. At each stage, there appear leading lights who, during the years they are in command, become the darlings of the crowd and the pivot around which the entertainment industry revolves.
In Bengali theatre that privileged position belonged to Sisir Kumar Bhaduri who, unlike some of his contemporaries such as Ahindra Chowdhury, never condescended to dabble in the fledgling art of cinema even to experience it as a passing thrill in the way literary stalwarts such as Tarashankar Banerjee and Premendra Mitra had looked for marginal excitement in cinema. On the other hand, the advent of ‘talking cinema’ threw up Pramathesh Chandra Barua, Kundanlal Saigal and Kanan Devi as the new icons who became such compelling personalities in the nascent medium that they never reverted to the excitement of communicating directly with audiences from the proscenium stage. To that extent, they were protected from the mannerisms that were associated with stalwarts of the stage. They, too, had their mannerisms but these were not theatrical. To be sure, echoes from the theatre were heard in conspicuous measure in the new environment of movies. Between the projection room at the rear and the large screen in front of a chattering crowd in a dark chamber, there were styles of delivery, expression and movement that had their roots in the older medium.
Nor could popular faces in the Bengali cinema that thrived in the ‘50s and ‘60s resist the temptation of confirming their place in the hearts of the masses by spending their weekends in commercial theatre. It was the rage in heritage sites like the Star which was immortalised by the presence of Sri Ramakrishna in a performance of Chaitanyaleela led by Girish Chandra Ghosh and Nati Binodini. Biswaroopa was ruled by the redoubtable theatre magnate Rashbehari Sarkar and mounted resounding hits like Chowringhee and Asami Hazeer till Sarkar discovered that the real estate prospects of the establishment he had been running for more than thirty years were far more rewarding than the box-office returns from a 900-strong audience for a single show.
Rangmahal was run virtually by proxy by the comedian Jahar Roy who, for all his extraordinary talent in extracting the hilarious possibilities of the lines given to him, was at best a supporting character in films, and was often thrown in for mere comic relief.
Barua tried his best to snap the filial link between the two performing art forms. There was still a somewhat disproportionate emphasis on the power of words in films that were yet to discover the possibilities of images that opened up with Pather Panchali in 1955. Barua developed the art of modulating his voice to a natural tone and adapting his movements to the demands of the camera. In other words, there was recognition for the first time that visual treatment—apart from the stentorian delivery audiences were accustomed to—had an elegance that demanded a more insightful response. Or, at least, the new medium of the talkies could embrace a range of subjects and explore locations that could never make their way into theatre.
Barua was aware of this change and did his best to promote a new style. But there were limits to which the studios that functioned as full-fledged business establishments could go. The studio system threw up close-knit families of actors, directors, cameramen and technicians, hired on monthly salaries, and there were compulsions in production styles that could never be wholly discarded.
But, then, the laws of nature could not be ignored. The rise of a literary consciousness, inspired by Rabindranath Tagore, the spirit of nationalism that had its roots in Lord Curzon’s efforts to divide Bengal, and which produced resistance groups and individuals like Surya ‘Masterda’ Sen, and Khudiram Bose, the birth pangs of an independent country after 15 August 1947, and the wealth of certain sections pouring into the new business of films resulted in a cross-fertilisation of interests and ambitions. On the one hand, Bengal experienced its worst disaster in the form of a famine that took five million lives. On the other, capital interests were on the rise and slowly but surely made a dent in the film-making scenario where studios could no longer hold on to their contractual obligations. Film-making families broke up into nuclear units while individuals like Nitin Bose and Bimal Roy went their own ways in Bombay. The studio system collapsed and the old elite represented by individuals who rode into the studios in their old Austins and Humbers in spotless white dhoti and kurta retired to the comfort of their homes. It was henceforth the survival of the fittest.
It was this new development that saw the arrival of a young man from a middle-class joint family in south Calcutta with the struggle for survival as an immediate reality—but with a future in films as the recurring subject of his dreams. He was an unrelenting survivor claiming no more than amateur skills in roadside stage performances organised by friends in the locality. The reality only lit up his fantasy rhough the rwo forms of acting could scarcely be connected. That was something that did not deter the young man who revealed, as experience was to show, a rare kind of tenacity.
He was born Arun, but struggled even with the name given to him by his parents. The determination survived even as he was supposedly blessed with other names— before someone in the studio was finally convinced that the name Uttam held the best possible promise. The result never really mattered because he was, in any case, playing second fiddle to actors like Asit Baran who, ironically, went on to play second fiddle to Uttam ten years down the line. Whether one is a struggling debutant or a fallen hero, cinema teaches its exponents—everyone except the rare species born with silver spoons in their mouths—to develop thick skins. Uttam’s desperate experiments with his own identity didn’t work as well as he may have expected. But what finally mattered was the perseverance that prompted him to go from door to door looking for the right opportunity. If there were one or two sympathisers, there were many more ready to scoff at the unassuming lad aspiring to greatness. Persistence is a recurring theme in the lives of young hopefuls in the world of entertainment but it was quite exceptional in the case of Uttam Kumar, who embodied a failure-to-fame miracle that was only a small variation on a rags-to-riches story. Few idols in the history of cinema have followed him in surviving a disastrous introduction to films in 1948 that kept him on the sidelines for five years before a romantic transformation made him Bengali cinema’s most enduring idol. A title had to be found to distinguish a genuine star from others whose success was limited. That was when the mantle of Mahanayak’ came to test on him.
The title fell naturally to him in 1980, when he died virtually without any omens of warning. It mercifully stalled efforts by less than deserving performers to invite comparisons with the actor whose charisma has survived even in an age where heroes operate in a cultural vacuum, because the market demands frothy excitement. Bengali cinema is still waiting for someone to come along and overturn Satyajit Ray’s simple but fiercely genuine observation after Utram Kumars death: ‘There will never be an actor like him.’
Many have wondered and asked what the real story had been behind the charisma that has lasted longer than even Uttams staunchest loyalists could have imagined. His schooling was most ordinary and his personal inclinations never suggested that he had anything more than average intelligence, nor that he would one day be wholly immersed in creative pursuits. The joint-family environment that he grew up in at his maternal uncle’s house at Ahiritolla, a traditional locality in north Calcutta not far from the bathing ghats, the image-makers’ colony in Kumartuli and the opera offices in Chitpore, invoked a middle-class consciousness in the young man, one that he communicated to audiences with great conviction. It was best expressed during puja celebrations when he helped in designing images, and during musical nights and street plays mounted by the local clubs whose members played the leading roles.
There was nothing professional in any of that and, when Uttam moved from north Calcutta to the joint- family setting in Bhowanipore in south Calcutta, the environment was much the same: friends from the locality; neighbours, music sessions that he joined as a promising singer, and community-generated plays that he acted in for pure pleasure. It would have required a miracle to transform this mundane existence into stardom and bring to the fore an electrifying persona that left most of his rivals far behind.
He couldn’t have crafted that miracle without single- minded pursuit of his ultimate objective. For one thing, he had no godfather. The fact that his only connection with cinema was his father, Satkari Chatterjee, who was a projectionist at the Metro cinema in Dharamtala, only served to underline his humble roots. But even under the crippling stress of supporting his family, he was desperate, very desperate, to escape the clerical job he was compelled to take. His personal ambitions had to be subordinate to finding a means of survival for himself and his family.
If the manner in which this star was born wasn’t exactly a fairy tale, considering the hardship and the mental disaster of a home production in 1966 and when, in his last years, he needed to keep himself in circulation. By then it was too late.
Uttam Kumar’s misfortune was that he someone like Rajnikanth, who embraced the years before and after the arrival of television that helps actors break cultural barriers. Nor was he like M.G. Ramachandran and N.T. Rama Rao, who combined their exploite screen with their political ambitions. Uttam belonged to the bhadralok tradition that could never adjust to the political turbulence that marked the rise of Left politics in the ‘50s. By then he had become a star, after pairing with Suchitra Sen in a string of hits. All that he could concentrate on was a world of romance that millions of Bengalis hovered in with delight. The cinema that grew around Uttam—whether he was the innocent hero with a ravishing smile or a complex creature with shades of evil— never invited political associations. Uttam himself did not have the radical perceptions that marked trade movements or justified protests against the government of the day. Nor could he engage in creative exercises like writing poems expressing ranging from nostalgia and romance to the angst of the age.
If he was seen to be leaning more towards the Right, the fact was that the ruling establishment in the ‘50s, headed by Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, had no inclination towards cinema. It was an accident that had led the government to support Satyajit Ray’s Father Panchali. But Uttam never had an occasion to share theatre seating with Dr Roy through even some of his more serious films. If Uttam had been living in the boisterous era of event management, he may have acted differently . He may have invited the decision- makers to watch Khokababur Pratyabartan, based on the Tagore story, in which he deliberately tore away from his romantic image and played the servant-protagonist. At another socially relevant level, Saptapadi, which he produced, talked about the evils of religious prejudice and could have done more to remove social evils than the contrived campaigns launched by the government’s media agencies. With a small exercise in public relations, tax exemption may well have been on the cards. At the height of his popularity, Uttam never understood what PR was, apart from the rituals that were performed during a film’s opening.
The story of Uttam Kumar would never be complete without its contradictory pulls and pressures. On the one hand, he became a role-model as the backyard babu who groomed himself to the ranks of an actor and, on the other, found himself being catapulted to a rare height of stardom, finally making sure that the actor was nor lost in the star.
Nor that he could control all that happened in a professional life that lasted a little more than three decades, but he was a survivor all the same. Who would have survived after seven consecutive flops, beginning with a Hindi film, Mayador that appeared in 1948, which never got released? It was a beginning no one would have expected even in a horrible nightmare. Subsequently, there were some claiming to be friends who helped him maintain a steady stream of acting assignments. But many of these people merely helped themselves to a share of the cake. Uttam was the innocent dreamer in a world that had already begun to be infested with sharks and, in those uncertain years, all he got were unsteady, opera-like acting opportunities that did his reputation no good. Fortunately, the miracle worked and the opportunity-seeker turned into the industry’s most bankable asset.
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