Beyond Bygone

Uttam Kumar: Crowning jewel of Bengali cinema

July 24 marks the demise of a one-man-institution in Uttam Kumar who acted, sang, composed music, and produced and directed films to cine lovers’ delight; his untimely death had drawn closing curtains on the ‘golden era’ of Bengali cinema

Uttam Kumar: Crowning jewel of Bengali cinema

Forty-two years have passed since Uttam Kumar left this world on July 24, 1980, but his memories have not dimmed. He still rules over the hearts of millions of his fans. The man, bearing his characteristic magnetism, was such that whatever role he played, only his performance mattered. Uttam may not have had the grandeur of Dilip Kumar, or the talent of Soumitra Chatterjee, yet people adored their superstar. He dominated Bengali cinema for over three decades.

Born as Arun Kumar Chattopadhyay on September 3, 1926 to Satkari Chattopadhyay and Chapala Devi in a lower middle-class family at Ahiri Tola in North Kolkata, Uttam Kumar had two younger brothers — Barun Kumar and Tarun kumar — and a younger sister Putul who died early. His Father was a film operator in Metro Cinema Hall in Kolkata. The entire family lived at Girish Mukherjee Road.

Like many actors of his era, Uttam Kumar came into films via theatre. The family-owned theatre group — Suhrid Samaj — gave young Uttam a timely platform to start with. The small group that staged several amateur shows became Uttam's learning foundation for anything and everything related to films. Thanks to the theatrical activities he took to, Uttam missed many of his study sessions.

Uttam was mostly engaged in creative activities — ranging from occasional sketching to making posters for the plays of his theatre group. In fact, his intensive involvement in theatre even inspired him to create a Lunar Club with his friends. Uttam's parents were concerned about his studies but they never exercised extreme discipline to control him. His father could clearly see in his son a potential actor!

After completing his early education from Chakraberia School, Uttam Kumar matriculated from a south suburban school in Kolkata and got admission in government Commercial Institute (now known as Goenka College). Uttam used to exhibit his theatrical talent on every opportunity he got, and soon became recognised as a talented actor. He was now involved in a serious theatrical production, 'Braja kanai' in which he acted as Phani Ray. The role earned him critical acclaim.

Young Uttam's sensitive mind was influenced by many events of the time — the death of Rabindranath Tagore, Subhash Chandra Bose's role in the freedom struggle and, in later years, the Naxalite movement. After passing the college in 1945, he realised that he must support his family. He needed to work and, hence, joined the Kolkata Port Commissioner office in the cash department on a monthly salary of Rs 275. He would work in daytime and keep his evenings reserved for watching theatrical shows in Rang Mahal, Minerva and Star.

In 1948, Uttam Kumar got married to Gouri Devi despite strong paternal opposition from both sides. Later, even as they separated, Gouri Devi left a tremendous influence on his life. Though he moved on to live with Supriya Devi, he occasionally used to visit Gouri Devi and supported her.

Uttam Kumar's name was linked with other ladies as well, including his co-stars Savitri Devi and Suchitra Sen, but it was Supriya Devi with whom he lived until his last breath.

There is no doubt that Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen made the most successful pair in Bengali Cinema. Out of the 60 films of Suchitra Sen, she paired in 30 films with Uttam Kumar. Both the successful actors had tried their hands in Hindi films as well. Uttam acted in 15 Hindi films; his last released film, 'Plot No. 5', was also in Hindi.

After working in theatre and Port Trust for a few years, Uttam Kumar tried his luck at films. He entered the film industry in 1947 with the Hindi film 'Maya Dore' which couldn't be released. His first released film, Drishtiheen (1948), directed by Nitin Bose, was under his birth name Arun Kumar Chatterjee. Next year, he appeared as a hero in the film 'Kamona' (1949), changing his name again to Uttam Chatterji. Later, once again, he changed to Arun Chatterjee. Eventually, from the film 'Sahajatri' (1951) he permanently rechristened himself as Uttam Kumar. At the same time, he kept working in Port Trust. His early years were not quite smooth as he gave back-to-back flops and earned the moniker 'Flop Master General' in the industry.

Uttam's first successful film, under the banner of MP Productions, was Nirmal Dey-directed 'Basu Paribar' (1952). In the meantime, he resigned from the Port Trust job and focused his concentration solely on films. His next film, 'Sharey Chuattar' (1953) — directed again by Nirmal Dey — was under the same production. However, Uttam Kumar's first breakthrough role would come in Agradoot-directed 'Agni Parikshya' (1954).

Uttam collaborated with Satyajit Ray for the first time in film 'Nayak' (1966), opposite Sharmila Tagore. Notably, ten years ago, when Ray had approached Uttam Kumar for the villain's role as Sandip in his film 'Ghare Baire' (1956), Uttam had politely declined the offer, keeping his hero image in mind in some of his successful films.

Uttam Kumar was a one-man institution, as he was an actor, producer, director, script writer, singer and composer — all in one. He produced six Bangla films and one in Hindi. Among the first of his production ventures, under the banner of Alo Chaya, were 'Harano Sur' (1957) and 'Saptpadi' (1961) — both the films were directed by Ajoy Kar and received the national film award. In 1963, he changed his banner name to Uttam Kumar Private Limited. The first film under the new banner was 'Bhranti Bilas' (1963). Other prominent films were 'Uttar Falguni' (1963) and 'Jotugriha' (1964) — both of which got national film awards. Uttam Kumar's prominent directions include 'Sudhu Ekti Bachhar', 'Bon Palashir Padabali' and 'Kalankini Kankabati' (released after his death).

As a composer, he composed for the film 'Kaal Tumi Aleya' (1966), in which Hemant Kumar and Asha Bhosle gave their voices. Asha Bhosle also sang for his composition in 'Sabyasachi' (1977). In 1956, Raj Kapoor wanted to cast him in the Bangla version of 'Jaagte Raho' but Uttam declined the offer. Uttam kumar had a very cordial relationship with Hemant Kumar but, when Kumar offered him a lead role in his maiden home production, 'Bees Saal Baad', Uttam Kumar refused. It is said that their relationship hit a low after this rejection. Raj Kapoor also wanted him to play the lead role in his first colour film, 'Sangam', but Uttam once again rejected the offer. The role eventually went to Rajendra Kumar.

In 1967, Uttam Kumar produced a Hindi film, 'Chhoti Si Mulaqat', featuring Vyjayanthimala. The film was directed by Alo Sarkar. The music was composed by the duo Shankar-Jaikishan who, in the 1960s, were the guarantee for silver jubilee films. But their magic did not work in this film. It flopped heavily at the box office, following which Uttam Kumar became heavily indebted. To repay his debt, he signed several films. The last straw that broke the camel's back was Tapan Sinha-directed 'Bancharamer Bagan' (1988). The only consolation for Uttam Kumar was that he was the first recipient of national award — instituted in 1967 — for his film 'Antony Firingee' in 1968.

Uttam Kumar had his first heart attack during the shooting of Ray's 'Chririyakhana' (1967). His health started deteriorating after the flop of 'Chhoti Si Mulaqat' (1967) and he underwent two more attacks. While shooting 'Ogo Bodhu Sundari' on July 23, 1980, Uttam developed another heart issue. Still, in the night after the shooting, he attended a party and over consumed alcohol there. At midnight, he had a massive heart stroke and was admitted to the Kolkata Bellevue clinic where five cardiologists attended to see him. After 16 hours, he died at 9:35 pm in July 1980 at the age of 53.

With his sad demise, the golden era of Bengali Cinema came to an end. The milling crowd at his funeral was a testimony to the popularity of this great artist. Bengali Cinema has not yet recovered from the loss of Uttam Kumar. In the words of Satyajit Ray, his death meant "the demise of the leading light of the Bengali film industry". There isn't, and won't be another hero like him. The passage of time has not diminished his memories, and tributes continue to pour in. A metro railway station in Kolkata was named after him and, recently, postage stamps honouring him were also released. Uttam awards have been established to honour film personalities. An Uttam Mancha, located in South Kolkata, stages his plays and screens his films regularly. South Kolkata honoured the actor by instituting a life-size statue near the Tollygunge Metro Station, close to the studios where he worked. Till date, his make-up room at New Theatres Studio is maintained as though he could walk in any time.

Uttam Kumar acted in more than 200 films. He was popularly known as Mahanayak. In 2012, the West Bengal government introduced a Mahanayak Samman in the memory of the great actor.

Views expressed are personal

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