By Shoma A. Chatterji
35 years since Uttam Kumar passed away and he is still alive in the minds of thousands of Bengalis across the world. Every year, in the month of September and also in July, when he passed away, people across West Bengal celebrate, in various ways. The Tollygunge Metro station was christened Uttam Kumar Sarani some years ago.
With Suchitra Sen, Uttam Kumar heralded the golden era of Bengali cinema. Their first film, Saare Chuattar, a rip-roaring comedy, became a box office hit. With 30 films spanning two decades, they created a genre of romance that has never been known 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 and richly-decorated interiors with fluttering curtains. Their most popular films include Shap Mochan (1955), Sagarika (1956), Harano Sur (1957), Saptapadi (1961), Bipasha (1962) and Grihadah (1967).
Uttam Kumar would arrive on the sets much before time, 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 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 and not from Tapanda. He was so totally involved in the role after long discussions with Tapanda 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. In mid-1965, during the shooting of Nayak, the actor had just recovered from a bout of chicken pox. Ray asked him to touch up his face only in the flashback scenes. 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’s 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, nondescript 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.
“He would recite the Chandipaath loudly 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 mentioned 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.
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. 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, the villain in Ayananta or Chunilal in Dilip Roy’s Devdas.