Staying alive

He was a titanic actor and a colossal star. Uttam Kumar,the Bengali actor who made a worldwide name passed away 30 years ago on July 24. Screen rewinds to the colossus whose versatile gifts even included composing music and teaching singers.

Written by Shoma A. Chatterji | Mumbai | Published:August 20, 2010 12:02 pm

He was a titanic actor and a colossal star.Uttam Kumar,the Bengali actor who made a worldwide name passed away 30 years ago on July 24. Screen rewinds to the colossus whose versatile gifts even included composing music and teaching singers.

The legendary actor
Stars are social phenomena. They are images produced,reproduced and consumed within the social and cultural matrix and network of relationships in the glittering world of cinema and all that it symbolises. Most of these,however,are considered to be images created and manufactured by the media and circulated via various media outlets,publicity,advertising,promos,newspapers,etc. In this world of manufacturing consent,what can one say about a star who was born when images were not created but had to be generated by the actor himself,a star-actor who continues to mesmerise his fans even 30 years after his passed away on July 24,1980? You could call him Bengali cinema’s one and only star – and he is Uttam Kumar.

Come July and every year,film clubs,societies and fans of

Uttam Kumar wake up as if from a Rip Van Winkle slumber to realise that it is their favourite heartthrob’s death anniversary. Many of them were not even born when he passed away,but that makes no difference to their adulation and respect. Retrospectives of his films are held across television channels,film societies organise special screenings and last year,even a postage stamp and a first-day cover was released in his memory by the Postal Department. The celebrations go on for one full month while the star who has passed on yonder probably smiles down on his fans from up there,remembering his days of struggle and cruel brickbats he had to survive to get where he did. This year,an organisation has put together a serious seminar on Uttam Kumar for the first time.

The star is ‘book’ed
In 1980,his authorised autobiography – Amaar Aami (Mine,Myself),co-authored with Gauranga Prasad Ghosh,was published by Dey’s Publishing of Kolkata. It is a straightforward linear narrative,narrated in the first person in Uttam’s voice,beginning with his birth,tracing his childhood years,growing up within his family,his obsessive love for acting,his experience in theatre,his struggle to prove himself as an actor and finally,his love-hate relationship with his stardom,mostly created by his screen image,both alone and along with his romantic pairing with the most beautiful woman – Suchitra Sen. The text is intercut with glimpses into the sad story of his personal life -his first marriage to Gauri Devi who he fell in love with reportedly when he taught her music,followed by his live-in relationship with Supriya Devi that became stormy towards the end of his life mainly traced back to his love for alcohol. If one cares to read between the lines of this straightforward,minus-frills and stripped-of-glamour narrative,one glimpses the image of a middle-class person who invested deeply into the values of hard work,perseverance and diligence,enriched by grit and the determination to work his way up the rickety ladder to reach the top. He is one actor who never took his success for granted and could effortlessly,even as a villain in any given film,draw the limelight from the hero towards himself.

Rare memories
“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 on 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 explained how he really lost his balance and felt being smothered under those notes,” says Supriya Devi,his live-in partner for 20 years till his death and his leading lady in 33 films.

Uttam Kumar did not care for Satyajit Ray refusing him make-up for his role in Nayak. The actor was worried because he had just recovered from an attack of chicken-pox. He had never done this before. 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.”

He would not utter a single word before shooting began. He would arrive on the sets much before time,repair to his make-up room,put on his make-up and costumes 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 this great actor 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,” Tapan Sinha once said. He had directed Uttam Kumar in Upahaar,Bicharak,Hansuli Baanker Upakatha,Jhinder Bondi and Jotugriha. The director-actor friendship reportedly fell apart when for his Banchharaamer Bagan,Sinha is said to have dropped Uttam Kumar from the title-role he was preparing hard for,and replaced him with theatre doyen Manoj Mitra without informing the actor.

The man behind the star
For a role in a film,Uttam Kumar took lessons in wrestling in an akhada near his ancestral home at Bhawanipur. One day,he was approached by internationally renowned body-builder and weight-lifter Manotosh Roy. He introduced the star to a weight-lifter who did not have the funds to honour an invitation in an international contest. Uttam Kumar at once shelled out the money for the man’s two-way flight. But he placed two conditions – one was that the name of the benefactor should not be revealed and two,that he would like to meet the weightlifter only if he came back with the trophy. The weightlifter came back and met the star with a shining cup in his hand.

The star left no stone unturned to work hard for a given role. He learnt dancing for Chhoti Si Mulaqaat,horse-riding for Jhinder Bandi,and worked hard on his Hindi and Urdu to improve his diction for his Hindi films. Though the failure of Chhoti Si Mulaqat proved a very expensive affair financially,health-wise,professionally and emotionally,he did not let it get him down. Uttam Kumar once volunteered to stand in for his music teacher Nidan Bandhu Bandopadhyay when his regular tabla player did not arrive for a function. Bandopadhyay sang 13 songs at the function and Uttam Kumar did not give him reason to complain.

Uttam Kumar was a gifted singer trained in Hindustani classical music. But he did not lend his voice to his films. He wanted Asha Bhosle to sing one of Pulak Bandopadhyay’s compositions for Kaal Tumi Aaleya. Uttam Kumar had scored the music but did not allow his name in the credits. He flew to Mumbai to meet Asha and she said he would have to sing for her. He not only made her pick up the tune like any professional music composer would,but also explained the backdrop. When they were coming away,Uttam Kumar remembered that he had not given her the notations and went back to give her the notations. Asha Bhosle was amazed.

Awards for the legend

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 with Uttam Kumar,Satyajit Ray said,“It was the most pleasant experience of my career. He was an instinctive actor. 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,which were always in character and always enhanced 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. How much of this portrayal was autobiographical,and how much was Ray’s magic,will remain a mystery because Uttam Kumar will never shed light on the truth.

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