Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The life and times of a hero”

Posted on June 7, 2013


A book about Uttam Kumar attempts to get at the man behind the movie screen, with middling results.

Swapan Mullick, the author of Mahanayak Revisited: The World of Uttam Kumar, writes early on about his curiosity about the man behind the larger-than-life personalities the actor depicted on screen. His curiosity is ours – for who hasn’t felt the urge to know what the object of one’s worship (whether Uttam Kumar or anyone else) is really like? Mullick had begun going to school when Kumar had his first hit, Agni Pariksha, in 1954. “As I grew older,” Mullick recalls, “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.” After school, inevitably, Mullick became an “Uttam-observer like the majority of confirmed Calcuttans who wallowed in two obsessions – films and football.” Soon after, just out of his teens, Mullick set out to the now-defunct Movietone studio to extract information about his idol’s self-imposed exile in Bombay. A note was sent to the set where Kumar was shooting, and a meeting was arranged for the following day. “It was to be my first close encounter with the superstar.”

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Like these affairs usually are, the meeting was a disappointment. From the star’s side, a new journalist is an unproven commodity, just another person with a sheet of questions. You don’t know if he’s going to be respectful, intelligent, thoughtless or gossipy. From the journalist’s side, the expectations – derived from observing the actor on screen – are sky-high. You want a “performance” here to match the performances you’ve grown up admiring. The actor’s wariness ends up cancelling out the journalist’s enthusiasm. Mullick was terribly disappointed by the brief exchange, where Kumar denied that his stay in Bombay had anything to do with the tensions in Calcutta in the 1970s, as was widely reported. Kumar’s replies were “clouded with clichés and did not live up to the expectations of the sensational exposure I was pursuing… 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.”

This presents a problem for the chronicler of a life, and the only way out is to fill the blanks with an informed mix of fact and speculative fiction. You cannot make things up entirely, but you can, based on available evidence, extrapolate just enough and weave a compelling narrative. Mullick, however, is content to leave threads dangling. “Why Uttam chose that point in time to play the journalist in so many films that were vastly similar… was anyone’s guess.” “Why he never insisted on better scripts from directors… was one of the mysteries that will never be solved.” “What prompted [Ray] to turn towards Uttam Kumar at that stage is far from clear.” “[The] association with three women [Suchitra Sen, Sabitri Chatterjee, Supriya Chowdhury (née Banerjee)] who had a crucial influence on Uttam is the stuff of high drama, but there are gaps in the narrative that have not been filled to this day.” And after Kumar’s death, “Whether the industry failed him in those last years, or he paid the price for self-inflicted despair, was a story that will never be told.”

The World of Uttam Kumar, therefore, ends up far less encompassing that the title suggests, though Mullick still takes us through a fascinating tour around the highlights of a legendary career, one that began when a young man named Arun came to try his luck in the film industry at a time the studio system had collapsed and Bengali cinema was ready for ideas. He was unremarkable, except for a gifted singing voice. “He may have become nothing more than a teacher in one of the hundreds of music schools,” says Mullick, but for his single-minded pursuit of his ultimate objective. Arun became Uttam Kumar, the beloved star who, at a point, appeared in at least seven of the thirty-five Bengali films made each year. (Shockingly, only fifty of his films have survived. He made over 200.) Upon his demise, at the age of fifty-four, Satyajit Ray remarked, “There will never be an actor like him.”

Considering Kumar’s reputation, the fanatical following he commanded, Mahanayak Revisited is a curiously slim volume, its content further attenuated by long-winded prose. (And rhetorical insights like: “How could Uttam have known that the ‘60s would leave him with an incredible cocktail of triumphs and tragedies?”) But at least for someone not all that familiar with Kumar’s films and life, this is a useful guide. We learn about his historic partnership with Suchitra Sen (“It is difficult to recall a screen pair anywhere in the world that has left behind a romantic legacy so steeped in fantasy and yet so close to the Bengali ethos…”), his extramarital relationship with Supriya Chowdhury (who went on to star in Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara), his Hindi-film misadventures (his rejection of Bees Saal Baad turned out to be Biswajit’s big ticket to Bombay cinema), and his important Bengali works, including the two Ray collaborations, Nayak and Chiriyakhana, on whose sets he suffered his first heart attack.

Mullick is an unabashed fan, but also an honest critic. He admits that Kumar became a much better actor after working with Ray, and that Soumitra Chatterjee was quite brilliant in Saat Panke Bandha, a film that Kumar let go. “Uttam’s overwhelming romanticism would have come in the way of a performance that was required to end with the man leaving the house and the city in dismay and disgust. Could Uttam afford to suggest that he was the loser? [But] Soumitra had nothing to prove or protect.” Most poignant of all is Mullick’s lament that the Uttam Kumar phenomenon was hemmed in by the borders of Bengal. “The painstaking imagination with which he managed to adapt his looks, his mannerisms and acting styles to a stunning variety of personalities and situations ought to have been a matter of interest to audiences everywhere. But what he remained till the end was a regional hero.” The story isn’t very different today.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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