Stardust Memories: The Cosmopolitanism of Uttam Kumar and His Era-Defining Cinema

On Uttam Kumar's death anniversary on July 24, remembering the Bengali hero for the ages – the natural actor who won over generations with his charm and persistence.

Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen in a still from Agnipariksha

Sometime in May 1966, Satyajit Ray called Uttam Kumar. “Uttam, Nayak premieres tomorrow at Indira Cinema. I hope you will be there,” Ray reportedly said. “But Manikda, the press and public will be in attendance. Do you think I should go? There will be pandemonium,” he replied. “Uttam, don’t forget it’s a Satyajit Ray film. Please be there,” Ray commanded.

The next day, the news of Kumar’s appearance at the cinema house spread and all hell broke loose. By late afternoon, roads leading to Bhowanipore had to be barricaded. Kumar’s car – by most accounts a Chevrolet Impala – was piloted through the by-lanes. The theatre was shaking under the weight of uproarious chanting, ‘Guru, guru’, with demands to see the star. The hall manager rushed to Ray. “Sir, if we don’t bring him up on stage there will be a serious law-and-order issue.” Minutes later, the lights came on and Kumar was seen standing on the platform in front of the screen. He raised his hand. The crowd fell silent, as if by the waving of a magic wand. “I request you to please be silent and watch the film. Don’t forget it is a Satyajit Ray film.”

This story, a piquant testimonial to two of Bengal’s foremost immortals, is probably apocryphal. But that takes nothing away from what this tale testifies to – from Ray’s sway over his cast, the pliant theatre manager and finally the phenomenal stardom of Kumar. In some ways, this story encapsulates the fantasy that was Bengali cinema. But as is known, it is not Ray who colonised that cinema, either as fantasy or as commerce. It was Kumar. And only Kumar.

Kumar, born in September 3, 1926, as Arunkumar Chattopadhyay, made a brittle, obscure acting debut in an unreleased Hindi film called Mayador in 1947. In 1948, he made appeared in the equally-forgotten Drishtidan – it was a Bombay Talkies film – having braved a roomful of cocky, loud naysayers during the days of shooting. He was employed as a clerk at the port commissioner’s department, a job he juggled with furtive and fervent visits to the studios in suburban Calcutta. The first seven films failed miserably. Behind his back, they called him a ‘flop master general’, in front of him they reminded him of the pedigree of his predecessors and the audacity of his aspiration. Thinly built and emaciated, with a crop of oiled backbrushed hair, thick lips, a fleshy nose and round, curious eyes, Kumar, they claimed, was lacking not just in bhadrolok rearing but also in ‘heroic’ looks. Kumar, on his part, was no less clueless. He continued to lap up the roles he got, improved upon his borderline stammering, read voraciously and trained in soccer, swimming, wrestling and music. But his films continued to come a cropper. Till the early 1950s, the dream of being a phenomenally-popular matinee idol was not remotely in the reckoning and an unprecedented stardom was not even fanciful idea; nor did he imagine that one day he would be Ray’s protagonist and walk the red carpet at the Berlin Film Festival.

But the story changed radically with the success of Basu Poribar and Sare Chuattor, both in 1954the latter having launched his legendary pairing with Suchitra Sen. The same year, a teary, highfaluting melodrama Agniporikha, again with Sen, gave him the stellar push. A precocious struggler of about a dozen movies, Kumar became an incomparable movie star. And there is a strong reason for it. Kumar, instead of being daunted by the inadequacy of his origins, turned it into an asset. Instead of following his peers and predecessors, he used his innocuous ordinariness to subvert the predominant style of high theatricality and brought to the fore a contemporary, idiomatic, natural and effortless style of performance. And that was what was to became his signature. Soon, his apparently average looks became a magnet of affection, his gait of imitation, his manners of romance, his smile of idolatry. Hence sometime in the summer of 1954, a year before Ray’s Panther Panchali stormed the art movie circuit, a fabled celluloid life premiered around the Tollygunge studios of Calcutta.

The black-and-white romance came to be art-de rigueur of Kumar’s stardom. Yet, that genre, instead of being escapades into the fantastic, was deeply rooted in the economies of social and cultural capital, partaking in the massive reconstruction of post-Partition Bengali life and cultural milieu. Moreover, Kumar promoted and represented a self-consciously crossover cinema, which was to be found in the neighbourhood of melodrama but subverted its populist trappings and was grounded in a genteel, evolved critique of their contexts. Uttam Kumar’s body of work transcended generic divisions. He could perfectly embody O. E. Klapp’s figurations of the romantic hero, the Average — and Good — Joe, the Pin-Up and the unrelenting rebel and all of them, often, in a single role. At the same time, he played the insidious anti-hero (Baghbondi Khela), the unctuous manservant (Khokababur Protyaborton), the probing psychologist (Lal Pathar), the witty detective (Chiriyakhana), the decadent aristocrat (Stree), the murderer (Sesh Onko), the player (Kal Tumi Aleya), the humbug (Aparichito) and the vanquished (Jodubangsho). Above all, and what remains his climactic achievement, he played himself in Ray’s Nayak. It is to the astonishing confidence on his fame that one must attribute his eagerness to perform a cinematic self-critique in this film, unperturbed by the possibility of betting to the future the carefully-constructed mysticality of his extraordinary stardom.

He lived the whole of his cinema- starred, produced, directed, set the score and in one case even did playback singing. Kumar’s popular heft is unmatched either before or after him. Throughout his life, a mad following stalked him, distressed his free movements and put to interrogation his closely-held middle-class upbringing. His cult has increased incrementally since his death in 1980, managing to include a younger generation of viewers with all their baggage of new cultural tastes.

Kumar’s unsuccessful stint in Hindi cinema should also be noted as a factor of his dominance of Bengali cinema. Kumar was not a Stalislavskian actor but a natural one. His acting was rehearsed, yes, but never choreographed. His keenly-imbibed modernity and effortless felicity made him embody the idiomatic idiosyncrasies of the Bengali diction and language – complete with an unerring sense of poise and movement, gesture and response, animus and reflection. It was impossible to transport the gestural demands of the language fundamental to his performance. It was inevitable that he ended up lending his worst parts to Hindi cinema while the range, depth and subtlety of his acting, the cosmopolitanism of his style and the pursuit of brilliance in tens of Bengali films have remained outside the gregarious celebration of so-called Indian cinema.

Today, on the 37th death anniversary of Kumar, when his absence is being felt more than ever, it would be rewarding to mark some of the signposts in the annals of his cinema.

For example, in November 1957, the MGM-backed art-deco landmark Metro Cinema in Calcutta made a historic amendment to its English-film-only policy. It decided to screen Chandranath, a luminous old-world Bengali melodrama, bowing to the increasingly irrepressible stardom of its young leading artistes – Kumar and Suchitra Sen. Bengali cinema took a giant leap that day, making an exultant entry into the glitter of downtown Chowringhee. Interestingly, the chief projectionist of Metro Cinema was a tall, lean, serious-looking man named Satkari Chattopadhyay, who, when he kept his eyes firm on the first reels of Chandranath as it unspooled, saw his son’s giant image on the white screen he had lighted for years. That day, the father and the son together made history, while Bengali cinema decidedly stepped into the affluent, cosmopolitan climes of its home city. Unknown to most, 1957 also saw the release of Uttam starrer Pothe Holo Deri– reportedly the first ever Bengali film to have a part of it shot in colour- Gevacolor. Ray’s Kanchenjungha, the first Bengali colour film (in Eastmancolour) was still five years into the future. This year marks the 60th year of both the breakthroughs.

The year 1957 also marked the release of marquee melodrama Harano Sur, a blockbuster romance that received a Certificate of Merit from the Indian government. As co-producer, Kumar was invited to Delhi to collect the award. As expected, hundreds congregated at Howrah station anticipating a glance at the star. Fearing chaos, Kumar’s car – this time a Studebaker President – was ushered in through the station’s exit gate and he was hurriedly huddled into the waiting train. Incidentally, this scene is relived in Ray’s Nayak, where Kumar’s character Arindam Mukherjee is seen travelling to Delhi to collect a prestigious award. It should be noted that in 1967, a year after Nayak, the government of India announced the inaugural Bharat Award for best male lead in Indian cinema–the first award went to Uttam Kumar for Ray’s Chiriyakhana and Sunil Banerjee’s Antony Firingee. This is the 50th year of that award.

SayandebChowdhury teaches at Ambedkar University Delhi. His book on the life, cinema and afterlife of Uttam Kumar is to be published by HarperCollins India in 2018.