Uttam Kumar The Finest Icon of Bengali Filmdom


Had he lived the mahanayak (super star) of Tollywood would have turned 96 this September. His life is the proverbial rags-to-riches story. Yes, he is Uttam Kumar who set the silver screen of Bengali tinsel world ablaze for three decades. His name translates (in Bengali) into fine individual. A quick recap of the life and times of this erstwhile matinee idol.

He was born as Arun Kumar Chattopadhyay on September 3, 1926, into a lower middle-class family residing in north Kolkata. The eldest of three siblings his early years were spent in penury and hardship. He matriculated from a suburban school in Kolkata and enrolled in government run college. Interestingly during his schooldays right through college Arun honed his latent theatrical talent by participating in numerous skits and plays.

After finishing college in 1945, and determined to support his family, he joined the Kolkata Port Commissioner’s office on a monthly salary of Rs 275. He slogged during the day but kept the evenings free for watching theatre in top- notch halls of those times. After a few years, Arun tried his luck at films. His debut film Maya Dore (1947) remained canned. In his first released film, Drishtiheen (1948), he appeared as Arun Kumar Chatterjee. Eventually, via the film Sahajatri (1951) he rechristened himself as Uttam Kumar.The name stuck to him for life. During the initial years life was no bed of roses; his films bombed at the box office. Uttam’s first commercially successful film, was Nirmal Dey’s Basu Paribar (19 52). His next film, Sharey Chuattar (1953) did pretty well too. The young man got his first breakthrough role inAgni Pariksha (1954).

As the years flew by Uttam Kumar evolved as a one-man institution: actor, producer, director, script writer, singer and composer rolled into one. He produced six Bangla films and one Hindi,in all. These include Harano Sur (1957) and Saptpadi (1961) both of which bagged national film awards Other prominent films were Bhranti Bilas (1963), followed by Uttar Falguni (1963) and ‘Jotugriha‘ (1964) both raking in national awards once more Then came the momentous event of his life. Uttam was cast as the protagonist in Satyajit Ray’s film Nayak (1966), opposite Sharmila Tagore. His stellar performance in the flick catapulted him to fame, glory and popularity.From nayak he was transformed into mahanayak.

The list of movies Uttam acted in is vast, hence a quick recap:Jhinder bondi, Deya neya, Sagarika, Pathe holo deri , Stree Sanyasi raja, Sudhu ekti bachhar, Bon palashir padabali among many more.

On a personal note I like the ‘Man’ in two of his movies –Antony Firingee (1967)and Agnishwar(1975).The first depicts how the protagonist born of Portuguese -Bengali parents ultimately became a bard, ‘KAALI’worshipper, and an apostle of secularism. In the latter, we have Agnishwar Mukherji, a blunt, outspoken medical practitioner who refuses lifelong, to lower his banner of ideology whatever it takes. Barring two more i.e Nayak and Chowringee the rest of Uttam’s films, in my view, are potboilers, romantic melodrama, mélange of tragical and comic which undoubtedly regale the audience but do not add value to the actor’s individual calibre. Continuing in the same personal vein, my late mother had been a diehard Uttam fan during her youthful days in Kolkata.She watched each new release at the earliest opportunity. Her joy knew no bounds whenever my boropishi (dad’s oldest sister) a hardcore movie buff came visiting from Delhi. Gleefully the two of them went gallivanting around town catching up with flicks of their favourite hero.

Uttam Kumar was not handsome per se; yet his tall masculine frame, alabaster complexion, flawless baby soft skin, glistening mane, a stentorian voice coupled with a characteristic smile – at once dazzling and bewitching – sent hordes of viewers (especially women )into hysterics. On top of it all his body and eye movement, airs and graces gave lie to his lowly, and ordinary background. Cool, suave, sophisticated, and romantic that’s Uttam in a nutshell for you!

 Like all public figures, Uttam too had his fair share of controversies, scandals and gossips. He married Gouri Devi in 1948 in the teeth of opposition from both their families. Uttam Kumar’s name was linked from time to time with co-stars Savitri Devi, Supriya Devi, and Suchitra Sen. It is only too well-known how Uttam Kumar & Suchitra Sen made the most successful and legendary pair ever in the entire gamut of Bengali Cinema. The 30 films they acted in together became blockbusters. Later in life Uttam separated from Gouri Devi and moved on to live with Supriya Devi, but by a quirk of fate their relationship reportedly soured and he died a broken man! In 1967, Uttam Kumar produced a Hindi film, ‘Chhoti Si Mulaqat’, featuring Vajayanthimala. It bombed at the box office, following which Uttam Kumar got buried under a huge burden of debt. Life went on a downslide. Drink and the devil gripped him tightly. The heartthrob of millions grew obese and sloppy with every passing year. During the shooting of Ray’s ‘Chiriyakhana(1967) Uttam a heart attack came on. Two more attacks followed in the succeeding years. While shooting Ogo Bodhu Sundari (an adaptaion of My Fair lady) he had a fourth one. Ignoring the telltale signs uttam indulged in drinking and revelry all evening. Things worsened and post-midnight hours witnessed him lying supine in a super specialty hospital. When July 24th 1980 dawned, the Colossus of Tollywood had taken his last bow! It was curtains down on the Golden era of Bengali Cinema. The most apt tribute to the departed soul came from Satyajit Ray who termed it as “the demise of the leading light of the Bengali film industry”.