In life and death, Uttam Kumar remains Bengal’s unrivaled numero uno

Uttam Kumar belongs to that very special, select group of stars who have not only refused mortality but has made a permanent home in the collective memory of Bengal

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media

Monojit Lahiri

It was a friend’s casual comment that triggered this piece. “Boss, the Guru packed up four decades ago, but in that time, there has not been one single hero who could remotely replicate his stature, aura or presence. Bollywood too had this problem with the Dilip-Dev-Raj era ending but they managed brilliantly to overcome this by unspooling tons of dazzling, exciting talent in every decade, who captured popular imagination. Here, apart from Ranjit Mullick and Dipanker Dey, we had a Prosenjit, Tapas Pal, Victor Banerjee, Chiranjit & co. in the eighties. Today, it is Dev, Jeet, Jishu, Abir, Param, Anirban, Soham, Ankush, Yash & gang ... Successful as they are, can they hold a candle to the alluring charm of Uttam Kumar?”

Frankly, I had never looked at the pre & post 1980 Tolly scene in that fashion, but now that he made that loaded comment, it certainly provided food for thought. I pulled back in an attempt to see the big picture and do an honest reality check!

I remember once having a brief conversation with veteran film-maker Shyam Benegal about films and film personalities that are meant to stay forever. Sharp, informed and articulate, he believed that “today, it’s a sell-by-date thing and the walking into the sunset & happy-ending foreverness has gone forever. The invasion of technology and consumerism has dramatically altered ideas, tastes, values & lifestyle with consuming replacing experiencing! The result is that barring a very few, special and unique films & personalities, most are consigned to the dusty alcoves of selective memory”.

Clearly Uttam Kumar belongs to that very special, select group of stars who have not only refused mortality but has made a permanent home in the collective memory of Bengal. Ray’s unstinted praise for Uttam’s prowess as an actor, post Nayak - “Uttam’s work shows rare virtues of grace, spontaneity and confidence. Such a combination is not easy to come by and it’s hard to see anyone taking his place in the cinema of West Bengal in the near future” – is well known. And the awe & reverence that industry-wallahs & his fans [cutting across generations] continuously hold him in remains unmatched.” Tollygunge’s most respected Director/Actor Aparna Sen – who’s co-starred with the icon in several super hits across the seventies – recalls their association with respect, affection, admiration, nostalgia and gratitude. “He was easily the best leading man I’ve had the privilege of working with – a super presence who attracted attention without demanding it.

His excellent acting qualities and flair for inventiveness were often lost in the blaze of his romantic fire-power. An exceptionally modest man, he was a very hard working professional who never took his fame for granted. He was always looking at avenues to better his performance and welcomed tips from his co-artistes. He was also a human being of great charm and chivalry, very protective about his heroines. As a romantic hero, he was superb – the best. Made you feel totally comfortable. Held you just right. A little inflexion in his voice, a faraway look in the voice ... he invented little nuances and they worked wonders. A lovable, sweet man, he was an ideal co-star from whom I learnt a lot. My everlasting regret is that I couldn’t direct him in one of my films ...”

Veteran, renowned and respected film critic Saibal Chatterjee offers his evolved take on the legend’s enduring popularity. He believes that Uttam was one of a kind. Neither a product of any Film School, Method or Stage, Uttam Kumar was a born natural, an instinctive, spontaneous actor, self-made, self-driven, forever filling – even his worst critics – with large doses of surprise and delight! ”Sure he had mannerisms but isn’t that the trademark of a Star? However, if and whenever required, he had no problem dropping them & whamming home a winner! Over and above everything, it has to be those killer looks & heart-stopping style! It chloroformed everyone, everywhere across every strata of society.” Then of course, Chatterjee adds, the essential goodness, charm and sweetness that was writ large on his handsome, totally transported face. No wonder that before he arrived and after he left, there is no other actor so crazily desired as brother, friend, son, husband & lover by diverse age groups across generations! However, Chatterjee is quick to mention that Uttam’s unique position in the collective mindscape of the people is neither to dismiss, de-value nor lessen the worth of other heroes.

Movie-goers of the eighties will remember the tremendous contribution of Prosenjit Chatterjee in that Uttam-less orphaned industry, with zero focus, direction, agenda or leadership. The young star pulled out all the stops to unleash one hit after another and save the bankrupt industry from collapsing. Admittedly, it was trash-with-flash, Bollywood & South zerox copies, but it did generate much-needed revenue. Once, slightly stabilised, Prosenjit – no longer the earlier Possenjit! – moved across to associate with quality film makers like the late Rituparno Ghosh, Goutam Ghosh, Kaushik Ganguly, Shibu-Nandita Roy, Srijit Mukherjee & gang to surprise us with his fine, mature performances. In recent times, Jeet & Dev have certainly enjoyed their moments of glory as Super-Stars with mass following.

Jishu Sengupta remains the handsomest actor of the entire lot with a big female fan following. Param is the thinking man’s hero while the new kid on the block, undoubtedly, is the maverick Anirban Chakravarty. A chameleon with sex appeal, this brilliant actor is indeed a show-stopper ... but, despite their looks, talent & appeal, can they ever measure up to the Numero Uno’s chutzpah? Interestingly, when it comes to the veteran Soumitra Chatterjee, Uttam’s illustrious contemporary and competitor – they shared the screen in over 6 super hit films – for the first time sparks fly! At their peak, there definitely were solid, separate Uttam & Soumitra camps.

The Ray discovery (and favourite) provided an interesting antithesis to the Guru. Perceived and positioned as a cerebral actor symbolising a refined sensibility, Soumitra was constantly first choice of a constituency that shared a similar culture-scape. The educated, cultured middle-class movie goers, more classy than massy, and into literature, poetry, music ... you get the drift? But at the end of the day, as Saibal Chatterjee explains “If a star is about blazing the marquee and zonking mass audiences, then Soumitra had fans, Uttam had devotees. Soumitra was an actor, Uttam, a Mahanayak! That last scene in Ray’s Nayak when he puts on his dark glasses, defines his persona. Superstar!”

For an actor to be adored, worshipped and benchmarked even after decades of his exit, must mean that he was kissed by genius. What better way to end this tribute to a titanic personality than echo the words of a great film critic, famously describing the impact of a charismatic screen personality. “Some actors occupy the screen, few rule it; Some actors hold an audience, few possess them; Some actors light up the screen, few ignite it; These chosen combustible few blaze with the X factors of screen acting - intensity, intelligence, authority. There is a power apart from the role itself and when these rare mesmeric luminaries burn the screen, the fellow actors are as rapt as the audience.”

That was Uttam Kumar. When comes such another ...

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