Uttam Kumar

3 Sep 1926
24 Jul 1980
Film Industry
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Uttam Kumar (3 September 1926 – 24 July 1980) (born as Arun Kumar Chatterjee) was an Indian film actor, director, producer, singer and music composer, playback singer who predominantly worked in Indian Cinema. He is widely regarded as the greatest actor of Bengali cinema, and also among the greatest actors ever in India. Through his career he earned commercial as well as critical success, and he remains as an Indian cultural icon,”Raj Kapoor said Uttam is “Smart Modern Hero of India”. “Vyjayanthimala said “Uttam lip-synced perfectly” from other hero’s”.

Considered as the most popular film star of Bengali cinema, Kumar managed to have a huge fan following, that mainly concentrated in the regions of West Bengal, India. He was a recipient of many awards over his lifetime, including National Film Award for Best Actor. A Metro Station in Kolkata was renamed in his honour.

Uttam Kumar was born in Kolkata at the home of his maternal uncle at Ahiritola, while his ancestral house is on Girish Mukherjee Road, Bhowanipore. After his schooling in South Suburban School (Main), he went for higher studies in Goenka College of Commerce and Business Administration, a college affiliated to the University of Calcutta. He could not complete his studies and started working at the Kolkata Port trust as a clerk. During this period, he acted in amateur theatre groups. His prodigious joint family had its own theatre group, the Suhrid Samaj, which staged many amateur shows.

Uttam Kumar was the eldest of three sons (Arun, Barun and Tarun) of Satkari Chatterjee and Chapala Debi. The youngest, whose screen name was Tarun Kumar, acted in several Bengali films and grew to become an actor of considerable repute, in screen and on stage. There are several films in which Uttam Kumar and Tarun Kumar starred together like Saptapadi, Sonar Harin, Maya Mriga, Sesh Anka, Deya Neya, Jeeban-Mrityu, Dhanyi Meye,Mon Niye, Sanyasi Raja, Kamal lata and Agniswar. Uttam Kumar married Gauri Debi Their only son, Gautam, died for Down from Fifth Floor at the age of 59. His grandson, Gaurav Chatterjee is a Bengali television actor. Pulak Bandyopadhyay, a noted lyricist, was his uncle. Rajesh Khanna once said about Kumar: “He is the perfect ambassador of Indian cinema. No one carries Indian culture in a Kurta and Dhoti as well as he does.”

Uttam’s first release was Drishtidan (The gift of sight, 1948) directed by Nitin Bose, though he worked in an earlier unreleased film called Mayador (Embrace of Affection). Then he acted in about four to five films, all of which were flops. In those films he constantly varied his name: Arun Chatterjee, Arun Kumar, Uttam Chatterjee and finally Uttam Kumar. He was dubbed as the ‘Flop Master General’. When he entered the studio, people would laugh at him and comment “Here comes the new Durgadas…” “Meet the new Chabbi Biswas..”. He considered leaving the world of cinema and start working at Calcutta Ports. But his wife, Gouri Chatterjee told him that it would be better if he did not to do a job his heart was not in. He later got the contact at M.P Studios for three years. M.P studios produced the film “Basu Paribar” in which he came into prominence, but his breakthrough film was Agni Pariksha in 1954 that began the success of the all-time romantic pair of Uttam Kumar – Suchitra Sen, though they had first paired in Sharey Chuattor (1953).The film ran for 65 weeks and established Uttam in the industry.

Commercial cinema in the form of films like Uttam Kumar starrer Basu Paribar (1952) and the iconic Uttam–Suchitra pairing in Sharey Chuattor (1953), did tremendous business. Explaining the emergence of parallel cinema at time when commercial cinema was doing extremely well with hero s like Uttam Kumar taking on a cult status, Soumitra Chatterjee, who starred in many of Satyajit Ray’s films explained: “Uttam Kumar alone was not able to fulfill every part of the hero that Bengali audiences wished to see on the screen … there are different kinds of people in life … other kinds of young men, other kinds of romances … possibly that is why audiences found a parallel screen hero in myself.”

On the background of the mass migration from the then East Pakistan to Calcutta, the Uttam-Suchitra pair gave expression to the yearnings of a new, transformed city.They played out on screen the new desires of a young audience trying to come to terms with industrial modernity and a new form of urban existence.The stylised, black-and-white romanticism of landmark Uttam-Suchitra films of the 1950s like “Agni Pariksha”, “Shapmochan”,Sagarika (1956), Shilpi (1956), or Harano Sur, Indrani, Sabar Uparey, Surjyo Toron reflected a novel, youthful urban desire to break free from the confines of the feudal joint family and set up a nucleated, private space for the couple in love. In contrast to the earlier phase of Bengali cinema mostly dominated by the dramatised style of the New Theaters’ films (in the 1940s), the Uttam-Suchitra films were marked by a more naturalistic acting style, a bit dramatic-stylized, soft-focus black-and-white cinematography with chiaroscuro effects, and a more popular and modern form of music that broke away more decisively from earlier dependence on classical types. These features were put in place by a new generation of cinematographers like Dinen Gupta and Ajoy Kar, a fresh batch of directors (Kar himself,Sudhir Mukherjee, Naresh Mitra, Sushil Majumdar, the combines of Jatrik and Agradoot) and musicians like Nachiketa Ghosh, Rabin Chattopadhyay, Anupam Ghatak, Hemanta Mukherjee Anil Bagchi, Sudhin Dasgupta and Salil Chowdhury, along with lyricists like Gauriprasanna Majumdar, Pranab Roy, Pulak Bandopadhyay. A number of them hailed from the left wing Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA) movement, popularly known as Gananatya Sangha.

Uttam Kumar was especially adored for his effortless naturalism in front of the camera and a distinctively urbane charisma that broke free from the prototypical Bengali screen hero of the past He went on to form successful screen pairs with many leading ladies like Suchitra Sen, Supriya Choudhury, Sabitri Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Sharmila Tagore, Anjana Bhaumick, Aparna Sen and Sumitra Mukherjee, apart from Sandhyarani in the 50s, Arundhati Debi and Mala Sinha in the 60s and Kaberi Bose and Tanuja in the 60s and 70s. He acted in Nayak by Satyajit Ray in which the master-director scripts the rise of a young actor with an ordinary background to a star sought after by one and all. In fact, this film may be considered as a tribute to Uttam Kumar. Often hailed as the one-man industry, Uttam Kumar dominated Bengali cinema for three decades until his death. This near-total reign was somewhat slightly disturbed during the politically turbulent era of the late sixties up to the Emergency, when Uttam Kumar’s regular, politically passive or relatively conservative romantic film persona sometimes found it difficult to fit into the narratives of unrest that came to the fore.

Never quite satisfied with his undisputed matinée idol status, Uttam Kumar started experimenting with character roles early in his career, as evidenced by films like Khokababur Pratyabartan, (1960), Mayamriga, (1960) or Thana Theke Aschi (1965) and Bicharak. In Marutirtha Hinglaj (1959), he played a mentally disturbed character. In Kuhak he was a murderous thief, while in Sesh Anka, he was a suave businessman who had murdered his wife and was romantically engaged to the daughter of a social elite and rich nobleman. In Aparichita (1969) he also played the role of a villain. Such departures were unusual in relation to set formats of stardom in Indian popular cinematic cultures, where deviating from established ‘star images’ were often considered to be risky. However, this brought Uttam Kumar early recognition as a genuine actor of substance apart from a box office superstar and stood him in good stead later, especially in his collaborations with Satyajit Ray in Nayak (1966) and Chiriyakhana. A perfectionist, Uttam Kumar performed on stage for a full year, opposite Sabitri Chatterjee in Star Theatre in the play “Shyamali” to hone up his skill as an actor.

Apart from Bengali, Uttam Kumar also acted in 15 Hindi films such as Chhoti Si Mulaqat (along with Vyjayanthimala), Amanush, Anand Ashram, Dooriyaan (with Sharmila Tagore), Bandie with Sulakshana Pandit and Kitaab with Vidya Sinha etc.

Perhaps his most lauded appearances was in Satyajit Ray’s Nayak (The Hero). It is now widely accepted that Ray wrote the script with Uttam in mind. Many people feel the film bears resemblance to Uttam Kumar’s own life – the sense of anxiety and restlessness mirrored Uttam’s insecurities about his phenomenal success and abiding fear that his superstardom might not last. Uttam made the role of Arindam (Mukherjee) his own and Ray later confessed that if Uttam had refused the film, he would have abandoned it. He worked with Ray the following year in Chiriyakhana (1967).

Uttam also worked with another great film director Tapan Sinha in his film Jhinder Bondi (with another great actor Soumitra chatterjee),

When the Indian government instituted the National Film Awards for National Film Award for Best Actor and National Film Award for Best Actress in 1967, Uttam Kumar was the first-ever recipient of the Best Actor Award for his performances in Antony Firingee and Chiriyakhana in 1967.

He explored new avenues of film-making by trying his hand at production, singing, composing music, screenplay writing and directing. The success of his Indian films as producer — Harano Sur, Saptapadi, Bhrantibilash, Jotugriha (1964), Grihadah — won greatest acclaim.On producing Chhoti Si Mulaqat in 1967, which was a Hindi film starring Uttam and Vyjayanthimala, Uttam almost used up all his savings, since the film had to be shot in colour and was shot in extravagant locations.Both Uttam and Vaijantimala has huge hopes associated with the film, but the film was a flop leading to great disappointment for Uttam Kumar. It was later said that this flop was one of the main reason for triggering heart attack which ultimately led to his death.Later, Uttam directed much-lauded films such as Sudhu Ekti Bochhor and Bon Palashir Padaboli. He composed music for the film Kaal Tumi Aleya in which Hemanta Mukherjee and Asha Bhonsle sang to his tune.

He came out with an authorised biography Amaar Ami in 1979-80. He had a phenomenal fan base which continues even to this day. In 1960, he started writing an autobiography named Harano Dinguli Mor {My Bygone Days}, but could not complete it.Parts of that book was published by the magazine Nabokallol.On the day Uttam died,the original manuscript was stolen.Later a member from Times of India had found the manuscript and the national library hepled to find old editions of Nabakallol and then the incomplete book was finally published in the 37th Calcatta Book Fair. As a singer, he recorded songs for the AIR – All India Radio – and very recently, an album of Tagore songs (Rabindrasangeet) sung by him, has been brought out.

There was a time, when at the heights of his popularity Uttam Kumar was approached to recite the Chandi Path in the AIR studios. Traditionally this had always been done by Birendra Krishna Bhadra. but there was a huge uproar amongst the audience about why Uttam Kumar had been chosen instead of Birendra Krishna. Uttam personally met Mr Bhadra and apologized and from the next year Mahalaya on AIR was again done by Birendra krishna Bhadra.

Reruns of his films on television decades after his death are still eagerly watched. Uttam Kumar’s time is considered by most as the golden era of Indian cinema.

Late journalist Ramendra Trivedi, in his Modern Uttam, explained the incredible bankability of this star. From 1945 to 1980, both in Bengali and Hindi, Uttam Kumar acted in 217 films. In 1947, he got an offer for a brief role in a Hindi film called “Mayador.” The film never saw the light of day. His first release was the Bengali film “Drishtidaan” (1948), directed by Nitin Bose. In the film Uttam was credited as Arun Kumar. The film was a flop. In 1949 he made his debut as the leading man in the film “Kamona,” crediting him as Uttam Chatterjee. But this too bombed. By then the Industry had labelled him a “flop master.” During this time he got married to Gauri Ganguli (in 1948). Fortunately for Uttam, “Basu Paribar” (1952), co-starring Sabitri Chatterjee, was a big hit.Uttam delivered another big hit “Sharey Chuattor” in 1953. After that everything was part of making history. Though trying out in Hindi movies was quite disappointing to him, because of his Bengali accent which did not much impressed audiences all over the country. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest actors in the history of Indian cinema and known by the honorific Mahanayak. Through his career he earned commercial as well as critical success, and he remains a cultural icon.

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