There's a scene in Satyajit Ray's Charulata, where Soumitra Chatterjee, egged on by his cousin to visit Britain and the continent, utters the word 'Mediterranean' … a faraway look in his eyes, his face a study in wistfulness. It's the sort of look I have seen on the faces of Bengalis of a certain generation when you utter the words 'Uttam Kumar'. Thirty-eight years may have passed since the legend breathed his last, but for the Bengali film industry and for many in Bengal, time may well have stopped that night on 24 July 1980.
Of course, there have been stars since, successful ones at that – but the consensus is that if there was ever a 'nayak' in the truest sense of the word in Bengali cinema, it is Uttam Kumar. In fact, much like the English press coined the term 'superstar' for Rajesh Khanna, Uttam Kumar came to be regarded as 'mahanayak' in Bengal.
What accounts for the star's enduring appeal? Satyajit Ray, who directed him in Nayak and Chiriyakhana, wrote in his tribute to the star, 'The heroes one saw on the Bengali screen those days … were hardly in the same league as the Hollywood heroes one admired. I saw three of Uttam's films in a row … and the first impressions were certainly good … Uttam was a star in the true Hollywood sense of the term.'
Sharmila Tagore, who worked with Uttam in some of his most celebrated films, including Nayak, says that it's difficult to explain in words what makes a star. 'You could put it this way – Soumitra could be a pal without the audience having a romantic attachment to him, though of course one wouldn't mind romancing him! He was the coffee-shop going, bus/tram-riding sort of chum. Uttam, well, he was a son, a lover, a brother, a friend – from eight to eighty, he had the ability to connect with everyone – and each member of the audience felt protective about him.'
Gulzar, who directed Uttam Kumar in Kitaab (1977), one of the star's few forays into Hindi cinema, says, 'There was something about him – on-screen he appeared unattainable, impossible to come close to, almost Godlike, but when you were with him, you wouldn't be surprised if he embraced you … I remember once, during a conversation with him on film-maker Asit Sen and his classic film Dweep Jwele Jai, I said, 'Uttam-ji, you never faced the camera in the film, and yet what an extraordinary performance you gave in that song sequence where all we see is your back.' Without a trace of rancour, and with that trademark smile in place, he said, 'That wasn't me. Asit Sen himself played the role.' … I have spent a lifetime in Hindi cinema without ever wanting to make a film with Dilip Kumar, but I used to think, if only I could make a film with Uttam Kumar … If only someone had taken the trouble of teaching him Hindi diction and throw, he could have been a national star."
Putting together a list of ten best films/performances in a career spanning a little over thirty years (he debuted with Nitin Bose's Dhrishtidaan in 1946) is a task fraught with many dangers and disappointments. Here in my humble opinion are ten of his most memorable films – in no specific order of preference, except for Nayak which belongs right up there in any list of best cinematic performances anywhere in the world.
Let alone Bengali cinema or even Indian cinema for that matter, there aren't many performances in international cinema that can hold a candle to this one, definitely none that convey a superstar's emotional disquiet and professional fears. Uttam's turn as a star whose fortunes are on the downswing was unlike anything he had done before. It was a part that Ray wrote with him in mind and although Uttam might have been apprehensive about not using any make-up after an attack of chickenpox had left its mark on his face, he shed the star-glamour aspects associated with him. The result: a masterclass in acting, with not one false note. More importantly, as Sharmila Tagore points out, 'Uttam Kumar changed as an actor after Nayak – his timing, delivery, the pauses that punctuate his dialogues … he honed his craft based on the lessons learnt on this film … Uttam became a much better actor after working with Ray.' It isn't surprising then that seven of the ten films on this list came after Nayak.
Based on a story by Tarashankar Bandopadhya, this is one of the early films, along with Marutirthe Hinglaj, that showed Uttam's willingness to experiment with non-heroic roles. A complex character study of guilt, responsibility and redemption, Bicharak casts Uttam as a judge supremely confident of his ability to deliver justice, who comes face-to-face with an ethical crisis when asked to judge a case that has echoes from his past and a choice he had made. Even as he decides on the fate of the defendant, he has to confront his own moral culpability – and Uttam's every gesture, his face often in close-ups, reveals the agony of his soul.
Along with Harano Sur (1957), this is probably the film that best epitomized the chemistry between him and his leading lady in thirty films, Suchitra Sen. One of their most entertaining and passionate outings together, Saptapadi stars Uttam Kumar as a happy-go-lucky medical college student Krishnendu who falls in love with an Anglo-Indian, Rina Brown, and converts to Christianity, with tragic consequences. This is the film with the outstanding scene from Othello (voiceovers by Utpal Dutt and Jennifer Kendal) where Krishnendu and Rina, after bickering fiercely at length (Uttam is a hoot in the song 'Ebar Kali tomay khabo'), realize that they are in love. And of course, the dulcet duet, 'Ei path jodi na shesh hoi', with the two stars on a bike, set a thousand young hearts aflutter with romantic dreams of their own – much like how Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck running amok on a Vespa in Roman Holiday (1953) is said to have made the brand a name to reckon with.
I choose this over other Uttam-Suchitra films, including Harano Sur, primarily because of the complexities that underline the relationship here. The characters are not starry-eyed lovers in the way they are in the other films starring the two. Based on a novel by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, the film was produced by Uttam Kumar – and he gives a glimpse of his ability to set aside star egos, letting Pradip Kumar hog the limelight and walk away with the accolades in what is his finest hour as an actor.
Still revelling in the glow of Nayak, which released the previous year, Uttam delivered yet another winner in this biopic on the life of Hensman Anthony, a Portuguese, who in nineteenth-century Bengal overcame the obstacles of language, and ridicule and humiliation at the hands of the leading Bengali kobiyals (poet-singers) of the era to emerge as a devotional and folk poet, known for his mastery of kobigaan or song duels. He marries a courtesan, memorably played by Tanuja, only to court social ostracization. Boasting some of the finest songs of Bengali cinema – 'Aami je jalsaghare', 'Aami jamini tumi shoshi hey' – the film fetched Uttam the National Award for Best Actor, then known as the Bharat Award, one that he shared with … well, himself, in Chiriyakhana, making him not only the first-ever winner of the National Award, but also the only one to have won it for two films in the same year!
As a film, Chowringhee may not rank among the best of Bengali cinema, or even Uttam's, but if there is one film that for me defines the charisma of Uttam Kumar, it is this. As Sata Bose, the receptionist at Hotel Shahjahan, who takes a young man under his wings and mentors him, Uttam is the epitome of charm in this adaptation of Sankar's largely autobiographical novel of the same name. Manna Dey's classic rendering of 'Bado eka laage' adds to the sense of loss that permeates the film and epitomizes the enigma that is Sata. One looks forward with great expectations to Srijit Mukherji's adaptation of the novel.
Amar Prem remains one of Rajesh Khanna's most memorable performances – and yet a star as egotistical as him had no qualms in admitting that despite all his efforts, he was not a patch on Uttam Kumar in Nishi Padma, in particular the way Uttam calls out to his 'Pushpa'. Based on Bibhutibhushan's short story 'Hinger Kochuri', this is often cited as the definitive Uttam Kumar performance after Nayak. The film is also noteworthy for Sabitri, who acted in a number of films opposite Uttam, who matches the legend step for step, and for its evergreen Manna Dey songs, 'Na na aaj ratey aar jatra dekhte jabo na' and 'Ja khushi ora boley boluk'. And that climactic scene, set against the backdrop of Durga Puja, where the man who 'hates tears' is left moist-eyed, is guaranteed to move the hardest of hearts.
By the turn of the 1970s, Uttam had started to venture more and more into character roles that often cast him in a negative light, for example, in Aparichito (1969), Sanyasi Raja (1975) and most impressively in Stree. Uttam Kumar is brilliant as Madhab Dutta, a zamindar who whiles away the night – and his fortune – in drunken revelries, with a band of hangers-on literally leeching him dry, even as his wife waits for him in vain. Soumitra Chatterjee as the idealistic young man in love with the wife is perfectly cast, but this is a film that Uttam owns. From the way he puffs his hookah to his impatience at having to sign documents, every nuance, every gesture as the depraved, yet surprisingly childlike, trusting and petulant zamindar is spot-on. And even as he admits to his wife, in one of the most memorable scenes of the film, that he will willingly do anything she asks him to as long as it does not entail changing his 'character', you cannot help revel in the pathos Uttam brings to the character's understanding of himself.
Uttam Kumar is sublime as the irascible, idealistic doctor in this adaptation of well-known author Banaphool's (incidentally, the director's brother) novel Agni, based on the life of his teacher Dr Agnishwar Mukherjee. As the egoistical, no-nonsense doctor who never hesitates to speak his mind and who learns a lesson in humility after the death of his wife and in his interactions with the poorest of the poor, Uttam Kumar is a towering presence. Two scenes stand out for me. In one, he berates a patient who suggests making do with one dose instead of three: 'Apnaar gaale jodi thaas thaas kore teenti chawr marar dorkar hoy, tahole ekta chawr marle kaaj hobey ki?' (If you need to be slapped three times, will it do if I slap you just once?)
In the second, after the death of his wife – whose piety and faith in rituals he often dismissed, even going to the extent of stepping on an alpona at the entrance to their home, with a disregard for her feelings – he approaches the threshold and stops just as he is about to step on it again. As one hears the strains of Tagore's 'Tobu mone rekho' in the background, he looks around the room, his spectacles perched low on his nose, then steps over the alpona in a silent homage to her memory.
Based on the notorious Bhowal Sanyasi case, this is one of Uttam's major triumphs as an actor. Apart from Suchitra Sen, the other actor he was paired with most often with is Supriya Devi – and this is one of their more mature outings. Uttam is again a revelation as temperamental zamindar Raja Suryo Kishore, aware of his vices and yet unable and unwilling to mend his ways. Engrossed in his musical soirees, he neglects his wife and estate. His family physician and friend, in league with his wife, plots to kill him and usurp his property. Suryo survives and returns to the estate as a sanyasi, the very antithesis of his earlier avatar.
These films provide only a glimpse of the range Uttam was capable of. There are others as deserving that one has left out. This is a list that omits Chiriyakhana. Uttam was a wonderful comic talent too and the list leaves out that genre almost entirely: Bhranti Bilas (based on Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors), Chhadabeshi (for Hindi film buffs, this is the film that inspired Chupke Chupke) and Dhanni Meye, among others, though even in the ten above he provides ample glimpses of his comic timing. However, as Ray remarked on his death, 'There will never be an actor like him.' And for me, these ten represent a sampling of the best of Uttam as an actor and a star.